Waiting to Serve

Waiting to Serve

I have never served on a jury, but I have been a potential juror, waiting in the basement of the Trenton courthouse with many others. Four or five times I was called to sit there, for a couple of days or for a week, but never called to serve. Tocqueville claims that it’s the actual service, the experience of sitting in judgment, rather than just sitting, which has educational value. I am sure that’s true, but my hours of sitting ended in one remarkable educational moment.

There were a hundred people, more or less, waiting in the basement—which must have looked like a thousand courthouse basements, windowless, with government-order furniture and just adequate lighting. The television set was on; we had all watched a rather good program on jury duty (definitely educational), but now one of the daytime soaps was playing and only a few people were paying attention. Some of the others were trying to read, though the soap was noisy, and some were daydreaming or worrying or planning the rest of the day or doing whatever people do when they have nothing to do.

I don’t suppose that we were a cross-section of central New Jersey’s population, certainly not of Trenton’s. Working men and women were not well represented, though there were a few of them, dressed for work, and they were the most anxious about the time. There were a lot of retired folks and a good many women who described themselves, when asked, as “housewives.” Most of them were no longer looking after children. The pool was older than a cross-section would have been and probably a little more, but not a lot more, well-to-do. Still, it was racially mixed, and the class mix was more diverse than that of Princeton, where I live.

Suddenly, a man came running through the basement with two police officers in hot pursuit—a white man, as I remember, young, but not a kid. We watched, without knowing what was going on. It turned out that the man was a defendant in a criminal trial scheduled to begin that afternoon. He was being brought from the local jail to the courthouse and had somehow broken loose and found his way into and through the room where we were waiting. He didn’t escape; the police caught up with him and brought him back.

And we were all sent home. I asked one of the jury room officials why we were so abruptly dismissed, and he replied as if the answer was obvious. Having seen the defendant running and the police chasing him, we might be prejudiced not only against that defendant (why was he running if he wasn’t guilty?) but against all defendants. The presumption of innocence was in danger. There would be no available jurors that day; the courthouse was effectively shut down.

Of course, the judge could have instructed us to ignore the incident, and most of us would probably have been able to do that. Or defense attorneys could have questioned us about our prejudices. But these ordinary protections of defendants’ rights were n...