The Alternate’s Perspective

The Alternate’s Perspective

I appreciate today that a jury summons is serious business, but I didn’t two decades ago, when I was twenty-three years old and living in Savannah, Georgia. I received a jury summons and promptly ignored it. After ignoring the first summons, I received a second and ignored it. I am sure each summons spelled out the nature of my obligation and the penalties for absenteeism. But I did not think twice about dismissing them. I wasn’t rebellious. I was young and self-centered and unimpressed. I simply didn’t appreciate the difference between a jury summons and junk mail, such as letters from Ed McMahon claiming I had won a million dollars.

I revised my notions a few weeks later when I received a phone call from the Clerk of Court and a stern female voice—the voice of an angry schoolteacher—inquired why I shouldn’t be prosecuted for contempt of court. I mumbled something about having felt sick lately. I suppose the woman took pity on me (or maybe her primary role was that of gatekeeper), but she told me that she was sending a third summons, which I would heed, or else.

I did. A court day is usually a tedious affair. You wait; occasionally the bailiffs may explain the delay. If they choose not to, you still wait. You have lost the right to time on your own terms. Now you have to adjust your sense of time to the court’s. My first court day primarily consisted of watching the attorneys play a mysterious game of questioning those of us in the jury pool about our past experiences as victims and suspects with the criminal justice system.

In Savannah the attorneys have a limited number of “strikes” they use to narrow the jury pool. A “strike” excuses you from the case. The strikes fell like lightning bolts; no one knew when to expect them. Some very professional people, “model citizens,” fell by the wayside. I have no idea why I was chosen as an alternate juror. I suspect the prosecuting attorney simply didn’t care about the position. He barely looked up at me when the judge asked the lawyers to choose an alternate. He simply gestured flippantly. I think the defense attorney who picked me must have seen some evidence of a positive social ethic—or an exploitable social maladjustment?—in my answers and profile.

I have served on juries since then, and I have seen many cases on Court TV, but I have never since then witnessed a court case that initially appeared to be such a serious matter of jurisprudence and so quickly and ingloriously devolved. The defendant attended the jury selection and faced us. He was a handcuffed young black man, no older than twenty-five, who looked rough, cynical, and, in every surface respect, like a stereotype on display.

We were warned that the case involved sexual abuse of a minor. We were told the charges included drug use, robbery, and attempted rape. I can safely characterize the reaction inside the jury room to the last charge, “rape,” as a gigantic flinch...

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