Grand Jury (Day 1) – The second oddest thing

I never worry when I get called for jury duty, because I figger no knucklehead attorney will allow me, a guy with opinions on everything, to sit on a jury he or she is fixin’ to control. So I don’t hesitate to do my civic duty, since I fully expect others to actually do the work.

I arrrived exactly on time, and I do believe I was nearly the last person to enter the room. (I noticed only one person who arrived after me and she came in with her bicycle.) People are very afraid of their government, or they had a bad experience with tardies in school, I’ll never know which.

Quickly they begin to launch into their “orientation,” which is amazingly undisciplined and delivered by the payroll clerk who obviously lost the poker game where this assignment is handed out. She told us that every year 50,000 – 70,000 citizens sit where we’re sitting and hear this spiel. After half an hour, covering mostly irrelevant topics (if you parked in the wrong place, if you filled out the paperwork wrong, if you forget to sign in, if there’s a fire drill, etc.), I began to wonder why somebody doesn’t stop for a moment and think about this as an opportunity.

One household in three across Lane County each year has this experience. Since we did away with polling places, jury duty is for most of us the only experience we have with government that doesn’t involve trouble or debt. To view the face of our government when we’re not also faced with a bill or a penalty gives the powers that be an opportunity for positive conditioning. (I confess that I’m recently returned from a cross-country Southwest Airlines flight. They’ve figured out that if the airline safety lecture is sprinkled with a few jokes, people not only pay attention better, but they’re willing to skip a meal in return for a few laughs.

Why not put in front of this captive audience somebody who wants to make government look good — and who knows how to do it? The least they could do if give the poor clerk assigned the task a bit of training and feedback.

I never got to be not chosen for a trial, because my number was drawn to be on the Grand Jury. This is not the single-day-or-single-trial commitment, but rather larger: four weeks, almost every day. And no attorneys on hand to use pre-emptive exclusions. I got picked and I couldn’t think of a good excuse not to do it. Goodness knows I need the work. (They pay us $25 a day, plus 20 cents a mile.)

Seven of us will spend the next month determining which investigations should produce indictments and start the criminal justice process rolling. After our orientation, we filed into a small room with seven chairs lines up against the wall behind a solid rail-height wall. In this room we will hear the cases, then determine whether charges should be filed.

Here comes the weird part. The second oddest thing was that they have a table in the room, but only three chairs (not counting our row of chairs against the wall.) I asked if we could have four more chairs so we could sit around the table and discuss our decision. “No.” Why not? “No room.” We’re supposed to discuss whether people will be charged with crimes, but we don’t get to look at each other? “Nope.” That was the second oddest thing.

Small pause. (Here comes the oddest moment.) “You know, we’ve been doing these grand juries in this room for twenty years and nobody has ever asked to be able to look at one another during deliberations.”