I’ve been waiting a long time to serve on a jury. It’s on my bucket list of unrealized life experiences. Tuesday is my next big chance. It’s my third summons this year. I was excused for out-of-state travel the first time, forgiven by Judge Laura Parker the second time for forgetting to show up, and now I am looking forward to what happens this week when I show up for duty at the Bexar County Courthouse.
A lot of people will do anything to avoid jury duty. I remember meeting one man who confided in me that he didn’t vote because he didn’t want his name to appear on voter rolls and lead to a jury summons. Citizens are summoned from the state’s driver’s license rolls, too, so sooner or later, that man was probably called. All these years, he’s forfeited his right to vote.
This will be the fifth time in my life I’ve been called to jury duty, and I’ve never been picked. Most people would consider that a good outcome. I disagree. I want to experience a jury trial as a participant rather than an observer, and since I’m not a lawyer or a bailiff, and have no interest in becoming a defendant, that means convincing a prosecutor and defense attorney this week that I’d make a good juror.
I’m attentive, open-minded, comfortable with complexity, get along well with others, and I believe the accused are innocent until proven guilty. That, however, may not be what the lawyers are looking for. Experience tells me they prefer people who are less familiar with the courthouse, its personalities, traditions, and quirks, and how the system really works. Journalists may know too much for their own good.
I grew up reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes, To Kill a Mockingbird, and 12 Angry Men. Later, it was Snow Falling on Cedars, The Crucible, A Time to Kill, even Kafka’s The Trial. I recently watched the four-part documentary on O.J. Simpson. I’m steeped in knowledge of what makes jurors tick. I could play a juror in a movie.
I called Judge Parker on Friday to tell her I was writing about my summons and asking for some perspective on the process. Parker was appointed to the newly-formed 386th Juvenile District Court by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1999. She has held the office ever since then, no small accomplishment in a state where judges are elected and often swept out of office in partisan voting.
Parker also is very active in the community, as much or more than any judge I know in San Antonio. She’s on the board of Communities in Schools, the nationally-recognized dropout prevention organization, and the ChildSafe Advisory Council, which provides care and services for abused children.
It so happens that October is Parker’s month to serve her rotation as the judge who welcomes the hundreds of prospective jurors summoned to the courthouse Monday through Thursday. Some judges dislike the duty, but Parker is one of the judges willing to do more than her fair share.
There will be 400 to 500 other citizens showing up Tuesday morning with me and Judge Parker will greet us all and deliver a brief speech on civic engagement, duty, and the process. Then, as different courts send down word they are ready for a jury panel, groups randomly selected from the pool will be sent to individual courts where a prosecutor and defense lawyer will go through voir dire, the process of questioning prospective jurors for bias, conflict of interest, inside knowledge, and other factors that might make them undesirable jurors.
Once, nearly a decade ago, I made it into a panel, and then all the way down to the last 20 people in the courtroom. Alas, 12 good men and women were picked as jurors, but I was not one of them. A defense lawyer who seemed to like me through several rounds of questioning remembered he hadn’t asked me about my work. I identified myself as the editor of the Express-News, and he made a motion like a baseball umpire calling out a runner at third.
“Journalists don’t often get picked,” Judge Parker said. “You’re not alone. Lawyers don’t get picked, doctors don’t get picked. Ministers and church people often don’t get picked. Therapists don’t get picked. People who are known around the courthouse don’t get picked. People who are well-known to the public don’t get picked.”
The skeptic in me thinks that educated individuals who are comfortable thinking independently and gauging their level of confidence in a legal presentation by the state or the defense seldom get picked. Lawyers want jurors who will defer to their experience and judgment and will believe what they are told. Each side gets so many strikes, and sooner or later, it comes down to 12 people.
“Sometimes there are so many people who are strongly opinionated about an issue that you have to cut them all and the jury ends up being those still left,” Parker said. “People who complain about missing work are often excused, too, because no one wants to try a case in front of a juror belly aching about his lost time at work.”
I live less than one mile from the courthouse. It’s a five-minute bike ride. I’ll be there by 8 a.m., get a good seat, listen to Judge Parker’s welcome and speech, and then watch members of the pool try to lobby their way back home.
“People will come up and tell me about weird medical conditions, show me their scars, or their bag of prescription medicines,” Parker said. “If you want a medical excuse you should bring a doctor’s note.”
Some judges arrive for jury pool duty with their bailiff as a precaution. Parker’s court is at the Juvenile Detention Center at 600 Mission Rd., miles away from the courthouse, so she doesn’t have that luxury. I asked her if she has any security concerns in this day and age.
“Yes, we are careful. We just had an incident. I gave my speech and just as I finished, a man raised his hand and started yelling and went off on a crazy tirade that Hillary Clinton ought to be in prison. He was irate, so we excused him. It wasn’t worth it.”
Judge Parker told me that I’ll know by mid-afternoon if my fortunes are about to change.
“If you haven’t been sent to a court by 3 p.m. you’ll probably be sent home and be given credit and not be called for another three years,” she said.
I’ve already selected the book I’m going to read while we watch the hours go by on the courthouse clocks. It’s The Last Juror, a thriller by John Grisham. A crusading small-town newspaper editor helps assure a powerful political family is held accountable for a brutal rape and murder. The jury convicts, but a decade later, the paroled killer is released and suddenly jurors start turning up dead.
Just the kind of read to get me in the right mood to serve.
Top image: The historic Bexar County Courthouse. Photo by Scott Ball.