There are several things I dread seeing in my mailbox: a doctor’s bill; a jury summons; and an invitation to another birthday party for my 86-year-old aunt in Jersey. Recently I received them all. I disputed the bill, called my aunt and declined and began plotting a strategy to get out of the summons.
As I held the notice in my hand, I realized I was probably more qualified than anyone to sit on a jury. My mind did a slow fade and morphed back to my childhood. In a dingy courtroom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I’m sitting in the gallery next to my grandfather, a community organizer and advocate for immigrants coming to America from Italy.
A spiritual man, my grandfather was always ready with words of wisdom and philosophical parables to answer my seemingly endless questions, which is why I followed him everywhere—including political conventions and court cases—instead of going to the playground or park.
The vivid memory continues as the scene unfolds in my mind. I’m holding my grandfather’s hand and watching a judge swing his gavel high into the air before slamming it down hard.
“Ninety-nine years!” he shouts. “Does the defendant have anything to say?”
The defendant is a short, stocky man with thinning hair and dark olive skin that had taken on a grayish hue. His black bushy eyebrows cover his eyes like awnings and he has a dark mole on his cheek that dances as his facial muscles twitch. Shackled and manacled, he stands before the judge attempting to adjust his posture. Throwing his head back, his chest out and peering down his nose he replies in a thick accent.
“Judge,” he pauses, “noan-a be stingy. Give a hundred!”
With his words still hanging in the air, the authorities lead the man out of the courtroom.
I watch my grandfather shake his head and lower it as he fingers the brim of the hat he holds in his lap. A lock of his thick hair falls on his sweaty forehead and his sad eyes say more than he could tell me at my tender age.
Annoyed, my attention drifts back to the jury notice in my hand. I just started a new job. I am going to have to rearrange my schedule, transportation and work. We the People are a huge pain when they get in trouble with the law, I think to myself.
The day I report for my civic duty, my schedule is still in disarray and I’m even more perturbed. I will have to work extra hours to catch up when I return to my job. Entering the courthouse, I pass through the security check and make my way to the jury lounge. Time immediately begins to stand still. Already three hours have passed since my appointed time and I am getting fidgety.
Trying to make the best of the situation, and amuse myself, I begin people watching. There is a huge guy sitting next to me who is fast asleep and snoring with his mouth open and eyes rolled back in his head. A muscular woman with a five-o’clock shadow doesn’t respond to my greeting. I see a scrawny, wild-eyed man going in and out of the door, talking to himself. Then there is this guy who is preaching, and immediately clears a 15-foot distance around himself as the other potential jurors back away.
I begin to develop a fear that when they call me, I will have to go to the bathroom. I try to decide how I will make sure I empty my bladder. I begin obsessing over this and make many trips to the ladies’ room.
It is close to the end of the day before I finally hear my assigned number called and I enter the courtroom. I catch a glimpse of the defendant. He is a slender young man with dark hair, and magnetically beautiful eyes. He is wearing a white shirt that is too large for him. His lawyer has his arm around him and is whispering. The judge tells the potential jurors that an illegal drug was found in his vehicle during a routine traffic stop.
I glance around room and notice the defendant’s family quietly sitting alone. The father, though old and withered, bears a resemblance to his son. The torn cuffs of his pants and his worn shoes tell a story. A worried mother, with two younger children, sits next to him. I feel my irritation melt into compassion as I ponder their world that exists beyond my cocoon.
The jury selection proceeds and creeps closer to where I am sitting. Several people voice their protest over being asked to sit on a drug-related case as they disagree with drugs being illegal. A tattooed woman stands and lectures the lawyers, judge and everyone in the courtroom about the medicinal attributes of marijuana. The judge tells her to sit down, but she continues talking for another 10 minutes. She is finally excused. Another hour goes by before the lawyers choose last alternate from the row in front of me. I am free to go.
In the cool air, I walk down the street to the trolley station trying to sort through the experience. I think about how my being on the jury would produce a different verdict. I remember the old man’s face and wonder if the family will survive. Would there be someone like my grandfather to help them? The image of the young defendant, his head hung low and his eyes cast down burned in my memory.
I stop, mull things over and glance out the window as the trolley leaves the station. I remember that we Americans are a people who all come together in times of crisis, no matter what the color of our skin; that when someone is hurt, we all run to help; that basically we are fair-minded; and that dreaded jury duty mail just might offer a view of life from another perspective.