Published: August 30, 2007
For being passive, compliant and honest, I was punished. My sentence was a month of jury duty.
For almost the entire month of August, my part-time employment was suspended. I was forced to appear every weekday at the Queens County Criminal Courthouse. Every morning, I waited on a hard wooden bench for the court officer to bring me to a small room with opaque windows scratched with sayings such as “Help!” and “Get me out of here.” The officer locked me inside with eleven strangers for an unspecified amount of time. Some days, it was two hours before someone came to unlock the door. After some time in this small room, we were brought into the court room; a space so dark and cold that one court officer joked about being able to store meat inside. Here, my fellow jurors and I sat for another hour listening to technical and complicated testimony. Like prisoners, we were allotted an hour each day to go outside. After this, we were taken back into the juror cell for another hour of idleness and thereafter suffered three or four more hours of legal talk, during which we were not allowed to say anything or stretch unless the judge told us we could.
Many people defend jury duty as an essential part of the administration of justice. I can see why. When the District Attorney brings a case against an individual, he is accusing the person of committing a crime against society. It makes sense that a random group of people, a jury drawn from the community, should be the ones to decide whether that individual actually did do wrong by the law. However, it does not seem fair that any member of the jury should feel as if they are being punished for not being able to come up with a good excuse to be dismissed.
Jury duty felt like a punishment because it intruded upon my liberty. I couldn’t spend my last month of summer the way I wanted to, because the state claimed me as a pawn in their legal system for a month (23 days to be exact). The fact that I really didn’t have anything all that important to do during that time and that the $40 a day stipend the state allots to every juror isn’t much less than I would be getting paid if I was allowed to go to my job is no consolation. I was deprived of my freedom to enjoy the excitement of summer nights without having to worry about getting up in the morning. It took away my beach days and my sunny strolls through the park. It gave me a few extra pounds from sitting around all day. Worst of all, it disrupted my peace of mind.
Not only does jury service intrude on your time, it invades your thoughts if the trial happens to be a lengthy one—23 days, for instance. My jury service was mentally and emotionally straining. For someone who prefers to maintain a passive attitude, being forcefully put into a position where you decide a man’s fate is overwhelming. This might be hard to believe coming from someone who writes for the Opinions Section, but I don’t like making decisions. When my friends ask me to decide where we should have dinner, I immediately try to turn the burden over to someone else. You can imagine what a distressing situation it was to have to decide whether the accused was guilty or not guilty. I thought about the decision even when I wasn’t in court. I thought about it on my bus ride home, during dinner with my family—after the second week, I started dreaming about actually being in the court room.
The experience of jury duty is a torturous one for the passive soul. The worst part was that when it came time to deliberate, most of the other jurors were sure of what the verdict should be. The one time I tried to express my distress over the enormity of the decision, I was told that I was being emotional—something not permitted by the law. The other jurors reminded me that the law demands that jurors consider only the cold facts. I almost cried during deliberation.
I’ve heard people say that jury duty is a worthwhile experience; one could learn a lot from jury duty. This is true. In fact, I learned so much that I now have very little respect for the system that subjects honest, submissive Americans ( I say submissive because non-compliant people summoned for jury duty will find a way out) to a process that is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. Mandatory jury duty is a punishment. If we can’t have volunteer or professional jurors, the state should at least be prepared to bring in a great supply of sedatives for those serving.