Friday, November 6, 2009


The word "Life" was scratched into the wooden bench in front of me at the courthouse. I sat there studying the graffiti as I waited for the instructions to the jurors to begin. I wondered the meaning of that word to the person who etched it in. Was it another potential juror such as myself, contemplating the meaning of our purpose here? Was it scratched by a witness to the crime, waiting to take the stand to testify, hoping that the accused would be convicted and sentenced to life in prison? Or was it scratched by a believer that all life is sacred and should be preserved, wanting to pass the message onto the hundreds of other people who would be sitting in these very seats.

The courtroom was elaborate and stately. History surrounded us in the paintings on the walls and in the sculptures of judges who resided on the bench as many as 150 years ago. A stone cod fish hung from the ornately painted ceiling, his nose pointed toward the judges bench. I took my time examining the room, it's chandeliers and the sounds of echoing footsteps through the hallways.

Jury duty progressed from the waiting, into instruction, then to moving to smaller rooms to wait some more. I got many chapters of my book, Olive Kitteredge read and observed what others around me were reading. A woman slightly older than myself was reading "The Glass Castle" - the book written by Jeannette Walls whom I had met in person the week before. I thought about approaching her to strike up a conversation about it, but didn't that day. . .what I didn't realize was there would be plenty of time for that later. Another man was reading "Catch me if you can." There were romance novels, adventure novels, mysteries, spy novels, Wall Street Journals, Time Magazines, Blackberries, iPhones. . .everyone was reading something. In a room of 65 jurors there was complete silence as if we were all taking board exams. Once in awhile someone would speak up and say, "I'm finished with this magazine if anyone wants it." Then there would be shuffling, responses and then quiet would settle over us again.

Finally after 2 hours of waiting, the court officer came to us, thanked us for our patience and said, "If your jury number is between 1 and 49 follow me." Groans and sighs went through the room as people realized they fell in that number. Did that mean that we would be here even longer? My number was 22 - safely in the middle. I rose and followed the crowd to the hallway, past the large superior courtroom, into a smaller room labeled "Superior Courtroom number 2." This room was a disappointment. After being in the main, hallowed halls of the other courtroom, sitting in the small confines of a room barely bigger than my family room with 49 jurors, lawyers, a judge, court officer, court clerk, stenographer and the plaintiff and defendant in the case, I felt slightly claustrophobic.

The judge gave us a brief overview of the case being tried. It was a civil suit of a landscaper who had a fairly large, successful business who decided to buy another smaller landscape business from a man who was getting close to retirement. They drafted a purchase and sale agreement and the older man came to work for the younger. The problem occurred when the older man was unhappy with the way the larger business was ran and found many of his long-time customers were also unhappy. The younger man was unwilling to change his business practices (they had been successful for him after all) and words were exchanged. The older man quit the job and a few weeks later was found working on the properties he had "sold" to the other business despite having signed a "non-compete" agreement for these.

The impanelment of the jury began and I was deeply entranced by the process. They ask you several questions, "Do you know either of the parties? Do you know the lawyers? Do you know any of these witnesses from the list? Do you have any reason to suspect you might be biased?" If your answer was yes to any of the questions, you were to raise your jury card and the court officer went around the room shouting out the numbers while the court clerk kept track of them. At the end of the questioning they went through the numbers starting with number 1. "Juror number 1 please approach the bench." This meant that the number 1 juror had answered yes to one of the questions. She stepped up to speak with the judge and the two attorneys and then the judge gestured toward the doorway and the court officer escorted her from the courtroom. Then the court clerk again spoke, "Juror number 2 please take jury seat number 1."

The first juror was seated and so on through the numbers they went. It was like waiting for the big climax of the movie or waiting for the doctor to give you that dreaded diagnosis. Would they get to number 22 before they filled the 12 seats? I was nervous with anticipation. The man next to me was staring intently at his card that had a big "20" printed on it. Well, at least I know he'd go before me. He sighed heavily every time someone was excused from the room and another number closer to his was seated in the jury box.

Finally the 12th seat was the only one empty and I began planning the rest of my day. Lunch at Panera sounded good. Then maybe a trip to Kmart for some supplies, maybe stop by the mall to pick up a gift for my friend's birthday. "Juror number 20 please take seat 12." A large groan and sigh came from beside me as he gathered his things and trudged to the last seat. I relaxed down into my chair, but was still watching the proceedings. They weren't excusing us yet. The lawyers and the judge were looking over our questionnaires that we had filled out. Then they started calling up some of the 12 jurors to ask them questions about what they had written down. Each one that they called up returned to their same seats, so I still wasn't worried.

Then it happened. The clerk turned toward the courtroom and stated, "Jurors in seats 4, 6 and 8 you are excused."

Now it was my turn to groan. "Juror number 22 please take seat 4."

There I was. Impaneled on a jury for my first time ever. And the judge said the trial was going to last at least all week, maybe into next.

The week only ended up lasting until Thursday. Hours and hours of testimony from witnesses, pages and pages of notes taken by each of us jurors, thousands of copies of evidence made for everyone. . . all to be a waste as the parties decided to settle out of court. I'm glad they decided to settle. . .I was struggling with how I felt about the case. On one hand the younger business owner had a right to be mad for the older man to work for customers he had spent A LOT of money on in their transaction. But he still owed him money for the business and it didn't seem right that the older man wasn't going to be compensated for his business he had spent 40 years building from nothing after immigrating here from The Azores. After all, the older man said when he took the witness stand, "I was only doing (the younger man) a favor by working on those properties. Because if they had called a different landscaper to do those small jobs, they might have taken all their business to them and he would have lost that contract entirely. After all (the younger man) still owed me for the business and it was set up on a percentage of sales. I didn't want the sales to go down because then the payments to me would go down as well."

Ahh, that makes sense. . .and maybe the younger man finally - after 3 years of fighting about this - heard him. That night he offered the older man the adjusted amount owed and all was well.

Along the way I met some interesting people. It always intrigues me how a group of complete strangers can so quickly get to know and like each other. The first day, I had lunch with a woman named Marie who worked in a research laboratory at Woods Hole with the underwater submersibles (Alvin). Wow, cool.

Then I became friendly with the juror in seat 5. She had a daughter who was in the process of buying a house in LA and was frequently getting text messages with updates about the offers/counteroffers, etc. The woman in seat 6 (the reader of The Glass Castle) was a biologist from the National Seashore and had a lot to say about unrestrained dogs on the beaches that disturbed the endangered Piping Plover population.

Then there was the Harvard graduate with a PhD in some kind of science who did beekeeping as a hobby. This sparked much interest from the rest of the jury and there was a lot of "bee" conversations during our down time. Who knew I'd learn the difference between the passive Italian bees and their aggressive counterparts the African? Also did you know that bees don't hibernate in the winter like most insects? They are still active in the hive, but stay put unless the weather is 45 or above. This man's hives produce 75 pounds of honey a year of which he is only able to sell about 40 pounds of. . .and he doesn't even like honey. It gives him an upset stomach.

Then there was the journalist who was late one day because he almost burned his house down with an errant tea pot. . .a man who was an insurance salesman whose wife baked us wonderful homemade chocolate chip cookies. . .a woman who worked in a law office who had approached the bench with a request to be excused because she had already served on 3 juries (obviously didn't work). . .the man who had been number 20 who didn't interact with any of us, but spent the whole time on his cell phone with his office whenever we had a break. . .an older woman who walked with a cane and didn't share much about her life, but made sure to ask about how my kids were feeling every day (Melanie home sick with H1N1 - another story for another day). . . and a very nice older, retired man from Portugal who had a granddaughter also home sick with a fever.

The judge in the case was wonderful. I thought he was probably the opposite of what you would expect a judge to be. He was considerate - always concerned with our comfort and the need to stretch or take a break. He made sure that everyone talked slowly and loudly so the stenographer could keep up. He made the attorneys approach the bench frequently to scold them about asking the same questions over and over and wasting all our time. And he didn't hesitate to explain things thoroughly to us, understanding that many of us had never even been inside a courtroom before.

In all it was a positive experience (one thankfully I won't have to repeat for at least 3 years since serving makes me exempt for that length of time). I learned a lot about our American civil court system and met some people I never would have crossed paths with on any other occasion. I also learned how much effort, time and money is put into creating a lawsuit against someone and vow that I will hopefully never find myself in that situation. If we could all work out our differences in a different manner without the lawyers and the courtrooms, what a difference LIFE would be.

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