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Appealing justice 

The old, bleak, transitional, almost holiday-free month of January is the obligatory jury duty of the calendar year. And that makes January the ideal month for jury duty.

Or at least that's what I reasoned as I guided my mother-in-law's Subaru toward Hillsborough through a steel gray downpour last week. On my way out, I'd grabbed a cassette mix from the mid-'90s especially for the Grandma Mobile. It was an apt soundtrack: My last jury duty came in the summer of 1999 in New York. I remember slipping into a nearby theater and taking in Eyes Wide Shut—which had opened that very day—when we were dismissed early on the first day.

By the end of the second day, I was empanelled in a criminal trial involving the sale of crack within 100 feet of a public school in the Bronx. We heard some testimony before the judge asked if we could come back tomorrow. No, it was the unveiling of my grandfather's tombstone. He excused me, and my relief notwithstanding, I was disappointed that I would never know the trial's outcome.

Or so I thought. Only a few nights later as I ambled east on 9th Street, I recognized a familiar face. "I know you," I said. "Juror Number 5." He knew me, too. "So what the hell happened?" My replacement turned out to be one of those deeply contrary people who never agree on anything, No. 5 explained. Though 11 of 12 had come to a guilty consensus, Mr. Recalcitrant Replacement Juror wouldn't be swayed. The trial ended in a hung jury—time wasted, justice not served.

As I sat on a stiff but somehow welcoming bench in the Old Orange County Courthouse last week, I listened to a pair of lawyers craftily probe for biases. I marveled anew at how, almost 15 years ago, that stand-in New York juror had managed to fool two pros. It seemed pretty clear who could be trusted to be objective and who couldn't, I thought, as I listened to my fellow potential jurors in Hillsborough answer questions about themselves and their attitudes. The person who answered "community activist" to the occupation question was excused, as was the one who liked to root for the underdog. I began to feel admiration for those who simply said they believed they could be objective, and I hoped they meant it. Given the chance, I reckoned, I would do the same, if the lawyers would let me through with my INDY Week pay stub.

The twelfth and final spot remained unfilled through several candidates, but salvation finally arrived in the form of a retired AT&T claims administrator. Listening to her, it was clear—at least, to the lawyers and me, and I've been wrong before—that she harbored no negative attitudes toward insurance companies, at least none that would keep her from being able to listen without prejudice. In the divisive, partisan world we live in, it's reassuring to know not only that some of us can still do that but also that the rest of us emphatically demand it.

  • Scenes from jury duty

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