A few weeks ago I did my duty — my civic duty. That is, jury duty. For the fifth time. But, now that I am a full-time Islander, it was the first time in Dukes County. So bright and early one morning I drove down to the courthouse in Edgartown and walked through the doorway under those inscribed words that smack of a Marx Brothers routine: County of Dukes County Courthouse. I was hoping to be a juror in a trial where the party of the first part sued the party of the second part for being a party to a loud party.
As I entered, I was greeted by a congenial female officer of the court who asked, “What are you here for?” as she instructed me to run my briefcase and myself through a pioneer version of an electronic security system. When I said jury duty, it elicited a big smile. “Oh, then welcome. Unfortunately, you’re going straight down to the dungeon, down those dark stairs in the back and into the old waiting area.” Did I detect a hint of a feeling that perhaps the building had passed its prime?
I descended into a room full of folding chairs and one of the last VCR machines, a room that had all the warmth of a cinder block or the coldness and anonymity allegedly associated with fairness and justice. I sat down and nodded to another potential juror. After about 14 others were seated, the clerk welcomed us. He explained why we were there — civic duty — and showed us a short video covering the rules and traditions of the jury system. He then informed us that there were two cases on the docket, both criminal, and that the judge was on his way from off-Island. This was followed by a long wait.
When called for jury duty, you need to come prepared for four hours of sitting or confined pacing. You’re asked to fill out a form that covers your history of employment and your history with the law. It’s good to bring a book, magazine, newspaper, crossword puzzle, food or all of the above. Your time there can feel like a sentence, and you are waiting to be paroled. You might even be the type of person who can catch some shut-eye while sitting on a hard chair. Or make yourself tired trying to understand your new smart phone. Any time I’m feeling fuzzy-brained in this techie world, eventually I come to the realization there’s a nap for that.
Before I could zone out, however, the clerk re-entered to tell us the waiting was over. We could all go home. We had done our civic duty by showing up and were no longer needed. Why? One defendant decided to plead guilty and the other case was dismissed because the off-Island prosecutor never showed up.
As I said, this was my fifth call for jury duty — but never once have I been honored to serve at a trial. Two times I was in a group sent home because somehow justice had been done without our participation. The other three times demonstrate happenstances they don’t tell you about.
Those forms, for example, are not checked by the dueling lawyers until you’ve been there for four hours and are now sitting in the actual courtroom on the verge of participating in an actual trial. Then the lawyers, contemplating jury selection, read these forms. Twice I got this far, then saw one of the lawyers screw up his face, mumble my name and point out the form to the rival attorney. Next I hear: “Reisman? You can go home now. You’re excused.”
On the form I put down the string of my career: journalist, documentary filmmaker, television producer, radio performer, playwright, Gazette columnist. Based on reactions from courtroom lawyers, I might just as well have put down “terrorist” or “leper.” What do they think would happen if they put me on a jury? My jobs must add up to “wise guy who will find a way to control the minds of others” or “sneaky Pete who will one day turn this all into an embarrassing play or film.”
The third time I made it along with my peers into a courtroom, the event erupted in laughter and chaos. We were all sitting in the back when the door opened and the defendant was ushered in. We all turned to look. And the juror behind me yelled, “Oh no! Not that butt-head!!” The judge dismissed us all on the spot. The juror claimed the defendant lived in his neighborhood and was a known drug dealer. However, some of us thought, after sitting there for a few hours, that what had just been perpetrated was a clever ruse to get out of jury duty, to get us all out of jury duty.
I’m not looking for a clever ruse or an excuse. I am looking to serve my time as a juror. Next time — the standard three years from now — I’ll just write down “retired” and see what happens.
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.