Saturday, March 27, 2010

jury selection

I came this close to forgetting that I was on standby for jury duty this past Monday. I had mailed in my little slip a few weeks prior, made a note on my calendar, and promptly forgotten all about it until last week, when the hastily scrawled JURY DUTY on my office calendar caught my eye. Oh well, I thought to myself, at least I'll get a day to just sit in silence and work on my index.

I had been called for jury duty once before--in Austin. I went in at 8:00am and was in my car driving home by 10:45am. So my expectations for jury duty in Atlanta were pretty minimal. Long, boring day, lots of sitting, go home, the end.

Jurors are instructed to park over at Turner Field, ie the Braves' stadium, and take the free county shuttle over to the courthouse. When I pull into the Orange Lot at 7:30am on Monday, it is 42 degrees outside and snowing. I know this does not bode well for an unremarkable day.

Crowded, jostled shuttle ride on Rosa Parks-era Blue Bird bus gives way to an endless snaking line inside the courthouse building. The security line. I am mildly irritated as I pull my laptop out of its case and take off my silver bracelet that always sets of metal detectors. My irritation falls away instantly as I round the corner toward the elevators and spot a memorial to the victims of Brian Nichols' infamous 2005 escape and killing spree at the Fulton County Courthouse. [Note: If you aren't familiar with the Brian Nichols incident, let me warn you before you click that it is really upsetting and really engrossing. Open the link in another window and read it later.] Instantly I am feeling really grateful for the thorough security and the abundance of armed deputies everywhere I look.

Another line at jury check-in and then they turn me loose into the giant potential juror holding pen, where I will sit with hundreds of other people waiting to hear my name called.

I have been warned by my colleagues that there is an appalling scarcity of outlets in the jury pen. Paula, who never fails to impress me with her resourcefulness, advised me to bring a power strip, assuring me that I would become the lady of the hour in that big, depressing room. My fellow potential jurors elect not to carry me around on their shoulders shouting my praises, but a few people are very grateful.

I have three, almost four blessed hours of silence in the jury pen to work on my giant index (ironically, a law book) before, dundundun, they call my name. Sixty lucky jurors are to report downstairs to a certain courtroom for jury selection. Fabulous.

We are seated in the spectator's part of the courtroom, arranged by our recently-assigned juror numbers, and informed that we are about to start voir dire for a murder trial. You have never lived until you have heard Southerners pronounce 'voir dire'. Verr darr.

As soon as they say 'murder trial', the room heaves a little. People look around them like maybe they can just shimmy under the wooden benches and out a side door and go home. I just suck in a deep breath. I am not prepared at all for this. I didn't think I'd even get called into jury selection, let alone for a murder trial. The defendant is sitting right in front of us, his eyes dancing over us, sizing us up.

We are each given little laminated cards with our juror numbers on them. The prosecution and defense lawyers ask us a series of questions about our personal experience with the justice system, whether we've ever witnessed a crime, and lots of other random things that ended up pertaining to the case. If our answer to the question posed is yes, we are to raise our card. They call on us row by row.

What's strange is how much we are affected by each other's answers. For example, one of the questions is 'Have you ever thought you saw a friend or family member in a crowd only to discover it was actually a stranger?' I kind of roll my eyes when the defense lawyer poses the question, but then no one in the first row raises their card. I'm in the second row, and when they get to us, I'm the only one who raises my card. But then virtually everyone in the third, fourth, and fifth rows raises their card without hesitation. It's like no one wants to deviate from the first row, but then once one person has deviated everyone feels comfortable answering honestly.

We get through the group questioning and the judge tells us we have a little time for lunch before we need to report back for our individual questioning. I'm not very familiar with downtown so I end up wandering until I come upon Underground Atlanta.

Underground Atlanta apparently has a long and storied history. For example, it was severely damaged in 1992 during Atlanta's post-Rodney King verdict riots.

Underground Atlanta was once a major tourist attraction and now it's quite run-down and dated-looking. It looks like it was designed by the same people who did Opryland--90s-tastic and delightfully tacky--and it appears that it has had absolutely no maintenance since the last day of the 1996 Olympics. It's a crappy little underground mall just like the crappy underground malls I know and love in New Orleans and basically every city everywhere.

What Underground Atlanta lacks in panache and security and sunlight, it makes up for in cheap Chinese food. I stuff myself with lo mein and orange chicken and steel myself for the next part of voir dire.

It takes all afternoon for them to call us in six at a time for individual voir dire. I am absolutely stunned when the lawyers refer to me by my last name in front of the defendant, and ask me what line of work I'm in. I'm nervous and I can't help myself from chirping in my characteristic sunny way, "I'm a children's book editor!"

I know at that moment that I am hosed. I am looking young and earnest and pure as the driven snow. I am looking like the kind of person who could never find someone guilty of murder. I am going to get picked for this jury. The defense lawyer smiles. They ask me a few more questions and then send me back out into the hallway.

It's almost 5pm when they call us all in to let us know who's been picked. They go down the rows and call us by number. One woman barely muffles a sob as her number is called. I am not at all surprised when my number comes up. They ask us to file into the juror box and sit down. They call the last number and dismiss the other 47 people. The 13 of us look back at them with pleading eyes as they collect their things and file out, relieved smiles on their faces. The judge gives us some instructions and tells us he'll see us at 10am tomorrow.

All I can think is, What just happened?

Discussion Question:
Have you ever been called for jury duty?

* * * * * * *

This is part one of four in my series about my experience as the foreperson of a murder trial.

one: jury selection
two: the trial
three: deliberations
four: the verdict


  1. I have never been called for jury duty, and I'm not looking forward to it ever happening. I can't believe they used your last name in front of the defendant. Can they do that?

    Oh, and speaking of last google profile says "Horns" because that was my nickname in college.

  2. The Law and Order theme was an awesome choice, Katie. Really enjoyed reading this. My favorite detail? "Verr darr."

  3. Hi Horns! I'm planning to email the judge from the trial this week to ask him about the whole calling the jurors by their names thing. It seems so crazy to me! How did you find my blog?

    Lynne--Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more posts.

  4. Man. This is an epic story acomin'

  5. GREAT description. I can taste the lo mein.


  6. HAHA--Mimsy, you know my propensity for dumb nicknames. Perhaps you've met my husband Boozie?

  7. what appalls me is that you went to a crappy underground mall that reminded you so of nola and you didn't eat beignets for lunch at cafe du monde.

  8. is there a du monde at underground????

  9. How fascinating! Please update more about this!

  10. I had no recollection of the Brian Nichols case until I got to the part about Ashley Smith publishing her memoirs of the account. The day after this happened (his shooting spree, not her book deal), we sold out of the Rick Warren book.

    I CANNOT WAIT for the second installment in this story!!!!!

  11. The book industry = ridiculous. And don't we know it!

    The second installment is coming soon!