I received an odd piece of mail during the recent holiday period. The return address showed that the sender was a “CHIEF CENTRAL JURY BAILIFF,” not the sort of personage I regularly keep in touch with nor the type of individual I expect a Christmas card from. The all caps were a touch intimidating. I began to relax as soon as I read the words “JURY SUMMONS” printed on the exterior of the envelope. Still, I wondered, what’s with all the shouting?
To make a long story short, I was being asked to do my civic duty and show up at the Bexar County Justice Center, an imposing building located right in the heart of the city of San Antonio, Texas, at 8 a.m. on January 8th. The Honorable Catherine Torres-Stahl, presiding judge of the 175th District Court, was requesting my presence at the place and time indicated. When I flipped the summons over, just to see if there were some loopholes that might allow a pretty accomplished shirker a way out of appearing, I was informed, in quite clear terms, that failure to comply would allow the authorities to fine me “not less than $100 nor more than $1,000.” Pronouncements of this sort are generally pretty effective in turning most of us into model citizens.
So I arrived early in the morning at an hour when many folks were still working on filling their daily quota of yawns. They told us to go to the basement, which I did, where I found hordes of people being lined up and herded into a large room that resembled a holding pen. The people kept coming and coming until all the chairs were filled and then the overflow were asked to stand in the aisles. At one point we were informed that the room held no fewer than six hundred human beings. Because I was astounded by the number of folks assembled, I took out my mobile phone and inconspicuously took a photo of a fraction of the throng only to be told, minutes later, that no sort of photography, other than selfies, would be allowed. Of course, the absolute worst place to do the forbidden is anyplace where there are people with guns who’ve been given the authority to use them.
Eventually, my name was called with sixty-seven others. They sent us to the third floor this time. We huffed and puffed our way up flights of stairs where we were met with a bailiff with a gun on his hip. Each one of us was assigned a number—mine was forty-eight. He then lined us up in order and said, “Whenever we go into the courtroom—it could be five minutes or it could be much longer than that because, you know, there are lawyers involved. Anyway, once we are called, we will enter in exactly the same order we are in now. If you go in out of order, it means I haven’t done my job well. I don’t like it when people think that I’m not good at what I do. I know I sound mean, but I’m a man who has been married for twenty-five years. That’s long enough to give any fellow a mean streak a mile or so wide.” (Several people laughed at that, and it was clear he knew how to work an audience.) Once the laughter had died down, he ran his fingers through his hair and said, “True story. When I was a young man and just newly married, I was a sweetheart, but my wife, well, she’s something else and she has had her influence. I won’t say she scares me, but do you see this gun, I sleep with it under my pillow at night.” Again, there was some laughter but a little less this time. Once it was over, he said, “Folks, I’m just kidding. I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression.”
The bailiff then disappeared and I began to wonder if he might moonlight at one of the standup comedy shops in the city. I didn’t have long to ponder that possibility because we were soon called into the courtroom. As luck would have it, I got a front-row seat, which allowed me to have an up-close-and-personal view of everything, including the judge at the rear of the room, the district attorneys (two youngish women dressed smartly in suits) and the defendant and her lawyer, a bald African-America who wore a wry smile through most of the proceedings, especially when he stood up and began to address the potential jurors.
The vast majority of my experience that day was humorous, in a sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek sort of way, except for when the judge read out the charges against the defendant: Several counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. While the judge was saying all this, I watched the accused carefully. She immediately turned her face away from us and toward the floor. Tears began to well in her eyes and then flow down her cheeks. At one point, I noticed she began to shake uncontrollably. Possibly she found the courtroom to be a cold place, but I don’t think her shivering had anything to do with the temperature in the room.
It finally came time for the lawyers to ask us questions. I was especially interested in the defense attorney. While speaking, he paced some and was often standing no more than four or five feet away from me. An interesting line of thought occurred as I watched him. We Americans have a very romanticized view of lawyers and courtrooms. This idea comes from Hollywood, but real lawyering—the kind I saw happening in front of me—looked a lot more mundane, like teaching, which I happen to do but for much smaller paychecks. I could see that the attorney was running through his well-rehearsed list of queries and that he was sort of on autopilot. There was no drama, nothing riveting. Then, once those legal eagles had questioned most of us, we were made to go sit in the hallway where, once again, our bailiff tried out some of his best comedic lines.
My day ended not with a bang but with a whimper. I was told that I wasn’t going to be seated as a juror. In a way, this sort of bummed me out because I wanted to see how it would all end up. I wanted to see if the defendant—a perfectly ordinarily looking individual who could have been a friend or relative—would walk free or spend a large portion of the rest of her life doing something a lot more confining.