Tuesday, February 14, 2012
My Experience on Federal Jury Duty Is Short, Sweet, and Strange
I figured my trip for jury duty yesterday at the Hugo Black U.S. Courthouse in downtown Birmingham would be brief. But it turned out to be even more brief than I expected.
Lawyers usually are quick to strike potential jurors who've had experience with the justice system or have strong opinions about courtroom matters. As an outspoken critic of judges, prosecutors, and just about everyone associated with "justice" in America, I didn't figure to hang around long among the 30 to 40 folks who showed up at the jury room yesterday.
As it turned out, I didn't even get to be questioned by lawyers in the case for which I was called--and I'm still not sure why. All I know is that, less than two hours after I showed up, I was told to go home--and I wasn't about to ask too many questions.
Jury Specialist Cheryle Eiland spent about 30 minutes orienting us, telling us what we could expect from our jury experience and that we were there for only one case--a criminal matter of some sort. The most important information I gleaned from Eiland is that lunch was going to be catered. That meant I would get to eat free on the U.S. government's dime.
As I thought about the kind of sandwich I wanted, U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre entered the jury room. She spent about 30 minutes asking certain questions to make sure we were qualified to be jurors--do you have three functioning brain cells, do you speak and understand English, have you ever been convicted for blowing up a meth lab in your basement? My answers were "maybe," "sort of," and "not yet," so I was in good shape.
Bowdre also told us that we have the world's finest justice system--one that deeply impressed recent visitors from Russia--and ensured us that everyone at the Hugo Black Courthouse is devoted to the cause of due process and equal protection under the law. I had to almost physically stifle a guffaw when I heard that one.
I wanted to say, "Judge, have you ever witnessed the way some of your colleagues--namely U.S. District Judges William M. Acker Jr. and Abdul Kallon--conduct business? Well, I have, and it ain't pretty, and I'm soon going to be exposing them on my blog. By the way, do you read Legal Schnauzer? My blog stats show that I have a bunch of readers in the U.S. Department of Justice. I hope you are among them.
"And for the record, are all Russians gullible or just the ones who visit courthouses in Alabama?"
I was on the front row, and perhaps Bowdre sensed that at least one person in the audience was not buying her spiel. After discerning that we all were qualified to be jurors, Bowdre said she was going upstairs to her courtroom to confer with prosecutors and defense lawyers in the case, and then we would be called up to be questioned in a process that is known as voir dire. (That's Latin for, "Try to pick as many clueless people as possible.")
After we had waited for about 15 minutes to be called to Bowdre's courtroom, Eiland stepped to the front of the jury room for an announcement. By then, I had meandered toward the back--still thinking about that all-important sandwich decision--when Eiland's voice snapped me out of my reverie.
I heard her say something about three people could go home, and one of the names she called was mine.
Not sure what was going on, I walked to the front of the room, introduced myself to Eiland, and said, "Did you just say that I could go home?"
"Yes, you're free to go," she said and started to walk away.
Another guy was standing there, wearing a big grin because his name had also been called. "Hey, luck of the draw, right?" he said to me.
"Yeah, I guess so," I said.
As for the third name that was called, I never figured out who that was. I only saw two of us stand up.
Before Eiland could get away, I said, "Why am I free to go? I'm not complaining, but I don't understand what happened."
She mumbled something about "random selection" and "you were excused" and wandered off.
I showed up at 8:15, it wasn't even 10 o'clock yet, and I was already being told to hit the road. My first thought was, "If I was going to be excused for some random reason, couldn't that have been done before I drove all the way downtown?"
My second thought, and by far the most important one, was: "I haven't had my free lunch--and it probably isn't going to be served for another two hours or more."
Eiland actually said that the other guy and I could stick around for our free lunch. And free lunches mean enough to me that I gave it serious thought. But I decided that spending more time than necessary in a jury room would be inexcusably bad form--and would raise questions about my need to get a life.
Is it possible that one of the lawyers in the case scanned the list of potential jurors, recognized my name, and alerted Bowdre? Is it possible the conversation among the lawyers went something like this?
"This is the guy who writes that blog that pisses everybody off. And by 'everybody,' I mean lawyers and judges."
"Those are the only people that matter, aren't they?"
"Exactly. If we call this fruit loop up here, he'll write about everything that goes on, and the last thing we want is transparency in our courtrooms."
"Agreed. Your Honor, we jointly move that Mr. Shuler be told to hit the exits, pronto. The 'people's business' must not be subjected to the prying eyes of the 'alternative press.'"
Is it possible that Bowdre took about 1.3 seconds to say, "Motion granted. Who wants the extra sandwich?"
Regardless of what happened, I was out the door--and I wasn't looking back.