TRIAL AND ERROR
“Members of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” Judicial words prompt my heart to race, my stomach to lurch, my bladder to activate. I grew up watching Perry Mason defend the undefendable, acquitting every wrongly accused suspect. Atticus Finch–my personal hero. John Grisham’s characters–the seedier the better. Be honest, you know you watch those Law and Order reruns that stream across TV-land. Guilty as charged. Call me an unabashed courtroom drama junkie.
Stamped in red letters: Jury Notice to Appear. I tear open the envelope with shaking hands. Homeowner, voter in every election, age 42 and never called to action before. Finally, Uncle Sam Wants ME! I shamelessly brag at my Monday morning faculty meeting. “I’ll be absent a few days for jury duty.” Mrs. C., staff cynic bursts my bubble, “Lucky you, you’ll get thrown out. They don’t want a school principal!”
Monday 7:15am sharp 650 would-be jurors cram into a courtroom the size of my bathroom. A cloud of competing odors accosts my nostrils…cheap perfume, stinky aftershave, stale coffee, and varying scents of BO. No courtesy of a “Good Morning” or “Welcome,” Judge Judy snarls through jagged teeth: “AC broken; not enough seats; gonna be here all day.” Where is jolly Judge Harry from Night Court?
Bam, bam, bam of the gavel. “Any excuses for jury dismissal?” Pathetic pleas rise like cigar smoke of stale tobacco soaked into these hallowed walls. “I forgot to feed the cats.” “The cable guy is coming.” “Trials are against my religion.” “My African safari begins tomorrow.” “I can’t reschedule my liposuction surgery.” “I took Ex-Lax this morning.” “Sonny is home alone.” With a raised eyebrow Judge J clarifies, “How old is your little boy?” “32,Your Honor.”
With the litany of alternative facts complete, an ancient bailiff waving his night stick escorts twenty-six smiling folks to freedom. The drum major leads the marching band, “Happy Days are Here Again.” Herroner divides the remaining jurists into equal groups of twenty-six, an amazing mathematical prestidigitation. Magically 24 more baton twirlers appear and strut the cheerless troops into even smaller courtrooms–to the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”
First Case: Old geezer shoplifts mozzarella cheese. “Sure, Your Honor, I do have an opinion about that. The gentleman can’t make good pizza without the right topping.” How racist…tossed from that jury just because I’m Italian.
Second Case: Car accident with crazed teenager high on drugs. I shamelessly brag, ” I just offered a week-long substance abuse program to my students.” Thrown out again because I Just Said NO!
Third Case: Winy lady who crashed into doctor’s Mercedes, suing him for psychological damages. Me: “I know Dr. K, the expert witness.” Dismissed from another case–I’ve got friends in low places. Three strikes and you’re out, right? Guess again.
Fourth Case: Two thugs violently beat up an old lady. “Yes, I have a close family member who is the victim of a violent crime.” And I am tossed to the curb.
Fifth Case: Armed robber shoots and kills cashier in convenience store. “But I don’t believe in the Death Penalty.” Judge shakes her head and snorts, “You’re kidding me, right?” Out I go.
6:00pm and all jurors are placed except the Dirty Dozen. 11 Angry Men plus me remain at the end of a long exhausting day. Some lament their fractured feelings: It’s like being the last kid to get picked for the baseball team. How about the forlorn single who never got a hit for Match.com? Everyone got invited to the after-work party but me. And the last shall be first?
Another baton-twirling bailiff prods our sad-sack group into the final courtroom.”All My Trials Lord, Soon Be Over.” We follow our shepherd, heads down, the unwanted, downtrodden, demoralized sheep going to slaughter. Enter Judge Judy looking even unhappier than 11 hours ago. She grumbles the salutation, “Let’s get this over with.”
Sixth Case: Young woman injured in car accident seeks medical damages. We would-be jurors know the drill by heart: What’s your name? address? occupation? how long have you lived in town? married? do you vote? member of a religious organization? Kinda personal inquiries, and before I am asked for my bra size…
The court stenographer is swaying in her chair like a tipsy passenger on a Carnival Cruise. Herroner demands, “Did you get that?” She mumbles, “Didja get that? Didja get that? Didja get…” and slides to the floor. She is writhing and shaking violently. We bolt from our splintered pew, an EMT and this school principal to the rescue. Bam, bam, bam of the gavel. “Go back to your seats!” she scolds. Ignoring judge’s order, I scream, “But she’s having a seizure!”
Bobby Bailiff strong-arms our Dynamic Duo back to the jury box. Prosecuting and defense attorneys sprint to the judge’s desk. Three men of the law squabble, Larry, Moe and Curly. The trio turns, faces me, and points. I smile and wave. Their collective scorn covers me like Joe Friday’s dragnet.
Our Dirty Dozen is herded from the courtroom. NCIS rerun. Crammed into a retired phone booth, we wait. The window-less room is stifling and I get a bit woozy. “Don’t you pass out too!” a warning from a nurse-practitioner juror, well almost juror. 45 minutes drag by.
Back to the courtroom. “I declare this case a mistrial.” Judge Judy roars, face a scarlet tomato. “Why, Your Honor?” blurt two attorneys in twin precision. “The plaintiff suffers seizures resulting from the accident. That juror (sneers in my direction) said, ‘seizure’. All jurors dismissed.”
Eleven escapees high-five me on the descending elevator. I am their heroine, their savior. But Joan of Arc is an unhappy camper. Unlike most folks, I delight at the idea of fulfilling my civic duty on a jury. Weighing in on the scales of justice. Upholding the innocent, punishing the guilty. Invoking the fairness of Moses, the swift decisions of Judge Wapner. But alas, this is not meant to be.
The revolving door of the Duval County Courthouse evicts me, never to invite my return. l feel like the hopeful teen who snuggles up to her date at the drive-in movie. She offers her guy a desperate hint, “Nobody loves me and my hands are cold.” Sliding across the car seat in the opposite direction, he exclaims, “God loves you, and you can sit on your hands!” Personal memoir, you ask? As they say in court, I take the 5th. In fact, at this point, I am ready to take a 5th.
Living my personal mission statement, “Each One, Teach One,” my greatest blessing is being the mother of two, grandmother of three and a lifelong educator. A graduate of UF and UNF, I am the former principal of St. Paul’s Catholic School in Jacksonville Beach, Florida and executive director of Tree Hill Nature Center in Jacksonville.
Since retirement my avocation is now my vocation – freelance writing. The technical writing of past professional life evolved into more creative genres of poetry, short fiction and memoir. My goal is to invoke the entire spectrum of human emotions in my reader: longing to laughter, pain to promise, despair to discernment.