A 'grand' juror whiffs when court duty calls for him

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Several weeks ago, while channel surfing on a below-zero January night, I stumbled across “The Juror,” a 1996 movie starring Demi Moore, Alec Baldwin, Anne Heche, and the late James Gandolfini, better known as the modern day godfather Tony Soprano.

The film revolves around an attractive single mom (Moore) and a particularly bad guy (Baldwin) bent on “persuading” her (“The Juror”) to help acquit a crime boss facing murder charges. The crime thriller contains the requisite harrowing car chase scene, a slit throat, and various other homicides, all in the wake of a responsible citizen fulfilling her civic duty for the criminal justice system.

Despite those potential hazards, I still long for the opportunity to be “A Juror,” and have been puzzled that seemingly everyone around me – son, sisters, nephews, friends, colleagues, and neighbors –have spent time in the jury box, helping determine the fate of those entangled in the law.

My fascination with the jury process probably began when I first saw “12 Angry Men,” the 1957 film starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, and Jack Klugman. The movie was billed as “Life is in their hands” and “death is on their minds,” and the combination “explodes like 12 sticks of dynamite.”

The story centers on a jury’s deliberations in a first-degree murder trial of an 18-year-old boy from a New York City slum. The boy is accused of stabbing his father to death in what appears to be an “open-and-shut” case. But, of course, they don’t make blockbuster movies about cases that lack judicial intrigue, hence the long-lasting appeal of “12 Angry Men.”

A good friend, who prefers anonymity as far as this column is concerned, recently related his experiences as a “juror” – and a not so angry one at that. He sent me his musings via e-mail, noting that “You take close notice of people and their mannerisms when confined with them,” as in jury assembly area of a county building.

“There wasn’t much in the way of selective seating, and we were pressed tightly together in an airless corridor on the second floor,” he wrote. “Our quarters were repeatedly invaded by a parade of attorneys, defendants, plaintiffs, and witnesses.”

It was his first call to jury duty, and he readily admitted that he “wasn’t prepared with the tools of waiting . . . no thermos, lunch kit, reading material, or seat cushion.” He said there was a literature rack nearby, but the only pamphlet on display was titled, “Know Your Rights as a Woman.”

“This seemed like grounds for protest, equal rights or whatever, but it was hot in the room and I was tired and it hardly seemed worth it,” he said dryly.

Still, there was plenty of opportunity for people watching and one particular woman, petite in stature, caught my friend’s eye.

“A fragile little woman across the corridor was talking nervously and continuously to people on both sides of her while she worked on a crossword puzzle, coughed, drank coffee and ate a sweet roll, all at one time,” he observed. “Her pastry was wrapped in a napkin, and she took equal portions of both with each bite without appearing to notice.”

Across the aisle was a well-dressed man, seemingly a busy exec, who was “constantly moving about, striking poses, smiling at everyone, showing impatience, and generally staking out his claim as ‘king’ of the jury-to-be,” according to my friend.

Then there was a pair of pony-tailed, denim-clad twenty-somethings, and “I couldn’t tell whether the ranks of women juror candidates had been swelled by one, two, or none,” he wrote.

“Later, upon observing the parade to-and-from the respective lounges, it appeared that one was one and one was the other.”

His introspection was interrupted by a call to action. His was the first name drawn from the jury pool, and it was with patriotic pride that he stepped briskly to the number one chair in the jury box.

“Jurors 2, 3, 4 and the rest joined me, and the judge began his routine of questions to us individually and collectively,” he said. “I answered each in the proper manner, with alertness and respect.

“A couple of jurors were dismissed for cause. Two others were dismissed on preemptory challenges by the public defender. I was beginning to feel more and more like a Supreme Court justice, or at least like a one-man grand jury.”

Then came the word from on high.

“On the second call for preemptory challenges, the public defender asserted, ‘We would like Jurors 1, 2, and 6 dismissed,’” my friend related.

The judge intoned, “Jurors number 1, 2, and 6 are excused. Thank you for appearing.”

In a matter of a few choice words, my friend’s judicial bubble had burst, offering him only a few moments to reflect upon the loss.

“It was a long walk from juror chair NUMBER ONE to the courtroom door,” he wrote. “The feeling, I recalled, was something akin to taking a third strike with the bases loaded and the winning run on third.”