“Courthouse Blues.”–(A rather bitter post from 2004.)

“To know all is not to forgive all. It is to despise everybody.”
–Quentin Crisp
“There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise. ”
–Gore Vidal
“The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”
–Fran Lebowitz
“A friend is someone who will help you move.
A real friend is someone who will help you move a body.”
“The dumber people think you are, the more surprised they’re going to be when you kill them.”
–William Clayton
“When you go into court you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.”
–Norm Crosby
In my semi-charmed life I’ve thus far managed to dodge serving on a jury. As I recall, I got a summons when I was in college, but by the time it got to me, my address had changed several times and the court date had long since passed. I got called when I was in Bryan, but I claimed an exemption―the courthouse was way the hell away from where I lived, much further than I could or would go on my bike, the few local buses could do nothing for me, and taxis were prohibitively expensive.
I wasn’t so lucky in 2001. I had to cab it way the hell out to northwest Austin, to the Crockett Center, for the initial phase of sorting potential jurors. I remember I got into a few heated discussions with my co-workers over my reluctance to participate. They rattled on about my “duty to society,” “the right of everyone to a fair trial,” and so forth. I said it would be fine with me if people got fair trials, but I didn’t give enough of a shit about them to want to be part of it. In fact I said I’d rather some poor bastard rot in jail than I be inconvenienced.
I wound up spending a few hours in the old part of the Courthouse, waiting and waiting, being bored. Fortunately, my name wound was so far down on the list I wasn’t picked. The main things I remember about the experience are that one of the jurors had the most impressively ridiculous mullets I’ve ever seen, and when I heard the basic run-down of the case to be tried, a case where one businessman was suing another, my gut feeling was that both of those sleazebags belonged in jail.
I haven’t voted since 1996, partly because I’ve not found anyone worthy of my vote, and partly to avoid being called to jury duty. But now they get potential jurors from lists of Social Security numbers, I believe, as opposed to the voter rolls.
And so, this March, I got called up again. Then the Big Fire hit. And for all my noisy claims of a Great Brain, I didn’t have the sense to toss the summons in the flames when I had the chance. I moved in with Tim, then with James and Nyssa, and while at the latter place registered with the County online so I wouldn’t have to take another trip out to the Crockett Center. I gave James’s house as my address, which at the time was accurate.
The County sent me an e-mail with my assignment, but in the craziness and stress accompanying those long weeks of apartment hunting, I forgot all about it and lost my summons in a growing mass of paperwork. The County was supposed to send me more info. via e-mail, but my inbox was usually pretty full.
In fact I was long settled into my new apartment before I recovered the summons. I’m not sure, but I think by that point I’d missed my court date. Not wanting to get arrested, I called the County and told them my sad story. A few days later I got a new assignment, then lost that one too and forgot all about it. The County sent me a reminder about my court date, then called James to see if I’d received it.
And so, as I so often must, I bowed to the Ugly Inevitability.
I got to my bus stop today about 7:20am. The bus arrived at 7:46—damnably late. Along the way there were two really long lay-overs so the driver could sit on her ass, eat junk food, and smoke a cigarette, The bus didn’t get to the stop by the Courthouse until 8:55—five minutes before I was due in court! So it took almost 90 minutes to get from the Arboretum area to downtown. Un-fucking-believable.
I had to go to the new Courthouse extension this time. I’d never been there before. Hundreds of us poor sods were dumping our personal effects into little plastic trays and walking through the metal detector. An excitable cop ordered me, “Sir, take your hands out of your pockets, please!” I did so, and walked through the detector with my hands raised over my head, in sarcastic surrender.
The judge was a cool mother-fucker, a black guy who looked a lot like TV’s “Judge Joe Brown.” He seemed like he’d be a great guy to have on your side, but a formidable person to run afoul of.
His name was Wilford Flowers. I was tempted to ask if he was any relation to Wayland Flowers, the dead gay ventriloquist and companion of the diva puppet “Madame,” but the idea of a dinner of chipped beef on toast, with a side of buggery, as payment for Contempt of Court, ruled that question out.
We jurors were jam-packed into our pews, much closer than a germophobe like myself can reasonably stand. I took comfort in the knowledge that I was Number 44 of 50-some-odd jurors, so I was sure my chances of being called were slim.
To my left was a short, fat black woman. For the next THREE HOURS she, contrary to the rules posted on the Court Room door, chewed a large hunk of gum, like a cow chewing on a cud.
She chewed with her mouth open. And she chewed loudly, second after second, without stopping except for the few times she answered a question from one of the attorneys.
In fact, she didn’t sound so much like she was chewing as she sounded like a baby mammal violently nursing on its mother’s teat.
I think it was only during the last half-hour I was in the Court Room, after I’d shot her dirty looks three or four times in rapid succession, that she finally got the fucking message she was bothering me, and stopped. I mean, hell, I was trying to hear what was going on so I could make sure and give the right answer that would result in my getting cut loose.
My first lie made under oath came early on. The Prosecuting Attorney, who looked like a somewhat more severe incarnation of Caroline Rhea, was lecturing us about our duties as jurors, the basics of the case, and the history of law in Western civilization from the time of fucking Hammurabi on for all I know. She made the supposition, “We all here have a high regard for human life, right?”
I confess, I didn’t speak up. I didn’t bother to contradict the other jurors’s gruntings of assent.
Oh, I’m forgetting our defendant, a crackhead named Ricky, who was accused of stabbing a Mexican. I took one look at him and knew he was guilty. He just had that look about him—he looked like he belonged in a mug shot. His face was a cross between Snoop Dogg and Chris Rock, his hair one part Bjork and one part Dred Scott, his eyes yellow and haunted.
The Prosecutor explained our boy was up for aggravated assault, and said the penalty could be anything from 2 years to 20, or possibly just probation. She asked me if I was comfortable with that range. I said I would be inclined to administer the strongest possible sentence. She asked if there were extenuating circumstances, like self-defense that I might consider. What about a man who found out his daughter had been molested by a neighbor? Would I give him 20 years? I admitted there were indeed possibilities where I would not administer the harshest sentence.
Later on, when the Defense Attorney brought up a similar point, he asked me if I would agree to vote anywhere in the punishment range, if the Defendant was found guilty. I said no. If he was guilty I’d give him the maximum sentence. If there were extenuating circumstances I wouldn’t vote him guilty at all—I’d vote to acquit.
The Defense asked which was the most important thing to me in a criminal trial: rehabilitation, deterrence, or punishment. Naturally, I said punishment.
(Man, it’s fun playing Old Testament God. I highly recommend it!)

The Prosecutor asked if I’d ever had direct experience with violent crime or if my family or friends had. I said I had a knife pulled on me in high school. The student was caught, but was only suspended for a semester. So yes, I admitted, because of that experience, I would not be able to judge someone in a knife attack with 100% impartiality; I would be predisposed against that person.
The Prosecutor thanked me for my honesty.
The Prosecutor asked if I would like to hear a Defendant’s side of things in a case. I said yes. Would there be a problem if a defendant did not speak in his own defense? Would I assume that an admission of guilt? I said not necessarily. A defendant might be afraid of public speaking, might not be able to express himself well, or might have some mental or emotional problem where what he said wouldn’t actually help his case, but would rather unintentionally work against him.
(I was thinking about that “Subway Slayer” case several years ago. The Defendant was found guilty, but the thing that really struck me about the case was that he wanted to defend himself. Though the Defendant was clearly mad as a hatter, the Judge allowed him his wish, and the result was a disturbing, pathetic circus of a trial. The guy shouldn’t have been allowed to represent himself—that was a travesty of justice, even though he was guilty.)
One old cracker woman said a woman had broken into her house years ago, grabbed a shotgun, and shot her husband in the gut. The attacker was caught, but never prosecuted. The woman said she’s had to live with that crime every day since for all these years, as she’s had to take care of her husband, and suffer through his operations and illnesses. She said she couldn’t be impartial in a case where deadly force was used. To my great surprise, she also said that since her husband’s attacker had been black, she might not be able to judge a black defendant like ours fairly.
There was another older woman, who seemed a bit overwrought and fond of getting attention, who claimed, in a voice barely loud enough for the Court Reporter to hear, that she didn’t believe in giving anybody a prison sentence for any reason. Yet when she was asked which condition was for her ideally the most important result in a criminal case, she picked not rehabilitation, not deterrence, but punishment!
When the Prosecutor finished we were given a break, after which the Defense Attorney did his thing. He was a thin man in his late 30s or early 40s, with greying hair and a poorly-tailored suit, and was very fond of holding up a big pad with questions and concepts written on it.
There are a number of things the Prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal case, but it need only prove the county, city, and state where the crime occurred with a preponderance of evidence (meaning just enough evidence to lean things a specific way). If all other evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt the Defendant was guilty, but there was absolutely no evidence the crime was committed in that county, city, and state, would I convict? I said yes.
He said suppose you have two kids. You hear a crash in the next room and run in and find Johnny pointing at Jimmy, saying, “He did it!” When you ask Jimmy about it, he says, “I don’t wanna talk about it.” What would be your reaction?
I said the simplest conclusion was that Jimmy was guilty, but if Jimmy was a kid who NEVER wants to talk to anything, or if Johnny is a known liar, that changes things quite a bit.
Then he asked if I agreed to this statement: “No matter how scared I was, if I was innocent, I’d speak up and say so.” I said I certainly would speak up for myself, but that’s just me. I could easily see where someone would be unable or unwilling to do that and that he could still be innocent despite his silence, as I’d pointed out to the Prosecutor earlier.
When the Defense Attorney finished, the Judge called some jurors up to speak privately with him. Eventually, he called the names of more jurors, then let the rest of us take a long break, as he said we still had a long way to go yet.
During all the breaks, I paced ceaselessly up and down the hall, my restless hands fidgeting violently behind my back. I was sure the other jurors had decided I was either a bastard or a nut-case. Fine by me―I just wanted get the stench of cheap cologne out of my nose so my allergies wouldn’t start acting up.
I was in a hurry to get out of there and salvage some of my day. I’m very uncomfortable in places with lots of cops, afraid that one day my crimes will catch up with me and they’ll nab me.
Also, I greatly resent authority and hate being held in a confined place against my will, which probably explains why I’ve hated most of the jobs I’ve had. And that’s also made me very reluctant to make any kind of appointments with or commitments of time to others.
This nonsense had gone on long past what I considered an acceptable lunch time, and when I don’t eat on time I get a headache. I went downstairs to the snack counter and bought a warm, over-priced piece of chicken fried steak on a hamburger bun, slapped a tomato and some onions on it, and gulped it down before heading back upstairs.
When we went back in, the Judge told us he had some more stuff to do, then he’d pick the 12 jurors, and the rest of us could then go to lunch. Go to lunch? What else did they have planned for the rest of us? Would we have to go try another case?
He started calling names, telling them to take a seat in the jury box. He got close to my end of the row, but fortunately filled the 12 slots before he got to me. Of course, I had little reason to doubt that I wouldn’t be picked, especially after I’d stated I couldn’t be impartial.

(But what if he had picked me? What excuse would I have used? My mother suggested financial hardship. I asked what the hell that meant, as I obviously wasn’t missing any work. She said the trial would keep me from spending time job-hunting. I said not bloody likely, since I don’t know of any place to hunt right now.

I was considering bringing up my weird health of late {and the lack of decent air conditioning in the Court Room really wasn’t helping my already over-heated body}, or explaining how I never listen to what most other people have to say, and rather just wait for them to shut up so I can talk.)
The Judge said he hoped we wouldn’t feel we’d wasted our time; it had been difficult finding 12 suitable jurors, and he had in fact had to go much further down the list than was typical. He then gave us a form to fill out and said we could leave when we finished it. The form spelled out how much time we’d served, and what we’d get paid for our trouble. We could either get paid the $6.00 we’d earned for the day, or we could waive it and it would be donated to one of several local charities for women or children in various types of distress. Naturally, I was petty enough to insist they pay me my $6.00—just out of principle, for wasting my time.
I asked the Bailiff if we were just going to lunch or if we were done all together, and he said it was the latter. It was a little after 1pm by this point. I didn’t bother to hang around in the hallway to see what the other dismissed jurors had concluded about the case.
I then headed over to the Austin History Center so I could finally get a look at the hardback edition of my book. And my, it was handsome! Nice heft to it too.
I farted around the Main Public Library awhile, then caught the bus north. I had one of those drivers who tears ass down the street, barreling past stops so she can have longer breaks at her lay-overs.
Still, the long ride gave me some time to ponder my day. I realized that while I have some crazy, deeply misanthropic views of the world, views I do indeed believe, I nevertheless would feel sorry for anyone who had to live according to the rules I would impose on the world. And since I’m so misanthropic, so warped, and so incapable of being truly fair to most people, it is only right that I not be allowed to sit in judgment, in most cases, over my fellow man. Were it otherwise, poor bastards like that guy today wouldn’t be able to get a fair trial, which I suppose they deserve, even if, as in this case, I seriously doubt they’re innocent.


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