When I was a young adult everyone I knew was summoned frequently for jury duty and had their own strategies to get out of serving. I thought it would be fun to be on a jury. I loved the Perry Mason television series and all the courtroom dramas it spawned. Experienced friends dissuaded me with stories of smelly old courtooms, unlovely fellow jurors and hours of boredom.
The jury summons that arrived in the mail listed the legal disqualifiers. If you were a lawyer, related to a lawyer, worked for a lawyer or even knew a lawyer, you were excused. I’m not a lawyer but I knew plenty of them. I’d volunteered on campaigns and lawyers were always running for something or organizing challenges against the Democratic Machine.
In the early 1980s, law-and order politicians passed a slew of laws with stringent penalties for drug-related crimes. The whole system ballooned—courts, juries, attorneys, jails. It’s not that crime increased. It’s that more laws led to more arrests for the possession and sale of illegal drugs.
The jury pool didn’t expand fast enough. The court system drew from outdated voter registration lists and potential jurors like me and my friends used our easy-outs. Officials devised a quick-fix for the anemic jury pool—they eliminated most of the legal excuses. I looked forward to a day in court. Finally.
I arrived at the Cook County Criminal Court Building at 26th and California wide-eyed and ready on my appointed day. The jury selection room hadn’t opened yet. I waited in the cavernous 1929 yellowed hallway. I had no trouble sizing up the clutches collected outside the courtrooms. The accused were at the center of their group, surrounded by mothers, wives, children, siblings, friends. Every once in a while a public defender rushed out of a closed door to consult with a defendant. As I watched mini-dramas unfold, my bleeding heart told me I’d argue the innocence of each defendant regardless of the evidence. I hoped I’d get selected for one of their juries.
After a long wait on faded steel chairs in the windowless jury selection room, twenty-five of us filed into a courtroom for questioning. The judge described the case of the thirty-something man accused of selling drugs to teenagers. The defense attorney and the prosecutor whittled their way toward twelve jurors as they asked questions about our backgrounds, beliefs and prejudices. I fumbled my answers. I didn’t want to reveal myself in a crowd of strangers.
We took a break and I caught the attention of the defense attorney.
“I can’t be impartial ,” I whispered.
“What’s the problem?” She asked.
“I’m in Alcoholics Anonymous. I know people who’ve bought drugs from people like him and I know he’s guilty.”
When the judge returned, the defense attorney asked that I be dismissed. The prosecutor asked why. I edged toward the door without hearing the answer. The defendant’s lawyer mouthed “thank you”.
And I felt guilty.