Monday, April 21, 2003

David's Justice or My Life in a Nutshell

"Gonna sit at the welcome table/I'm as hungry as a horse/Sitting at the welcome table/I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse/I'm gonna revitalize my thinking/I'm gonna let the law take its course..."
-my favorite sly yet clever V. Secret's Salesperson

Our legislative process somehow survived my scrutiny and participation the past four years. So this past week I was left to wonder if the judicial process would be equally as fortunate. Yup I got summoned for jury duty.

I may be in the minority (gosh now that'd be unusual) but I actually have been hoping for quite some time that I would get so lucky as to be called for jury duty. Most people seem to look at it as some kind of nuisance, an inconvenient interruption in their daily lives. But for years I've wanted to serve on a jury, watch a court proceeding first hand and have the chance to deliberate with others to reach our version of justice. Now that it's all finished I wish I could go back tomorrow. I think I've found my calling- a permanent jury member. For those who have yet to be called and don't know what to expect there ought to be some kind of manual... Oh I can remember it all as if it just happened...

DAY ONE: It was everything we were told it was and more! My favorite pregnant reporter, who lives in the Mansion on the Hill told me that she parks by the Cathedral and walks down to work. So I decided, being the cheapskate I am that I would do the same to avoid any parking costs. The walk down is actually most pleasant until I get to the area by the Xcel Energy Center where a throng of people have gathered to celebrate the first NHL playoff game ever in the city. A bar band is playing on the sidewalk but I don't bother walking around on the street so I mosey on down behind the drummer all the while getting quite the evil eye. With the size of the crowd I'm a bit afraid seeing this is the state that gets worked up over a college hockey championship win over New Hampshire (NEW FRICKIN' HAMPSHIRE FOR PETE'S SAKE) that a riot occurs... Who knows what professional fans might be capable of doing...

All of us lucky ones gathered in the basement of the county courthouse. It's a room that you would expect a less than diverse group of people to gather in on a Monday morning. The computer coded grocery bar code printed summons (how slick in a 1980's type of way) signals an alarm that indicates I hadn't answered the question on the form about whether or not I was or was not Hispanic (invite the Italian in I'm sure it'll all work out in the end- doesn't it always?). And I'm not even an ex-roofer either, I say to the competent, but weary and I'm more than sure heard more than her share spectacled county court employee I was sent back to clear things up with. I answer the question and she sends me rather anonymously into the room with all the others.

I had brought with me the book recommended to me by the Blue-eyed intern My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. I had started to read it on my trip to L.A. last fall and hadn't gotten very far. But on this day the third of the book I had gotten through prior soon became two-thirds against the clicking clock of the all too white filled room I was sitting in. Every time someone sneezed I thought about SARS and wondered if everyone else was as well. Some precarious time we're living in I thought about saying to my neighbor but he had a little bit of a crazed look in his eye. I don't even consider any discourse with the guy on my other side, with his extra red face, crew cut, and American flag T-shirt, he didn't seem to like me much as he eyed my Asian face.

A respectable looking woman steps up to a podium in the middle of the room. She switches on the microphone and gives a spiel welcoming us all and thanking us for doing a most important civic duty. She kind of tells us what to expect and lays out the rules of the week. There are 85 cases awaiting jury trials. Once we get on a jury we are done once the trial is complete. Otherwise we are to report to the same room every morning at 8:30.

She cues up a video on the jury process narrated by of all people former Channel 11 anchorette Kirsten Lindquist. I'm not sure anyone else recognizes Ms. Lindquist (she was here in the early 90's I believe) but I let out an audible snicker/gasp. It's a real life(?) imitation of the running Simpsons joke of having Troy McClure host all the instructional videos. I also chuckle when Lindquist begins the video by telling us how one of the fundamental truths about America is how everyone has the right to an open and fair and public jury trial when accused of a crime. Earlier that morning I read yet another article about our current government's detaining citizens and non-citizens alike without even charging them of a crime all in the name of the "war" on terrorism.

I sit around most of the day as a couple of groups of six and ten are called for criminal and civil cases. For lunch I wander further downtown to the World Trade Center and Town Square. I used to visit those two places regularly when I worked downtown seven(!) years ago. I can't believe how much has changed in that period. I hardly recognize either place. I choose Subway to eat partially because I'm beginning to look like the pre-diet Jarrod these days.

After lunch I'm actually called up for a gross misdemeanor criminal case. One of the other jurors called is named Jonathan Tuttle. I chuckle. My Mom and I shared a similar sense of humor and her favorite episode of M*A*S*H (and mine too) was an early episode where Hawkeye and Trapper invent an imaginary captain that sends medical supplies to the sisters at an orphanage nearby. They name him Jonathan Tuttle and all chaos breaks loose when Henry, Frank, and Hot Lips hear that there really is no Tuttle. "No Tuttle?" they humorously simultaneously mutter. The episode still cracks me up even though I've memorized each and every line.

A young gentleman is accused of domestic assault and interfering with a 911 call. He's black and I'm the only other minority in the room so I wonder if that will help or hinder my chances of getting on the jury. The interview process begins and the first potential juror asked questions by the judge says he wants to meet in private with the attorneys and judge. They all go back to the back chambers. We are sent to a nearby conference room. After a bit of a wait the judge reappears and tells us the defendant has changed his plea to guilty and we are sent back downstairs.

My favorite pregnant reporter failed to warn me about the walk back to the Cathedral area. It's all uphill. I once again walk through a Wild gathering. Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You" blares from some speakers. Playoff hockey in Minnesota and Joan Jett: have I wandered through some sort of time warp? It's nearing 90 degrees out and struggling up the steep hill I begin to wonder if I'll ever make it.

DAY TWO: I check in once again. I finish my book. I look around as more are called upstairs. I'm beginning to think I'll have the misfortune of spending the entire week waiting. I think about lunch, about treating myself to a sushi meal for my travails. Then the county woman steps to the mike and says a jury is being called for a civil hearing. My name is the first to be called out. As the chosen group gathers we head up in an ultra speedy elevator to the 16th floor. The judge gives us further instructions about how we will be interviewed, how the attorneys have the option of dismissing some of us for no cause and others of us because they think we may have a bias about what will be presented. I'm the first to be asked questions. I'm asked about my marital status, my education background, and my profession. The others are asked the same. The attorneys then ask specific potential jurors other questions though I'm not asked anything else. I'm chosen much to my surprise (and delight).

The case involves a dispute between two companies. Company A has just gotten in the business of collecting used oil from places like Jiffy Lube and Tires Plus. They have hired Company B to help store and ultimately truck the used oil to a recycling plant in the Duluth/Superior area. Company A agrees to allow Company B to store a couple of tanks on Company A's leased site in the Cretin/Vandelia area in St. Paul. The storage site is a parking lot with a slight slope and an asphalt surface. Late one Sunday night in December 1999 a driver from Company B delivers an empty tank to the site and hitches up a full tank right next to where he placed the empty tank. He notices the slope and asphalt lot. He knows that it is common to lay down lumber underneath the tank on an asphalt surface. There is no lumber around so he drives off. Sure enough when Company A begins to fill the tank it sinks through the asphalt and tumbles down the slope. Oil makes its way to the Mississippi. We the jury are to determine who is responsible for the costs of cleanup and the Pollution Control Agency's fine.

DAY THREE: Testimony begins in earnest. The driver seems like an humble sort. Officials from both companies are oily trucker types (not that I'm into stereotyping). The attorneys remind me why I have discouraged a couple of youngsters from applying for law school.

DAY FOUR: Closing arguments are given and we are given our instructions. After lunch at the Radisson (no sushi dammit) we begin going through all the evidence. We all agree that the trucking company is negligent because the driver really should have at the very least made a call or left a note expressing his concerns about the storage site. Another juror and I disagree about whether or not the oil collecting company is negligent as well. His argument is that Company A hired Company B as a vendor and was totally dependent on their expertise on the risks of where oil can be stored. I point out that the end product is the oil company's responsibility and they should have asked for more information from the trucking company about what is needed to store oil. The rest of the jury listens to us (well him mostly) and surprisingly enough comes down on my side. The other juror seeing he wasn't going to sway any opinions agrees to go along with the rest of us even though he still thinks the oil collecting company is completely innocent of the consequences of the accident.

We go back to the courtroom and announce our verdict. The judge (Judy) takes off her robe and comes over to us to thank us for our service and to answer any questions we may have. I leave with much more confidence in this branch of government than any other.

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