July 26, 2005

Starburst

I just returned from sitting in an enormous room for a very long time and doing nothing. There were a lot of other people there as well, a hundred or more, also doing nothing. The nice thing was, there were ten times as many seats as people, so you could drape your feet over the seat in front of you or stretch out across three seats or even sit tucked in the windowsill, which I saw one woman do. She was easily the most beautiful woman in the room. For some reason she switched seats several times, each time moving closer to where I was sitting. Finally she ended up sprawled out in the seats directly in the front of me, reading a tome-like book and periodically reaching around to pull down the back of her shirt, which kept riding up to expose the tattoo of a starburst. I didn’t seriously imagine any of this was intended for me, but I amused myself by imagining she was Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – specifically the scene in which Winslet sloppily approaches Jim Carey on the train, the scene in which she calls herself a vengeful little bitch and punches him. However, the fantasy soon petered out as the woman stubbornly refused to turn around and interrupt me from writing in my journal, so I got up and changed seats. Later I saw her in the windowsill, still reading her book and still tugging at the back of her shirt.

Coincidentally she and I were picked for the same case and ended up sitting together in the courtroom as the judge delivered his spiel. I thought he was quite good, imperial yet friendly. The case involved assault and battery, and we were introduced to all the key players: the defendant, his lawyer, and the prosecutor and her law student sidekick. At the judge’s instruction, each turned and greeted us, even the defendant. Some of my fellow jurors (though not the starburst woman) said hello back. It was awkward. I thought of those moments in certain restaurants in which the waiter shows up and says, “Hi, I’m going to be your waiter today.”

“Hi, I’m going to be your defendant today.”

The judge listed the various reasons one might be dismissed from serving, beginning with knowing the defendant or any of the lawyers or court officials. My favorite reason for dismissal was the inability to avoid the corner of 40th Street and Avenue D in Brooklyn. I imagined telling the judge that I have a compulsion to visit every street corner I hear mentioned, and that this compulsion controls my life, making it impossible for me to ride public transportation.

Later the judge announced that anyone with a possible reason for dismissal should stand in line to speak “privately” with him and the lawyers. I put privately in quotes because these chats occurred at the front of the courtroom, close enough for the rest of us to hear every question the judge asked. I was near the back of the line, so I had time to learn the drill. It seemed that no one had a reason like mine, although one woman was scolded for having come to America “believing such nonsense.” Surprisingly she wasn’t dismissed from the case, although the judge did banish her to the back of the courtroom – something he did with no one else. I wondered if she would be forced to remain there during the trial, wearing a red dunce cap emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.

All this time I kept practicing my speech in my head and reminding myself to remain calm and to call the judge “your honor.”

When my time came I handed my juror ID card to one of the court officers, who walked over and handed it to judge, who read it, showed it the lawyers standing a few off to the side with clipboards, and gestured for me to approach.

I know every word we said because I wrote it down immediately after.

JUDGE: Good afternoon.

ME: Good afternoon, your honor.

JUDGE: Please tell us your concern.

ME: I’m not certain that my concern is relevant, but I believe it’s worth mentioning. While I respect your authority and that of this court, it is not for me the highest authority, which is that of my conscience.

JUDGE: You do understand that as a juror you swear to uphold the laws of this court. Given that, would your personal beliefs effect your ability to carry out my instructions or those of this court?

ME: I can’t guarantee they wouldn’t, sir. I mean, your honor.

JUDGE: Thank you. You’re dismissed.

I was crestfallen. Having anticipated a drawn-out exchange, I had badly over-prepared. In fact last night while lying in bed, I found myself asking the judge in my head (who as it turned out, looked remarkably like the real one) to imagine having been born in a world in which all convicted criminals are tortured and executed, no matter what their offense. “Your honor, as a juror in such a world, which laws would you abide by, those of the courts or those of your conscience? If you choose the latter, you must grant that one’s moral responsibility extends beyond the law, even when the law has been established through a democratic process.”

My imaginary judge was dazzled; the real one simply asked for the next card.