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Desert Companion

Field Notes: Strangers in a Room

Jury duty puts you at the center of the big engine of American justice

To be a juror is to be suspended.

At first, it’s just the waiting. You start in a room of hundreds of potential jurors at the Regional Justice Center; then move with a group of 60 to a courtroom; then wait through a few hours of voir dire questions as the 60 is reduced to 20; then wait for another hour or more in the hallway as the 20 is reduced to nine. All the while you toggle between a desire to be dismissed — because, you know, you have a life — and a curiosity about how the system looks on the other side of the veil. Will it be as gripping as Law & Order? And there’s a desire to simply prove your mettle, that you were sturdy enough to discharge the work at hand.

When you become one of those nine, as I did recently, the feeling of suspension grows. (One juror became ill, so at the end of the trial there were eight of us.) As we jurors got to know each other, there was the inevitable self-directed schadenfreude at being stuck here. We appreciated the handful of perks — $40 per day, free parking, a juror badge that sped us through security — but mostly we waited.

We waited through hours of long, dry, often monotonous testimony in court. When we weren’t in court, we were in the hallway (because of some delay or other) — 12 floors above Las Vegas, a long, serene, mostly empty corridor, airy with windows, filled with brilliant cloudless blue skies and a sweeping view of the city. Neither here nor there, this was a space to dream and wonder. Who is the plaintiff? What’s the judge’s story? Who are the other jurors? Who gets to be Henry Fonda?

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At the same moment your life gets momentarily put on hold, you find yourself thrust into a starring, if anonymous, role in someone else’s life, deciding the fate of a perfect stranger who has waited years for this moment. Those present in the courtroom do not rise for the entry of the judge; they rise for the entry of the jurors. Every time we walked in — always in the same order — we were at the center of the action.

Yet we were equally at a remove. The legal parries between lawyers were handled by our amiable but no-nonsense judge, who ordered a blanket of white noise over the courtroom every time the lawyers approached the bench, so we couldn’t hear their machinations.

We were allowed to ask questions as we went; we wrote them on a piece of paper and the marshal delivered them to the judge. If they passed muster with her, she’d direct our questions to the witnesses herself. But, basically, we were at the mercy of the lawyers. Their pace. Their approach to building or disrupting the narrative of facts, their effort to mold us into perfect jurors — the ones who’d side with their client.

(Were we here because of our capacity for Herculean impartiality — a nice thought — or just because one or both attorneys thought that out of 60 people we were the most susceptible to being swayed to their side?)

As the trial lumbered on, I wished I could study the depositions myself, to build my own narrative of the key testimony. Instead, I could only try to keep ahead of the avalanche of facts — searching for the inconsistencies that mattered most, watching witnesses buckle under pressure or hold firm. How reliable is memory, in the end? Which facts were truly the decisive ones?

The suspension eventually pressurized into tension, day by day, because we weren’t allowed to talk about the case. To anyone. Not even each other. My wife was thrilled and jealous I was on jury duty, but I couldn’t say anything. We jurors were sharing this experience, but we couldn’t fully share it at all, so the whole thing felt a bit out-of-body, and I became super-sensitive to every shift of body posture, every little chuckle, every ambiguous word here and there that might suggest what was on the jury’s mind.

Most disconcerting of all, the judge instructed us not to form our own thoughts about the case until we’d heard everything. I took this to mean I couldn’t even talk about the case to myself. You become a kind of simmering pot, absorbing only the information at hand, keeping it live and present in your consciousness but forming no feeling about it. This was a total break from regular life, where information exists to be quickly consumed and metabolized into opinions and points of view that must be communicated all at once. Jury duty was a slow-food alternative, a place to try to stay open to more than one claim of truth — but then to make a choice.

(We remained in the dark about the law we would actually apply to our case until the judge read us our instructions after closing arguments. In other words, the most important variable in the whole show was presented at the last possible minute.)

Honestly, the details of the trial were fairly mundane. We heard a lot more information than the critical heart of the case warranted. Neither lawyer was in a particular hurry to speed things along. No Jack McCoy histrionics here, I’m afraid.

Yet, that’s where the beauty was. If you want your day in court, no matter the nature of your claim, no matter how banal, we will fire it all up for you. The big engine of American jurisprudence. All the depositions and paperwork and pleadings, all the kabuki rituals of objections sustained and overruled. We will find you nine people who, while they might rather be somewhere else when they get the summons, will nonetheless show up on time every day and do their best to rise to the moment.

The splendid release from all this tension was in the deliberation room. The setting sun filled the room with a warm light; we were finally able to talk to each other, to make jokes, to learn how the others thought, to test our collective mettle, to collaborate on a verdict, to assess or challenge or support each other’s ideas, to weigh the evidence, to interpret the law, to seek consensus. This spirited but fair-minded tug of war? I could do that every week.

Within a few hours it was over. The fate of the plaintiff, a stranger whom we nevertheless now knew well, was decided. The judge came to chat with us about our experience, counsel for the winning side hung around the courthouse to celebrate. My fellow jurors practically felt like friends. But now we were strangers again.

Then we were released into the night, back to a world where no one stands when you enter a room, a world where you’re two weeks behind schedule, a world where the careful consideration of facts grows more and more rare.

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