This week, I have been seriously neglecting my duties here at the paper — with the full knowledge and approval of my boss. I have been given a higher calling, you see, a more important purpose even than running the newsroom of the nation’s oldest African-American newspaper.
Because this week, I am a juror.
(I’m going to pause here a minute, to allow the folks who know me well to stop rolling on the floor laughing like hyenas. Get hold of yourself, and we’ll move on.)
Not that I blame them for seeing both the folly and the irony in that statement, since I am probably the last person I’d ever want to see on my jury panel. And what does it say about the state of the criminal justice system when even the most jaded, cynical, hard-boiled newspaper editor gets picked to decide the fate of his fellow citizens?
Now, as you can imagine, I am strictly forbidden from talking, or writing, about any aspect of the case whatsoever until its conclusion — and I have no idea how long that will take.
But no one said I couldn’t write about the selection process itself, which, if you haven’t had the experience, or haven’t been called in a while, is a real eye opener.
It starts when you show up on the appointed day, and enter the hallowed halls of the Criminal Justice Center, just northeast of City Hall.
You’re going to have to strip down to your essentials, having been relieved of all metals and packages, including cell phone, keys and your belt, and walk through the metal detectors. Holding your pants up with one hand, you’re then led to the jury room, where you fill out a questionnaire using a stubby number 2 pencil. There’s a chance you’ll have to do this standing, since on the day I arrived, there were more potential jurors than there were available seats.
If there’s a bright spot in this entire process, it’s the court staff. They know full well you’d rather be undergoing root canal than jury duty, and I have to give them credit for their friendliness and courtesy. Try as they might, though, no amount of smiles and cheery “Good morning!” greetings will prevent the performance of your civic duty from feeling like a stroll through Purgatory.
The real torture starts with the airing of a video, shown on several large screen televisions, and opens with an uncomfortable close-up of Mayor Michael Nutter’s smiling face, thanking you for your service and reminding you of your sacred obligation to our system of criminal justice. To my surprise, no one booed.
One guy, however, protested loudly enough about not getting paid to be there that the court officer asked him to leave — which he did without delay. While many folks shook their heads disapprovingly and called him a jerk under their breath, only later would I come to realize he was probably the smartest guy in the room.
The rest of us sat through the remainder of the video — a slow, plodding rehash of the questionnaire we had already filled out. Finally, and thankfully, the video ended — leaving us to cool our heels, which was easy since the air conditioning is set for sub-zero, and wait to be called.
If you’re a veteran of our armed forces, you are familiar with the concept of “hurry up and wait.” If you’re not a veteran, you’re about to learn all about it first hand. Because for the next few hours, that’s what you’ll be doing. Herded like cattle to one location, then sit and wait a while, only to be herded to another location to wait there.
Finally, you’ll make your way to a courtroom, where the judge, prosecutor and defense attorneys will ask pointed questions based on your questionnaire answers in a process called voir dire, which I think is French for, “You’re in for it now, pal!”
The entire process is designed, I’m guessing, to weed out the faint of heart, and all but the most dedicated model citizens and proud Americans. Like the folks who think their taxes are too low, or who cheerfully pay their parking tickets the very next day, it takes a special brand of gung-ho citizenship to enjoy jury duty.
Despite this well-designed series of checks and balances, I was chosen as a juror anyway.
There’s an old joke that says people who love the law and sausages should never watch either being made.
After this week, I may never eat another sausage.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.