The Nation's Pulse

Jury Duty

They also serve who only sit and wait.

By 6.21.12

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Jury Duty. A civic obligation. A shared American tradition. A chance to see the inner workings of our justice system, big hairy warts and all.

I had been summoned to jury duty once before, when I lived in rural Monroe County, Illinois. That case, if memory serves, involved a young fellow who had walloped his best friend with a Louisville Slugger. I believe they had been inhaling compressed air. I wasn't selected for the jury, so I was in and out of the courthouse in less than two hours.

This time would be different, beginning with the fact that there were 1,100 of us crammed into the airless jury selection room on the first floor of the Civil Courts Building in downtown St. Louis. After three and a half hours of twiddling my thumbs, my number was called. The panel -- consisting of 54 city residents -- seemed a good cross section of St. Louisans: a half dozen hipsters, a few hillbillies, a couple ghetto fabulous playas, some garden variety eccentrics, and a half dozen retired codgers who remembered their Cardinal ball caps, but not their hearing aids. After an interminable wait, we were escorted to a sixth floor courtroom.

The defendant, represented by the standard young female Asian lawyer, was straight out of Central Casting: late twenties, overweight, neck tattoos, scruffy beard and a stained necktie. He stood accused of marital rape and domestic assault.

Presently the prosecutor, a dumpy brunette squeezed into a navy blue pantsuit, commenced voir dire -- the chore of weeding out the panelists of average intelligence or better. Joseph Wambaugh's description of jury selection came immediately to mind. "They're looking for people they can manipulate," said Wambaugh. "Both sides are."

Her first question seemed intended to set the modesty-be-damned tone for the rest of the trial. "Has anyone been a victim of abuse or of a sex crime -- or does anyone have a family member who has been the victim of abuse or a sex crime?" This being the city, about half the women sheepishly raised their hands. Each one was asked to elaborate. Anyone who still maintains a rosy view of modern civilization ought to listen to the horror stories of a random panel of prospective jurors.

The prosecutor then asked if any panelist had been charged with a crime other than a minor traffic offense. About half the men eagerly raised their hands. No jury duty for them.

I judged that about 26 panelists remained, from which the prosecutor and the defense attorney had to scrape together 12 jurors, plus an alternate. The next question concerned religious beliefs. Did anyone hold -- despite what Missouri law says -- that a husband cannot rape his wife? One middle-aged African-American woman raised her hand. "A wife's duty is to submit to her husband except in case of sin," she said flatly. You could kiss her goodbye.

SO FAR THE PROSECUTOR had been going through potential jurors like a warm knife through butter. And she was just getting started. Would we be open to a conviction if there were no evidence save the wife's testimony and the wife was considered a credible witness? "The law does not require we present any evidence other than the victim's testimony," the prosecutor intoned.

So this was to be a "He Said, She Said" case with no other evidence. No 9-1-1 call. No medical report. No DNA evidence. Nothing. With no statute of limitations on rape, the alleged crimes could have occurred a dozen years ago. The male panelists were not comfortable with this dearth of evidence. We wanted more. It wouldn't have to be much more. A previous conviction. A conversation between the alleged victim and a friend. Anything.

So much for us guys. That left only about a dozen women who had not been disqualified for one reason or another, and our alleged wife-raper could hardly get a fair hearing before an all-woman jury. Not that it mattered; jury selection dragged on for a second day, and, the next morning, two of the potential female jurors failed to show up and a mistrial was called. Which was good, since the case never should have gone to trial anyway.

Personally, I don't see why the judge didn't simply pull twelve names out of a hat and be done with it. This would be a lot more representative of the general public and seems a lot fairer than asking 54 random individuals a lot of personal questions about their religious beliefs, while dredging up unpleasant memories.

A huge waste of time and taxpayer money? You betcha. And yet I left the courthouse feeling very gratified at doing my civic duty and once again helping to steer the course of justice.

Who am I kidding? I was just glad to be out of there.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.