1999, Summer - JL's Jury Duty Story

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JL's Jury Duty Story
John Linnell: Everyone in the Pool

What are the twelve (or six, or some other number) glassy-eyed men and women going to decide? In the dreary, undramatic atmosphere of the real live courtroom, with humming fluorescent lights for background music, the fate of litigants and defendants alike is in the hands of day-tripping civilians who aren't even completely comfortable around each other. I'm speaking of that elite corps of draftees that are the cream of the unwilling and disinterested, the ladies and gentlemen of the jury.

I recently had the chance to perform my own civic duty in downtown Brooklyn after ignoring a series of increasingly threatening jury duty notices from the courthouse. I forget what the last one said but it was printed in tall capital letters and the gist of it was that if I didn't want to be a juror they had an opening in the role of defendant.

A few weeks later I showed up at the time and place printed on the notice and randomly picked a pew in the middle of the enormous jury pool. Later I figured out that because of the way the clerk stacked the forms we had filled out, the jury I wound up with was more or less composed of people next to me or in the row in front of me. What this means is that when you arrive at the jury pool you should sit next to people you would most like to spend several days with in close quarters. Of course, I didn't know that at the time.

I noticed several other Brooklyn rock musicians in the big room. One guy I recognized from The Fleshtones was a few rows up, and I identified Stephin Merritt from The Magnetic Fields across the aisle. Stephin had recently interviewed Flans and me for Time Out and we seemed to be on fairly friendly terms, so I put my hand up in a formal, jury pool kind of wave. His eyes locked on to me and then raked away. Later I saw him again and looked him right in the eye, and this time he turned his head completely and kept it twisted away. It occurred to me that I never read the piece he wrote about us. Did he say something mean? It didn't seem likely but it might explain his behavior. Or was he just embarrassed to be seen in that pedestrian environment? I mentioned the incident to a mutual friend and he sounded unsurprised. "Stephin's crazy," I was informed.

Eventually I heard my name over the loudspeaker, or what seemed to be my name. The woman who had the job of calling people who had been picked was appallingly unqualified for her position. She struggled vainly to pronounce even very simple names. The complex and varied surnames of multiethnic Brooklyn were way more than she could handle. To make her life harder, a bunch of prospective jurors across the room openly mocked the poor lady by repeating the mangled names in the same tremulous, questioning tone of voice. "Diane A-bu-bu…sumi? …sumay?…ching? Arthur Kalow? …Kellow? …Klow…wink…o?"

The trial turned out to be a far more interesting experience than I expected, even though my presence was ultimately unnecessary and it really was one of those pointless court-clogging exercises in which someone and their legal team see an opportunity to gouge some dough out of the city. I was chosen as an alternate juror, which meant that I sat through the entire trial but wouldn't deliberate on the case unless one of the real jurors got sick (as in sick of being there).

The actual, deliberating jurors didn't seem like a perfect cross section of the populace. I'm still a little confused about the qualities that the two lawyers were looking for but what they wound up with included three white people who work at Watchtower (that place under the Brooklyn Bridge that publishes those Christian pamphlets) one very kosher Jewish woman who periodically stood up in the jury room and mumbled prayers with one hand covering her face, and a Haitian woman who sat reading the Bible between discussions. I know there's a reason why Brooklyn is called the "city of churches" but this group seemed unusually religious.

The trial itself was, as I've indicated, a complete canard. We were shown photos and given descriptions of the part of the road where an authentically unfortunate resident of Borough Park slipped on ice (or as he said, "slipped and then tripped on a bump"), and suffered a permanent hip injury, which prompted him to sue New York for negligence. I don’t want to burden you with the copious, mind-numbing details of the case but suffice it to say that his explanation of why the city was at fault bore a family resemblance to the single bullet theory of JFK's assassination. At least it seemed that way to me. The jury decided for the plaintiff, to my astonishment. Later my wife told me she had predicted from what kind of case it was, A) what my reaction would be and B) what verdict would be reached. Everyone I spoke to about it later agreed that the suit was preposterous but also that the outcome was typical. All I could think was that I was lucky I didn't have to deliberate with the other jurors. It would have been them against me. I have a hard time imagining myself mustering the tenacious resolve of Henry Fonda in "12 Angry Men."

A few days later I got a call from none other than Stephin Merritt. In a friendly voice he said he'd heard from a mutual friend that I had seen him at the courthouse, but that in actual fact he had spent the past few days in bed with the flu, in his apartment which is in Manhattan, not Brooklyn. He therefore wouldn't have had any business at the jury pool in Brooklyn. In other words, the guy I saw wasn't him! Embarrassed, I told Stephin how sorry I was that I had him pegged for the complete lunatic he had seemed to be, but of course the one I really should have apologized to was the lookalike juror who now thought that some stranger was stalking him.