Saturday, May 15, 2010
Jury duty, a civic obligation and American tradition, a vital part of the judicial process and a privilege that should be embraced by all responsible people.
But who said I was responsible?
Since moving to LA, I've received five summons in ten years to appear before the Los Angeles Superior Court. Every other year, I receive a notice in the mail, and every other year I trek over to the court house to sit patiently until I am summarily dismissed. I've discovered through careful observation that the louder and more boisterous your opinion, the less the lawyers want you on their jury.
I've only ever served on one jury, a personal injury case. I could have gotten out of it, but I was unemployed at the time and it provided me with an excuse not to look for work.
Jury duty in LA pays $15 a day, plus 34 cents a mile (one way), and the unemployed can't afford to be picky.
So I kept my mouth shut and sat on the panel like a lemming, got selected to serve and sat through four days of mind numbing drivel as I witnessed an incompetent lawyer try to prosecute a weak case on behalf of a plaintiff who had been involved in at least fourteen other personal injury law suits.
This would not do. I made myself foreman and convinced the jury in under thirty minutes that the defendant was innocent. After the trial I told the plaintiff's lawyer that his client was a money grubbing moron, and if I could have, I would have awarded both the defendant and the court damages for wasting everybody's time.
There's a reason why I don't get picked to serve on juries. I may not be a lawyer, but my father was an attorney as was his father before him. The blood sings.
Today I walk through security, and go the 5th floor where a couple of hundred potential jurors are instructed in the finer points of court etiquette. While in court there is no reading, no use of cell phones, no computers, no talking or chewing of the gum. I pull out a book and read, ignoring the unhappy crowd. I've heard it all before.
Several hours pass before fifty of us receive a summons to the 13th floor. When we arrive a pleasant bald headed African American judge who sounds like Barack Obama informs us that we will be hearing a marijuana case, and that the defendants are being charged with trafficking and for being in violation of the California health code.
Two black men in their early twenties stare straight ahead, eyes riveted on the front of the room, either unwilling or instructed not to meet our gaze. Each of the defendants has a personal lawyer, and given that this case was not plea bargained, I speculate that both defense lawyers are private attorney's, not public defenders.
The prosecutor is a young Asian woman wearing black rimmed glasses, a diamond ring sparkles on her left hand.
The judge reads us some of the rules, and then has the court clerk read off a series of jury ID numbers. As the numbers are read off, jurors quietly walk up to the jury booth and take their seats, twelve in the "box" with an additional ten outside the booth.
I raise my hand and am directed to seat #21, directly in front of the jury booth. The judge instructs us to read a series of questions framed on the court room wall. We are to state where we live, our occupation, if we are married, have any children, and if we have ever served on a jury before.
"Ladies and gentleman of the jury," the judge announces, "I would just like to thank you all for all being here. May I ask, does anyone want to be here?
Juror # 7 raises his hand. "Actually your honor, I'm glad to be here. It's a privilege."
The judge looks taken aback. "Well, I'm glad to hear that. That's wonderful. The men in white lab coats will be coming for you soon."
The court room cracks up.
Each of the jurors answers the questions, being #21 I'm one of the last to state my name, occupation, and marital status. I inform the court that I'm a high school teacher and that I work for LAUSD.
"You're a teacher?" the judge asks. "What do you teach?"
"I teach history and English in the city of South Gate, your honor."
"Teaching high school kids must be tough."
"It can be challenging, but I have to admit its even more challenging to have to sit and listen. I'm the one used to doing the talking."
The court laughs.
The judge instructs us in the importance of assuming all accused our innocent until proven guilty. He asks the jury if we understand the difference between circumstantial and direct evidence, and that we are not allowed to speculate on punishment, only to deliberate the facts and follow the law with our best moral certitude.
One juror tries to pretend like she can't understand what is being said, another tries to play the "pain in the ass" card by questioning everything the judge says. He dismisses no one.
The judge continues. "I know many of you may think the war on drugs is a waste of time and resources, and that many more of you may think that marijuana is not a "drug". Nevertheless, it is illegal and the law states clearly that you cannot sell it without a proper license. I need to know if anyone has a problem with drug enforcement?"
My heart tightens. I have an opening, a chance! I raise my hand along with several other jurors. The judge begins asking questions of the jurors, starting with the lowest numbered juror and working his way upward, asking them about how they feel, questioning them if they can follow the law while informing them that "juror nullification" is illegal in the state of California.
"Juror #21," the judge states. "I understand you have a problem with the drug laws."
"I do your honor. The current law is an absurdity." Calm, Leiken, calm.
"An absurdity?" the judge chuckles. "Are you claiming the law is absurd?"
"Yes, your honor, but it is even more absurd that anyone would traffic or buy pot illegally when you can get it around the city from hundreds of medical dispensaries."
The court room breaks into laughter, even both the defendant's crack a smile. Only the prosecutor looks unamused. Good, I think to myself, good.
"You understand, juror #21, that while we may disagree with the law, we have an obligation to follow it. If you want to try and start a "grass roots" campaign to try and change the law, that's one thing, but that doesn't give you the right to dismiss it."
The judge pauses for a moment. "I'd just like to note for the benefit of the court reporter that when I refer to "grass roots" I mean a political movement, not cannabis."
The court laughs again.
I smile, ignoring the fact that I'm being one upped by a judge. Fortunately, I've already heard him question several other jurors so have had time to think of a response.
"Yes, your honor, I do understand. We do not have the right to choose what rules we want to follow. If this was 1857 and a fugitive slave had escaped to the North, according to the Supreme Court's ruling in Dred Scott I would be obligated to return the slave to their master."
The silence is deafening. Both the prosecution and the defense attorney's perk up. The judge looks taken aback. "That is assuming," I continue, "that the slave owner could prove that the escaped slave was his property and I was on the jury deciding the case."
The judge stares at me for a moment, then continues. "You understand that this is not 1857 and this case has nothing to do with slavery."
"I do your honor. This is 2010 and this is a marijuana trial. It is not 1919 and I am not on a jury having to decide if a woman is guilty for trying to vote at a public poll. My duty is to follow the law, not to have an opinion on whether it is right or wrong."
The judge raises an eyebrow, but decides to let the matter drop. He hands it over to the lawyers to make opening statements. The defense attorney's ignore me, but the prosecutor decides to ask me additional questions.
"Juror #21, I understand you have some strong opinions about the drug law. You are aware that people who sell marijuana legally are licensed and sell only to people who have a legitimate medical condition. There is a matter of public health."
"Yes, ma'am. I also understand that those who are in violation of the public health code are typically either fined or have their place of business shut down or condemned. They are not charged with felonies and do not have to face the prospect of jail time."
The prosecutor cocks her head. "You aren't allowed to speculate on punishment, only on the facts of this case."
"But this is a felony case, and typically felonies involving illicit substances involve incarceration. But you are correct, I am not allowed to speculate."
"While I disagree with your opinion, I respect how you feel. We do, however, have to follow the law."
Bullshit. "The law is a flawed tool to maintain order because it is created by flawed people. To my knowledge, I have never heard of anyone who OD'd on pot, nor have I ever heard anyone turning violent or becoming abusive on pot. If marijuana is a detriment to society, then it is certainly not any worse than alcohol, which is the leading cause of DUI's, or more addictive than cigarettes which are sold in almost every gas station and drug store."
The judge should stop me, but I've launched into a diatribe and I can't stop.
"I once worked as a pharmacy clerk where I routinely handed out vicodin, percoset, oxycontin; pain killers so powerful they put some of our patients back in the hospital. We handed out methodone like candy, that's medical heroin. Every month we would have patients run out of their medication "early" and every month they would be back in the pharmacy, asking for more. If they were loud and persistent, their doctor would just refill their prescription and give them more."
"Juror #21!" the prosecutor interrupts.
I clamp my mouth shut.
"The issue is can you follow the law? If you find the defendants guilty, you must follow the law. Can you do that?"
"I will follow the law to my best moral certitude."
The prosecutor frowns, she isn't happy, but she wisely decides not to ask me any further questions.
The judge moves on, asks the last juror, juror #22 the same questions he's asked everyone else. Juror #22 is an elderly Asian woman with no opinion on anything, identical to the majority of the other jurors who sit politely like sheep. The judge looks at the time, it's 4:00.
"I'd like to thank everyone for coming, but we clearly aren't going to finish picking a jury today, I'd like to adjourn court until tomorrow at 10:30. Please be on time."
CUT TO: REALITY
The daydream ends, the fantasy evaporates.
I've sat in court for three days, playing out the above scenario in my head, rewriting the movie, reworking the court room dialogue. There are no distractions as my writer's brain is forced to sit and listen, forced to hear the same banal questions followed by the same trivial excuses, superficial arguments, and petty justifications.
Turns out not many people in LA think marijuana is a crime.
Three days to play out my response as I study the courtroom like a hawk, anticipating both the judges and lawyers potential questions, preparing to launch into a soliloquy the moment I'm called up. Three days on the bench I have sat, waiting impatiently for my number to be called so I can have my moment in the sun, and then exit stage left to freedom.
Three long days.
But I am never called. Three days of having to listen to the same rules repeated, the same questions asked, and the same tired pleas about why said juror can't serve on said jury. "I can't serve because I've done drugs, I don't like cops, my next door neighbor is a cop and I have him over for BBQ, my brother's step-nephew was arrested for drug use and we're close."
The prosecutor removes all the men she can, preferring older women with young children. The defense retaliates and dismisses all the older mothers with young children, and in five minutes both sides dismiss nearly every potential juror and the process has to start over as another batch of 22 jurors is called forth.
The court has to process 44 jurors before they can decide on a final 12 plus 3 alternates. I am one of the last 6 who is never called up. Never given a chance or the opportunity to expound on the stupidity of the law, to have an audition.
Three days, wasted.
Not to worry, I'll get another chance in 24 months.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family.
It's an old adage, a cliche, wisdom served up straight from the fortune cookie factory.
But how many of our friends our already chosen for us? Friendships decided not by shared values, or similar interests, but location?
Sometimes we meet people who do share our interests, forming bonds that transcend both time and distance. We pull them into our orbit and never let go, regardless of where they have moved or what they are doing, they are eternally bound to our minds and hearts. We may not talk to them for years, but the moment we reconnect, the gap of time closes in an instant.
Time and space cannot weaken a true friendship.
Then there are friends of proximity.
Friends of proximity are friendships of shared experience, momentary attachments based not on shared interests or values, but on immediacy. Proximity friendships are short lived and transient, based an our neighborhoods, our homes, our work place and our families. Quit the job, move to a new neighborhood, and most of your friendships quietly disintegrate, dying an invisible death.
With a friend of proximity, you don't share common interests, you share common experience.
One such friend was Tom. Living beneath the heel of our tyrannical property manager, we were united in our dislike of the warden, prisoners sequestered under the same roof. A waiter at Canter's Deli and older than me by a good ten years, Tom was calm and affable, he showed me how to bet on the ponies and I helped him write a script.
We saw shows together, griped about politics, and were always unified in our hour long "bitch" sessions about the craziness of our dictator roommate and his unreasonable demands. (Like shutting off the power to my room, telling me how I should park my car in the drive way, or insisting that one of us was stealing his silverware.)
After I moved, I promised to stay in touch, but somehow I never really did. Not long after I left Tom moved out as well, and that was the last I heard from him. We no longer had our common experience, both of us had moved on to different shows, to different venues.
A week ago I walked into Canter's to have an open beef brisket. Canter's has probably 300 things on their menu, but only five of them are good. (Corn beef, matzoh soup, brisket, pastrami, and of course, the brisket - as a rule, stick to traditional Jewish food when eating here.)
I look for Tom, but don't spot him.
"Does Tom still work here?" I ask at the register.
"No," the woman replies, counting my money, "Tom passed away a year ago."
I try to hide my shock and fail. "What? What happened?"
"He had a heart attack." She answers, handing me my change.
Tom's dead? Dead? I exit the deli in a daze. I still have his number on my phone. I haven't called it in years, but I call it now.
His voice mail picks up. "This is Tom, leave a message."
For a moment I don't know what to say, maybe the woman behind the counter was wrong? Maybe she was talking about a different Tom? Don't phone companies cancel voice mail after no one pays the bill?
Or is your voice mail like MySpace or Facebook, a digitized ghost casting a pixeled shadow, remaining up on the web even after you are gone. Death is no longer marked by a mere gravestone, but electronically encrypted bits of data zipping around the world, locked into place until someone makes a conscious decision to erase your electronic thumbprint.
A week later I never hear back from him. I call a second time. Nothing.
Does it even matter? Tom vanished from my life years ago. He was a friend of proximity, a connection of convenience. The moment we stopped living under the same roof was the moment our friendship vanished into the ether.
How many friends have I met in LA? How many people have I met and formed friendships with only to never speak with them again? Thinking back I can barely remember half their names. Former roommates, people I worked with, teachers I've known, writers who moved away - so few remain friends.
But when they're gone, you don't really miss them.
They're no longer in your proximity.