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My Day In Court

The jury duty summons card arrived at the end of September. This is one of the great things about living in a free society: the citizens get to judge the criminals. So, here was my summons for 9 AM on Thursday October 20. The summons card is a very fancy collection of jigsaw-like coupons designed to be neatly detached, one with a map to the Bronx County Hall of Justice, another serving as an entry pass, yet another as the lottery token, and one more informing the juror that he or she is entitled to the grand sum of $40 per day of duty. Clearly the motivation to serve has to be genuinely civic! February was a flexible month for me; I could easily juggle my calendar, which was totally empty. I was ready!

The recently completed brand new Bronx Courthouse building by architect Rafael Vinoly is fantastic, and looks like a cross between the Guggenheim Museum and Dubai Airport. All made of glass, steel, wood and concrete, with spiraling corridors, glass walls, smart offices, and lots of spacious courtrooms. This is a place where you can feel that everything is under control, with messages to coordinate jurors, court guards, clerks and judges being sent instantly to high-tech computer screens. Once past the usual row of security check magnetometers and x-ray machines, I was ushered to the Jury Assembly Room. This is in fact a huge conference hall seating nearly 1000 people, with adjoining reading room, lunch room and bathrooms. I delivered the appropriate portion of my summons card to the clerk at the front desk, and sank into a super-comfy chair and waited. I was early, and I started looking around. The hall was stunning, with circular features, natural light pouring through a semi-glass ceiling, and a massive sculpture of a crossbow hanging from the center of the room. Inscribed in large letters on the arc of the crossbow were the words "THE ARC OF THE MORAL UNIVERSE IS LONG BUT IT BENDS TOWARDS JUSTICE”. At the focus of the arc was a symbolic sculpture of a person, who was clearly being judged by a row of jurors sitting along the arc. This was a great ideological start to my service to the justice system!

About mid morning, my name was called along with 60 others. This crowd of people was ushered by a court guard to the courtroom. Suspense was building, and a role call was conducted by the court clerk. No one was lost yet, and we proceeded to enter the courtroom. My eye immediately fell on the key figure - the Judge - sitting like an airline pilot at the controls of his courtroom. During the next two hours, till we broke for lunch, I became mesmerized by the charisma of this Judge. He seemed to have all the time in the world, and reminded me of a great spiritual guru to whom everyone turns for guidance. This was no despotic autocrat; this was a sensitive, patient, wise man who you felt you could trust.

The atmosphere was charged. This was the first day of a burglary case, and 12 jurors had to be chosen from the pool of 60. My initial impulse was to hope that I be chosen: I wanted to be part of this fascinating process. The Judge started delivering some information about the case. It was a double burglary, there were no witnesses, but the prosecution had collected fingerprints and DNA evidence. Did we all understand that we would need to focus totally and completely on the case, that we could not do any research on it, or speak to anyone about it? We just had to listen to the evidence and make a fair, impartial, unbiased and objective judgment, based on the evidence. And this case would take about 2 weeks to resolve. 2 weeks? For a burglary case?? This was my first big surprise. I started to find out why it would take so long: legal methodology.

The first batch of 16 potential jurors was scrutinized by the judge, one by one, in public. It was nerve-racking. The Judge calmly probed: “Tell us about yourself? Do you have any health problems? What are your religious or moral beliefs? Do you know anyone on this case? Are you shy? Are you bossy? Are you married? Do you have kids? Do you own your home or do you rent? The answers that issued forth were a veritable cross-section of human activity. Suddenly, things started to get funny. It transpired that Mr. Hernandez was in the entertainment business. Where? Oh, here, there, a bit of TV, a club in Boston. "I see" said the Judge. “So I  take it we are very lucky to have caught you in the Bronx!". This judge had a sense of humor! The jurors chucked. Next came a US citizen from China who when asked if he lived in the Bronx, responded "No comment". After repeating the question more slowly, the young man replied somewhat tentatively: “Bronx”. “And what part of the Bronx?” the Judge ventured to ask. “The Bronx” came a more confident reply. Never losing his cool, the Judge nodded. Thank you Mr. Chu, that really narrows it down for us”. There was a short outburst of laughter. It turned out the young man had no idea what the judge was asking him, and clearly didn't want to compromise his good standing. Then there was the single parent who had just moved to Mount Vernon and no longer qualified; the medical assistant who embarked on a detailed description about some bizarre monetary transaction he was involved in; and the shy Gambian who spoke in a mumble. The Judge remained pleasant and calm, showing a genuine interest in every juror. The court stenographer typed furiously to keep up with this mottled collection of human stories. "Do you understand what is meant by proof beyond any reasonable doubt?" enquired the Judge. "What, you have an exam at 3 PM today? Please see the clerk outside and good luck with your exam". I started to realize that no one either wanted or qualified to be a juror. This was an incomprehensible procedure for most of these people, that had no place in their daily struggle for survival in tough Bronx County. As we listened to yet another citizen pour out their guts, one young and feisty African American woman sitting behind me mumbled: "This is bullshit. I can't take any more of this crap". I smiled, but I wasn't ready to subscribe to her philosophy, at least not yet.

Once everyone's personal life had been scrutinized, it was the turn of the prosecuting Attorney and defense Counsel to question the jury-in-the-making. The attorney for the prosecution was a sharp young lady called Arianna D. She explained that it was her task to prove the accused guilty as charged, and that the defense Counsel need do or say nothing throughout the whole trial. Did we understand this?  The accused was innocent till proven guilty. She wanted to know if the jury would be able to follow a very technical discussion on DNA analysis. There was no visible reaction from the jury box. Next, the defense Counsel, Mr. Carlos D., stepped in front of the jury box. In a sharp and smooth tone, he announced confidently that he would be represented his client, Mr. T., who of course was innocent till proven guilty. What I heard next both surprised and somewhat shocked me. He made two points very clear to the jury. Firstly, his client was not required to testify in the witness box. “Are you OK with this?” he enquired severely. Everybody nodded obediently. Secondly, did we realize that police officers are human beings and therefore can make mistakes? Even a criminalist technician can make a mistake. Did we understand this? Everybody nodded obligingly.

My brain started buzzing: suddenly I though I saw the strategy for the entire court case unfold before me. A burglar had broken into two homes in the South Bronx, and had left fingerprints all over the place. So I knew this burglar wasn't too smart. DNA had been found. I glanced over at the accused. It struck me that in this entire circus, he was the most carefree of the bunch. He neither smiled nor scowled, but just stared ahead the entire time. He was going to be fine whatever the verdict. I reasoned that he must have been on file with the police before the burglary date, since there were no witnesses. His fingerprints had identified him. The fact that he wasn't going to testify had the word "guilty" flashing in my mind. Surely, if he were the innocent victim of a forensic blunder, he would be the first to want to get up and tell the People of New York where he was on the night of June 10? A good, honest alibi would work wonders before a hand-picked jury of 12 honest citizens. The word alibi had not been uttered by either party. It seemed to me that the fallibility of science was going to be the prime suspect in this trial. This was going to be thrashed out over legal technicalities and technological procedures. A dark cloud started to come over me. This looked complicated. Did I really want to spend the next two weeks being instructed on the ins and outs of forensic technology? And for what goal? Possibly sending a pathetic individual to a jail cell for 6 months on the tax payer's dime, just so that he could come out and burgle another home.

During the lunch break, I chatted to another potential juror, a Jamaican about my age who was in the process of buying a house in Jamaica, and had thousands of documents to plough through before the closing. He definitely didn't want to be stuck in court for 2 weeks or more. We were on the same page. At 2 PM, our names were called again, and the court clerk took role call. The original 60 had dwindled down to about 40. Not a wise move on the part of the no-shows: they would be receiving a letter in the mail in the next 6 weeks to serve jury duty again. Completing jury duty now meant getting off the hook for the next 6 years. By this point, I was hoping I wouldn't be selected. From what I could see, the ideal juror had to be  an individual who was available for an indefinite period of time, very healthy, not too smart, not too shy, not too emotional, not too opinionated...just sort of a bland individual who would draw obvious conclusions from basic information presented to them. In fact, as similar as possible to a human computer!

The Judge deliberated for some time what to do, while we waited outside the courtroom. Technically, the proceedings could not continue till everyone was present, but when it became evident that the no-shows were gone for good, the rule was overruled, and we all filed back into the courtroom. The potential jurors in the box were now down to 9. After much deliberating between the judge and the attorneys, 7 of these jurors were dismissed. Each one of them presented a problem for either the defense or the prosecution. Mrs. R., the lab technician for a neurosurgical company, was perfect for the prosecution
but not for the defense, and since both had to agree on the juror, with the blessing of the judge, she was not a qualified juror for this case. It was 4:30 PM, and there were only 2 acceptable jurors left in the box. The Judge decided to adjourn for the day. We were told to return by 11 AM the next day to continue the jury selection process.

Next morning there were even more no-shows. The pool was now down to about 30 people, and nobody was looking too thrilled with the prospect of being picked. We filed into the courtroom, and the lottery started. My name was picked, and I went over to sit in the Jury box, along with another 15 people. The Judge started to address the group with questions about health: were we going to be able to sustain this demanding schedule? The hand of the Jamaican to whom I had chatted the day before went up. The Judge addressed him by name, and asked him what his concern was. His reply was: "I have to go to the bathroom very often". "How often?" the Judge enquired. "Every hour" was the answer. There was a moment of silence in the room, while the Judge considered this. I was thinking "desperate strokes for desperate folks", and that house in Jamaica that might get away. Then I heard the magical words "Please see the clerk and step outside". He was free, and I had to smile.

The next hand to go up was from an eastern-looking lady that was so shy I though she would faint. The sensitive Judge asked "would you like to step up and talk to me here?" She nodded. As she walked to the Judges bench, the two attorneys and the ever present court stenographer closed in around her as she approached the bench. Every word had to be caught, lest they miss the chance to select the perfect juror. Within seconds she was dismissed. This was my moment. I put my hand up, and caught the Judge's eye. He looked at his name chart, and called out my name: "Mr. Robert Nissim, is there something you want to say?”. I responded tentatively: "I have an issue that is troubling me with this case". "And what would that be?".  What I was about to say was not for the ears of the rest of the potential Jurors, let alone the defendant, who actually appeared oblivious to his surroundings. I said: “Could I step up, please?".

The Judge agreed, and I walked up to the bench, and felt the lawyers close in around me, craning their necks to hear what I was about to tell the Judge. The stenographer waited intently to record my words. "Your honor" I started, "I feel that the defendant should testify in the witness box." The Judge considered this for an instant then enquired softly: "Do you think that this would influence your judgment of the accused if he didn't?" "Yes, it would" I replied. There were some glances between the Judge and the attorneys. "Are you happy with dismissal?" said the Judge, looking at the two attorneys. I heard the defense attorney deliver an enthusiastic "Yes", while I detected a rather disgruntled nod from the prosecutor. I was the sort of juror that would have helped her case, but possibly not the defendant’s. “With my attitude” I thought, “they would never get any jurors in the box, and the selection process could go on for weeks”. I felt a little guilty.  I then heard the magic words "Please see the clerk, Mr. Nissim". Just as I was turning to leave, the Judge added: "And thank you for your candor". Not only had I been dismissed from a long and tedious task, but he was also thanking me for being honest! I tried to compress my appreciation to him in a quick and short response, and impulsively said "I didn't want to waste your time, your honor".

As I left the room, I glanced over at the accused. He was still staring into space. This was the most attention he had got for a long time!

As I left the courthouse, I thought about the crossbow hanging from the ceiling of the Jury Assembly Room and the words inscribed on it. Was it the moral universe that was long, or was it the road to justice that was long? I wondered if in some Machiavellian way, the legal methodology had been honed by centuries of trial and error, to find a final equilibrium of costs and benefits. Would there be a benefit for lawyers and judges, and indeed for justice, in making things faster? Would there be a cost for being less fastidious in the selection of jurors? As I made my way home, I couldn’t answer these questions, but I was sure of one thing: even though I was surprised and a little shocked by the methodology of the legal system, I was fascinated, and maybe even a little proud, to be living in a country where a crime suspect is the center of so much care and attention.


(Dedicated to my mother, who loves reading, and to my father who graduated in law.)

While based on a real experience, all names and dates are invented.

Bronx County Hall of Justice


© 2010




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