On the days when I commute from home to work on my bike, I can’t help but notice the long lines of vehicles waiting to park in the South Flores Street Parking Garage each morning. It’s a flat $2 fee for Bexar County residents summoned to jury duty, and that’s where most of the 400 or 500 people choose to park.
With my own jury summons in my pocket, I chose to ride my bike to the Bexar County Justice Center on Tuesday, avoiding that parking jam and giving myself a little fresh air and exercise before spending a long day in the Central Jury Room with 500 other citizens.
A good number of those called looked like they were waiting to have a bad tooth pulled, but I arrived energized and with a game plan, hoping, finally, for the first time in my adult life, to be chosen as a juror. As I wrote in a Sunday column, serving on a jury was on my bucket list, and despite five prior calls to jury duty, I have yet to be selected. Apparently, no one wants a journalist on their jury. Lifetime record: 0-5.
I am drawn to the sights and sounds of a Texas courthouse, especially the historic ones. My early years as a reporter were spent in the Cameron County Courthouse in Brownsville, then the Nueces County Courthouse in Corpus Christi, and finally, the Dallas County Courthouse, long before security checkpoints and stricter rules of access were put in place. A reporter back then could stroll into a judge’s chambers, talk up the bailiffs for gossip, and hang out with lawyers from both sides before court was called to order.
Even the modern Justice Center at 300 Dolorosa has a similar feel inside. Smartly dressed lawyers carrying satchels and briefcases hurry from one hearing or plea negotiation to the next. The benches lining the hallways and courtrooms hold a multitude of people, some in trouble, many who are hurting: perpetrators, victims, witnesses, people intimidated by the legal system and struggling with legal expenses, and their loved ones on both sides, all waiting nervously for the system to render judgment.
For the occasional observer, it’s a good place to visit when you know you can leave at any time.
Once inside the jury room Tuesday morning, the first thing I noticed was the public seating, which has changed to accommodate the growing number of obese adults in our society. I recently noticed two different sizes of chairs in a physician’s waiting room – regular and super-sized. Every seat is a wide seat in the Central Jury Room, and that proved to be a comfortable option for those of us who arrived on time at 8 a.m. and spent the rest of the day watching and waiting.
Another observation: Any legitimate survey of this city’s worst breakfast tacos has to include the courthouse’s basement cafeteria. Our first break came between 8:30-9:30 a.m. which triggered a mad rush of humanity across the hallway for breakfast. They must know something I don’t, I thought, so I followed. Lesson learned: a captive audience will eat anything. The industrial strength tortillas were more than I could swallow.
Judge Laura Parker, who presides in the 386th Juvenile District Court, greeted our pool of 500 people in the morning and delivered an informative and entertaining orientation speech before tending to a long line of citizens who sought dismissal because of a sick child, loved one, or other approved absence.
“The presence of all of you sitting here is forcing the lawyers upstairs to do their jobs,” Parker told the audience. “There are hundreds of cases scheduled to go to trial this week, and the lawyers are working furiously to get their final best offer to settle a case and avoid a jury trial.”
They can’t settle them all, I told myself, noting that there were 52 sitting judges upstairs. Guilty parties, especially defendants with prior convictions, often succumb to last-minute plea bargains when they realize they could face years behind bars if convicted by a jury on a felony charge. Still, there had to be some cases where the facts merited a trial. Give me a DWI, anything.
My Sunday column attracted some good advice: If I was impaneled in a pool and sent to a courtroom for voir dire, I was advised, lay low, say as little as possible, dress down, don’t stand out. When the prosecutor or defense lawyer asks a question, keep your answers short. Don’t be interesting. The talkers and know-it-alls are the first to get struck by one side or the other, one lawyer told me. Experts, second. Bellyachers, third. I was wearing denims, ropers and a guayabera, feeling invisible.
Judge Parker finished her speech and then moved to a nearby room to hear individual appeals to be set free. A long line quickly formed. It reminded me of a priest hearing confession as one-by-one, citizens entered the room and pleaded for dismissal.
Every half hour or so, a staff member came to the microphone and read off the names of 30-60 computer-generated picks. Those called were lined up single file and sent to one courtroom or another for voir dire. The room slowly thinned out. I spent most of the morning catching up on emails.
“You get a lot of that email,” the older women seated next to me said after a few hours, her first words since we sat down. She said it like she thought I should see a doctor. As I considered her tone of voice, I found myself agreeing.
As the noon hour approached, those of us still in the jury room were set free for lunch. I had learned my lesson at breakfast, and quickly summoned an Uber driver to keep a long-standing appointment to attend a delicious lunch hosted by Rosemary Kowalski at the RK Catering headquarters on East Commerce Street. After a half day in the Justice Center Basement, dining with one of San Antonio’s true icons and other interesting friends of hers was like a brief escape into another world. Five dollars and one Uber trip later, I was back in the basement.
Another panel of 60 people was called immediately upon our return, which encouraged me. Some trials, we were told, were set to start in the afternoon. Now I was free to sit anywhere in the room as more seats were vacant than occupied. I changed locations several times just to listen to different clusters of people talking. The Clinton-Trump debate, the U.S. victory over Europe in the Ryder Cup, Kim Kardashian’s frightening encounter with jewelry thieves in her Paris hotel suite, and lousy juror pay all got a good going-over.
We were told at the outset that each one of us would receive $6 for our day’s work, even if we were sent home. If we were selected to serve on a jury, the daily rate moved up to $40. We were encouraged to donate the $6 back to one of three programs: The Bexar County Child Welfare Board, the Bexar County Veterans Treatment Court, or the Crime Victims Compensation Fund. At the risk of sounding stingy, I decided not to sign over my wages. I wanted to see that $6 check arrive in the mail.
“Let’s be honest,” I heard one man seated near me saying to others. “They don’t say nothing about the $2 parking. All of us are really working for $4.” Well, yes – and your point is?
Anticipating an often-asked question, Judge Parker had earlier noted, “Your employer does not have to pay you for missing work for jury duty, but they can’t fire you, either.”
Just as the next pool was being called, I noticed Sig Christenson, the Express-News military affairs reporter, standing up after his name was called. Sig joined the newspaper, I’m guessing, nearly 20 years ago when I worked there as the editor or managing editor. I can’t remember how many times we sent Sig into war zones, but I do remember he was embedded with the Fourth Infantry Division out of Fort Hood that led the U.S. military invasion of Iraq and eventually captured Saddam Hussein.
Now he was headed to a courtroom, and a pang of jealousy hit me. Sig is going to get on a jury and I am not. The feeling was only alleviated the next day when I learned his panel was dismissed just as they arrived outside the courtroom as a plea was finalized.
The clock struck three, and a courthouse staff member announced that the final three pools of 60 people were about to be called. Two of the pools would be released, their trial courts having closed after successful disposition of the pending cases.
“Our records will say you were here until 5 o’clock,” the staffer told us. “You don’t have to go back to work. You can go home to take a nap, do whatever. If we get called we say you were here from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.”
I heard my name and fell into line to collect the small card verifying I had answered the call to serve and was exempt for three years. I was now 0-6. I trudged back across Main Plaza to the Rivard Report offices and settled into work. I decided to wait a day to write about my experience. I didn’t want to come off as sour grapes, disaffected by the system.
I called Judge Parker on Wednesday to check in. She told me she had checked the rolls and knew I hadn’t been picked. Had things worked out differently, she said, I would have served in a competency trial, where the jury would have decided if the defendant was mentally competent to stand trial on criminal charges. That sounded intriguing and good enough for a first timer.
“I did take one of the comments posted to your Sunday column and I read it this morning to the entire jury pool,” Parker told me. “It was written by the woman who said she was proud to have served. After I read it to everyone I had far fewer people trying to get out of serving.”
I’m not sure which Rivard Report reader inspired Judge Parker to read her comment aloud to the citizens gathered in the basement on Wednesday morning, but I will give two of those readers the last word here:
“Like you, serving on a jury was on my bucket list,” Mary Grace Ketner wrote. “When I was finally selected in my mid-60s, I had expected that I would need to take a lead role among our 12 in holding to the law and finding the truth. I had thought I would be somewhat alone among a group who were more interested in getting home or in simply seeking a pound of flesh. How arrogant of me! My fellow jurors were dutiful and conscientious and truly focused on attaining justice in the case. The brief episode affirmed my pride in our nation and our system of law and my deep gratitude for my American citizenship. I hope you get to have a similar uplifting experience!”
And then there was a reader named FR:
“Me too, as above. Retiring and being a woman seemed to help. Just this past year I was selected after years of being dismissed even though I was impaneled twice. Serving made me feel a part of an important process. Our case involved having an interpreter. It lasted about three days. The jurors were all attentive. They came from varied backgrounds and education levels. We were ethnically mixed and fairly evenly divided by gender and race. The judge was fair and was clearly in charge and paying attention. Yes, there were boring times. Yes, I had to concentrate. Yes, we were allowed to ask the judge for help in clarification. Most of all, the jurors were serious about trying to get it right. We talked it through and voted. The outcome doesn’t matter here but it really mattered to the people at the center of the case. Together we made a decision. It’s the together part that is important. No one person decided but we used the information provided in the trial to make a decision, together. I wish that the rest of our democracy worked this well. Good luck Mr. Rivard. Hope you get to serve your community in this way.”
Top image: The Bexar County Courthouse. Photo by Scott Ball.