Archive for January, 2012

there were girls pettin’ squirrels, and there were squirrels smokin’ crack

Posted in Blog on January 25, 2012 by trevorgregg

Jury Duty.

It’s been almost two months, and the only positive thing I can say about our nation’s legal system is at least it’s not our healthcare system.  Everything else, from the pointless tangents and byzantine ritual of the courtroom to the shitty tar-flavored coffee in the cafe downstairs, has been awful.  The best moments of my day are disappointments and delays.  Some lawyer taking fifteen minutes to find a photocopy of a scan of a piece of paper in one of his fourteen binders while the rest of us sit, thirty some-odd people, in tedious silence – that’s a highlight. 

The fat lady in front of me drifts in and out of consciousness, her six jangly bracelets clicking against the side of her too-small plastic chair as she twitches in half-sleep.

Your life becomes divided, in both time and perception.  During the day you bear miserable witness to eight solid hours of paperwork trench warfare.  Your conceptions of reality and truth, of language, distort and distend.  Words and ideas you’ve known since childhood become estranged, warped by too much examination.  The word ‘expert’, for instance, has lost all meaning after being discussed and dissected at unbearable length.  The lawyers, somehow empowered, have ordained that the Legalese definition of ‘expert’ takes precedence over the normal, English, human one.  Two days, literally sixteen hours minus lunchbreaks and leg-stretchers, they spent beating my understanding of ‘expert’ to death with rhetorical two by fours.  For naught, of course, always for naught.  Just another pointless skirmish far outside the bounds of the real war.  As days pass and your spine compresses and twists to fit the unnatural, almost deliberate discomfort of your juror’s chair, so does your mind adapt to the perverse and terrible realities of the justice system.  What shocks and appalls you on the first day becomes regular, almost invisible, by the fortieth.

We get a break and I walk up and down the empty concrete stairwell to get my blood pumping, to bring back the illusion of life to my atrophied limbs.  I can get up and down the six floors four times in 15 minutes without sprinting, I’ve found, though I’m breathing hard.  I pass one of the defendants going back into the courtroom, and we make brief eye contact.  Neither of us speaks – we aren’t allowed to talk, of course, not even an acknowledgement for a held-open door.  In the legal twilight zone we inhabit, now, courtesy begets implied favoritism, a cardinal sin.

Some of the other jurors have struck up what I guess can be called friendships.  They talk and joke – the four Chinese people, three women and a man, laugh at each other’s jokes in Mandarin while we wait in the hallway.  They talk about shopping a lot, and coo appreciatively when the grandmother shows pictures of her grandkids.  They talk about shopping at Macy’s, and Christmas.

Some of the others, the lady with the bike helmet, the engineer with the folders who spends his every free second outside the court on his cellphone, they nod to each other in passing, or say hello.  I don’t even manage that.  I keep my head in a book during breaks, and the others leave me, Juror #5, alone.

We have an hour and a half for lunch each day, for some reason.  The break seems disproportionately long compared to the rest of the hurried day – we’re always rushing through he TSA-style security checkpoint downstairs, taking off belts and backpacks and shoes, or waiting impatiently for some late juror to show up.  A missed bus means the rest of us, a room full of people, sit in silence while we wait for the tardy person.  During lunch I go out to the sprawling lawn in front of City Hall.  There’s nowhere else to go, really – Civic Center is like a granite fortress boundaried by the filthy swamp of the Tenderloin and Market Street.  Moaning junkies and schizophrenics sleep in the December sun.

One guy washes himself from a milk jug of water while a gaggle of kids on a field trip to the Asian Art museum leer and giggle. 

I hate this fucking city.  The wind comes up so I go around the corner to a granite stairwell near Hastings to sit, and read, and wait to go back to the trial.

—————

Near the end, I start to understand the appeal of trial by combat.  To the modern mind, the idea that justice could ever be served by having opposing parties’ champions kill each other with swords and shields is laughable.  Obviously the worth of a cause has no relation to its champion’s martial prowess.  Only savages resolve their differences in such fashion.

But fuck, seriously. The whole process is so divorced from reality and justice that each party would be no less likely to stumble accidentally upon a proper outcome if they gave their lawyers bronze spears and threw them in a pit to sort it out old-school.  Whatever the Right Answer is, here, nobody in the room has any interest in finding it, or really any hope.

The plaintiff’s lawyer, a rat-faced ambulance-chaser who looks like a young Mr. Burns, is so hopelessly outgunned by the defense’s four lawyers that the possible rightness of his cause is totally secondary to the outcome of the proceedings.  His client’s a bankrupt immigrant, his opposition is the combined legal might of four banks.  It’s taken him six years to even get to this trial, six years spent in a paperwork nightmare. 

But looking out across the room from seat #5, I feel no pity for him.  It’s not David vs. four Goliaths.  It’s just one asshole lawyer vs. four asshole lawyers.  His incompetence doesn’t mask the moral vacuum that he carries around in his skull.  If he’d gone to a better law school he’d switch to the other side of the aisle in the blink of an eye.

In nine weeks, nine weeks of normal time stretched by legal relativity into approximately a millennium, I see only one faint eddy of humanity amongst the various attorneys.  One of the defense attorneys, a thick-necked Midwesterner who probably played lacrosse for Indiana, spaces out for a moment.  The plaintiff’s witness is reading some fucking passage from some fucking deposition taken in some fucking basement six years ago, and has been reading this deposition for an hour and a half.  I look over and for a minute or two, the lawyer spaces out.  His eyes glaze over and his white-knuckle grip on his Styrofoam cup full of Red Bull relaxes.  His brain goes elsewhere.  He’s probably at home playing with his kids – he’s younger than he looks, probably married only a couple years.  He has some life away from here, where he spends his time not being a stone-faced hatchetman for a despicable bank conspiracy but being a dad, or playing golf or drinking beer with other, similar douchebags. 

Probably when he’s out with his buddies or eating dinner with his wife he doesn’t think about his work, at least not all the time.  He forgets, if he ever knew, that when he does his job well he’s ruining lives, that the people he works for and thus he himself, increase the sum total of human misery in the world.  And fuck him for that.  He gets his oversized paycheck from his vampire superiors and I’ll bet he sleeps like a baby.

He wakes up after a minute, or two.  Time has so little meaning here.  His pen starts moving again over his yellow pad and he’s back in the trial. 

—————-

It’s not sad.  Sad is the wrong word.  Disheartening, I guess, is closer to the target.  It inspires despair, a suffocating sense of futility.  I walk into that courtroom and I marvel at what a piece of shit everyone is.  My companion jurors, the lawyers, the plaintiff and defendants, everyone.  The world.  And myself, by extension. 

Rightness finds no sanctuary in me.  My selfish instinct is to assume I’m better than these other people, but statistically, if there are that many pieces of shit around me, I’m probably no exception.  I bitch just as fervently about the inconvenience of the trial, about how many presents I still have to wrap.  I catch myself saying the same things that the rest of these fucking assholes say, every day.  I see how much like these other fuckwits I am, and I look away.

We’re released to deliberate, eventually, and it’s almost Christmas so, really, nobody cares any more.  They lead us each day into a room in the back of the courthouse, with no windows and one locked exit, like a casino or an asylum cell.

One lady, the cranky Chinese one, won’t even talk.  She’s made her mind up before we even start talking.  The rest of us talk through stuff, debate, and for a while things are a little better.  This is at least the sensation of movement, of problem-solving, of power.  But petty tendencies get the better of people one-by-one.  The old dude clings to his ignorance like it’s a life preserver, refusing to understand points made in the trial that we’re trying to explain to him. 

It’s a civil trial (what an epic misnomer that is), so thankfully we don’t need to be unanimous. 

Me, the foreman (Steve), and one other lady take charge and fill out the forms with a 9-3 consensus, the minimum.

We find for the plaintiff, but just barely. 

She’ll be broke and bankrupt and homeless when we’re done with her, and I can see the pity in the eyes of the women when they sign the forms.  But I don’t feel broken up about it.  My instinct for pity doesn’t make her case any more valid. 

Like I said, everyone involved sucks.  We aren’t here to pick favorites.  I try to apply logic and sanity to the meandering, ass-backwards and incomplete evidence, and go from there.

I’m convincing when I talk, and I get the others to agree with me, eventually.  Except for the bitter holdouts.  But I know the sum I, we, give her will not help this lady’s life, at all.  I don’t know if she deserves help, but I worry I’m passing up a chance to really screw a bank.

I try to talk to the lady next to me, some Marina housewife named Nicole, about it.  There’s some Edward Abbey quote I can’t remember about never passing up the chance to cut through a chain-link fence.  The same could be said for financial institutions, that they are worth screwing simply on principle. 

But I don’t do it.

We call the bailiff on the third day and they take us back to the courtroom to read the verdict.

——————-

One of the jurors, the lady behind me who was always reading Walden, starts crying.  I didn’t expect that.  The defendant didn’t cry, though the foreman, a lawyer himself, warned us that she probably would.

Nobody will be happy with this ruling, he said.  And he knows.  He’s familiar with such things, while the rest of us are not.  I watch the judge while we read the points of the verdict but his face shows nothing.

The lawyers can ask you questions afterward, they warned us.  You don’t have to answer them, or even talk to them.  You can just leave.

The oldest lawyer, for one of the banks, a tall guy who wears a hearing aid presumably from partial deafness resulting from sixty years of listening to his own shrill condescending courtroom voice, tries to shake my hand.  I stare at him until he backs away.  The other bank lawyers nod to me as they shake each other’s hands.  They lost but they beat the spread, I guess, which to them is a win. 

Young Mr. Burns won’t look at us.  He fumbles in his briefcase.

I push out through the door and take the stairs so I don’t have to see the other jurors in the elevator.

It’s two days til Christmas so I go home.