It was the moment I had been waiting for for more than two decades: a chance for jury duty.
It was something that I had wanted for years – a mandate from the courts that you sit in a room and cast judgment on people. You know how people say you shouldn’t be judgmental? Well, how about when you are ordered to? Jackpot!
A big blue envelope with my jury duty instructions arrived in the mail. This was for federal jury duty, down in Charleston at 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. It also came with a questionnaire that had approximately 84 billion questions. One of them – I kid you not – asked if I had placed any bumper stickers on my car in that past year. I can safely say that the only bumper sticker that has ever been on my car occurred during spring break of 1993, when most every car in Destin, Fla., received a Cash’s Liquor Store bumper sticker, whether they wanted it or not.
(One question they did not ask: “Does your alma mater play in the BCS title game the night before jury duty? If so, would you like us to push jury selection back a day or so?” I think that would have been considerate.)
When I arrived in Charleston around 9:15 a.m., it was easy to find where I was going. I needed only to scan the street and see the dozens of people walking around holding their big blue envelopes, eying address numbers on buildings. If you ever want to go federal juror watching, those blue envelopes are our identifying plumage.
We were in a line outside the courthouse. There, we determined who read their instructions carefully and those who did not. I did, and so I did not have a cell phone with me. Based on the large collection of cell phones and tablets left on a shelf right inside the door, plenty of folks did not.
Once we proceeded through the metal detector/cell phone confiscation section, we headed up to the fourth floor, where I was prepared for some good ol’ fashioned judgin’ of folks.
When the door opened, we saw a full courtroom. Just packed. A gentleman at the front of the room began motioning us in. The jury box was full of men and women in business suits. The plaintiff and defendant tables were crowded with chairs and individuals, all facing the same view as the judge’s chair. Then, throughout the seating in the courtroom was a collection of people, most of them, I assume, other jurors. The line of folks I was in was escorted to a series of chairs near the front of the court. The woman next to me leaned over and said, “I think we’ve interrupted a trial.” I commented that there was no judge, and I was pretty sure plaintiffs and defendants didn’t sit backward for trials.
Soon, it became clear that we were simply a mass of jurors. The jury box was filled with lawyers who were taking notes on each juror as roll call was done. They were sizing us up for the five civil cases we could be selected for. The table on the left, we later learned, was for the lone criminal case and consisted of two men charged in a series of armed robberies and their various legal counsel. At the table on our right were seated the government prosecutor and an FBI agent.
I didn’t get selected for any of the civil cases, the most intriguing one to most everyone there involving a man suing a coastal resort after his arm was bitten off by an alligator during a golf outing. For the final criminal case, 11 jurors had been seated. The prosecution and defense both had used various strikes to boot potential jurors, for whatever reasons. The clerk called out, “Michael Gibbons.” This was my time to shine!
I stood and looked at the prosecutor. He was all out of available juror strikes, so I cleared that hurdle. The two defense attorneys consulted each other with whispers. Come on, seat Juror No. 12.
The attorney turned back to the clerk. “Please excuse the juror.”
Alas, I was not juror No. 12 and left Charleston to judge people without a court order. But I am glad I experienced the rush of being part of the whole process, even if I didn’t get to go through with it. I actually hope I get to do it again some time, and maybe even get called. I just hope it’s not the day after a Bama game.
Mike Gibbons was born and raised in Aiken and is a graduate of the University of Alabama. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.