Saturday, July 12, 2008

Heard in the courtroom

On the first day of jury selection we all arrived at 9 AM as instructed. All but three people. Two I suppose went AWOL, terrified at the prospect of a two-month case, but one, a Miss Jackson, called in to say she'd be late.

We couldn't start till everyone was there, so we hung about the hallway and waited... and waited... and waited. The bailiff came out of the courtroom every few minutes, scratching his balding head and hopefully calling out "Miss Jackson?" as he paced up and down the hall.

Finally he told us she'd called again and was on her way into the building. By then it was 10:20 AM and 56 potential jurors had waited all that time for her. A man suggested to the bailiff that he make her be the first juror on the panel. "Okay," said the bailiff, laughing. I didn't think he was serious.

Our latecomer arrived and the bailiff entered the courtroom, saying to no one in particular, "First up, right?" He soon emerged with a list on which were the names of the first twelve jurors to be called up. I had read in an informational pamphlet that this list was randomly generated by computer.

"Juror Number One..." called the bailiff, "...Miss Jackson!" Everyone burst into applause as she made her way in, followed by eleven others and then the rest of us. "I didn't know he could do that!" said the man next to me.

Miss Jackson made the cut, and yesterday she was sworn in as Juror Number One on the very long and boring case.

Be nice to the bailiff, folks. That's a tip.

When jury selection had finally begun on Wednesday, every seat in the audience area was filled with the dozens of potential jurors. They'd even wheeled in an extra row of chairs for us. The plaintiffs' three lawyers had one table and three defense lawyers had the other, but since there were about eight companies being sued and each had sent its own representatives, the courtroom was overcrowded and most of the defense attorneys had to stand in corners and against the wall.

After the plaintiffs had finished questioning the first twelve jurors, a kindly-looking and rather fat lawyer for Westinghouse stood to start the questioning for the defense. "Well," he began, surveying the packed courtroom, "since I take up more space than most people, let me see where I can stand..." He found a spot nearer the jury box, which put him right in front of, and facing away from, the extra row of waiting potential jurors. To them he said: "I apologize for the view."

The Westinghouse lawyer had many questions for the panel, and then he came to this one: "Are any of you concerned that during the trial I'm going to talk a long time, and then each one of these lawyers is going to get up and talk a long time, and it's going to take forever?"

The judge raised his hand.

"This case concerns events that happened decades ago," explained an A.W. Chesterton lawyer to Miss Jackson. "Now, I know you weren't here in the 50's and 60's... and possibly the 70's?"

"Not till the mid-eighties," said Miss Jackson.

"That's just disgusting," muttered the lawyer.

"My name is Speziale," began another lawyer. "I represent Foster-Wheeler and I'm from New Jersey. So the first question that a guy named Speziale from New Jersey has is, does anybody have a problem with that?"

Nobody did.

The first round of questioning was done. Lawyers from both sides began to use their peremptory challenges to dismiss jurors, and new ones were called up. "Mr. Mitchell!" came the summons.

A young man in the row in front of me stood up, and suffice to say I had a sudden urge to yell, "Say no to crack!" I shared a commiserating look with the juror next to me, who'd had the most unfortunate view. Mr. Mitchell, clad in t-shirt and baggy jeans, made his way to the jury box.

"Mr. Mitchell, how are you?" asked Ms. Ferrise, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "Fine," said he.

Ms. Ferrise in her tailored suit tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and peered at her photocopy of his questionnaire, which all of us had filled out on Monday or Tuesday as part of the initial selection process.

"Ah, Mr. Mitchell, you said that... may I?" she suddenly asked, indicating the paper. "You wrote here that," and she spoke slowly as she made out his handwriting, "'I don't... care... about... other people's problems... I have enough... of my own.'"

The courtroom burst out laughing. "Is that right?" asked Ms. Ferrise.

"Yeah," said Mr. Mitchell, brazening through embarrassment. "I've got a lot on my mind, I don't want to sit here and listen to other peoples' problems!"

"Is there anything about those problems that would hinder your ability to give a fair trial to either my client or the defendants?"

"Well, I'm just trying to work this summer, figure out what I'm doing next year, if I have to be here I won't be able to work as much..."

"But as you sit here at the fine age of..." she flipped to the front of the questionnaire, "eighteen, is there anything in your background or experience that would make you feel biased toward one side or the other?"

"I don't know," he mumbled, "it would be hard to listen when I'm worried about supporting myself."

"It says here you live with your parents?" continued Ms. Ferrise.

"Yeah, but I'm trying not to lean so much on them, trying to make my own way..."

"Now when we asked if you feel that jury awards are too high, you wrote here, 'What the hell is a jury award?'"

We all laughed again. "Yeah, I didn't know that that's the money they give the plaintiff."

"You also wrote," she peered at the questionnaire again, "that you have a short attention span and don't feel you could listen to a long case?"

More laughter. "I have a hard time listening to long stuff..." he said.

"And is that due to some physical condition or could you do it if you had to?"

"I could do it. I guess I was trying to get out of it," admitted Mr. Mitchell.

"Well, what we need to know is, as we sit here today, are you impartial to both sides, and can you make a decision based only on the evidence and the judge's instructions?"

"Yeah," said Mr. Mitchell, effectively cowed by his superior opponent.

She later dismissed him from the panel. But she'd made it clear whose decision it was.

"What do your parents do?" an attorney for GE asked another young man.

"What do you mean?" he asked, sounding alarmed.

We laughed. The lawyer explained his meaning to the young juror.

"Oh... my dad has his own business?" said the young juror timidly. "And my mom stays at home, she doesn't really do much."

"She might disagree," smiled the lawyer.

A woman took her seat in the jury box. "Miss Chan, how are-- are you okay?" asked Ms. Ferrise, switching tracks. "I just saw you take a deep breath, is that because you're thinking, 'Oh no, I'm up here now'?"

"No," said Miss Chan, who nevertheless sounded nervous, "I'm just chewing gum."

"Oh," said Ms. Ferrise with a reassuring smile. "I believe we allow you to chew gum."

"What was that?" asked Judge O'Brien, who looked wonderfully just like a gruff Irish judge should look.

"She was chewing gum, Your Honor."

"After that," said the judge.

"Uh, I said I had assumed, apparently erroneously, that we're allowed to chew gum...." As Ms. Ferrise trailed off she turned her head toward the potential jurors with a wide-eyed persecuted look. "I stand corrected."

I think she was playing the jury for sympathy, but anyway, it was funny. :)

The lawyers were discussing something with the judge in his chambers, and we jurors took the opportunity to begin to chat.

"Please keep it down," requested the bailiff, the only remaining authority figure in the courtroom.

"What are you going to do, fire us?" asked the juror in front of me as he stretched out his legs.

The short bailiff walked over with a smile, pointed to the jury box, and murmured, "I'll put you up there!"

"Go ahead!" laughed the man. "I'd like to get it over with!"

He was never called.

Ms. Ferrise was interested in whether any potential juror held stock in any of the companies on the defense side. One woman owned up to owning stock in General Electric. It turned out she did a great deal of buying and selling and investigating companies. "Why don't you have a stockbroker?" asked Ms. Ferrise.

"What can he do that I can't?" rejoined the woman, and described how she would research environmentally-friendly companies and choose which ones to invest in.

"How much time do you spend doing this?"

"Oh, it's not much, only about two hours a day."

"I would think this case would have a big impact on the overseas oil trade," continued the confident do-it-yourself investor.

Even Ms. Ferrise looked surprised. "When you say big, do you mean in terms of magnitude or its impact as news?"

"As news. The plaintiffs are from Iran. The companies are American. Why has the case been brought here?"

I think the woman was unaware, as I was, that more than 800,000 asbestos claims had been processed in U.S. courts through 2006. Anyway, she was dismissed.

One lawyer for a contracting firm was asking every juror if they'd ever had contracting work done and how they felt about it. Up came a juror who had studied architecture.

"Architects work with contractors," said the lawyer. "Did you learn anything about them in your courses?"

"I learned that contractors don't like architects and architects don't like contractors," replied the budding architect.

The contractors' lawyer dismissed her.

The rotund Westinghouse attorney was concerned that jurors would see the three plaintiffs' attorneys and the two dozen defense attorneys and feel this was unfair. He'd give some variation of the question to each juror. "You understand we're each here to represent our own company, that these are all separate cases? We're not a team. You understand I don't care about the other defendants? There are three lawyers here for the plaintiffs and two lawyers for Westinghouse. If you award damages from all the other companies and let Westinghouse go, that's just fine with me. You understand I don't care what happens to all these other companies?"

Finally Mr. Speziale of Foster-Wheeler addressed the jury, "You understand none of us cares what happens to Westinghouse?"

Late on the second day of selection. Juror after juror was being winnowed out.

"Good afternoon," Ms. Ferrise began with the latest one. "Your husband's an attorney."

"Yes," said the juror.

"In fact, he's an attorney for General Electric," continued Ms. Ferrise.

The juror was dismissed.

"I'm not quite sure you understood our question about jury awards..." Ms. Ferrise began with another juror.

"Yeah, I thought that was the money the jury gets paid, so I said, 'No, it's not high enough!'" said the woman.

"A lot of people thought that," smiled Ms. Ferrise.

That juror had to stay.

Yes, I was writing down everything that made me laugh. They wouldn't let us read and I couldn't focus to pray, so what else could I do? :)

After two days of questionnaires and jurors' excuses, and two and a half days of questioning, a panel of twelve was sworn in. Then they needed four alternates. I was first up and first dismissed (and I don't feel like telling how that went because frankly, Ms. Ferrise owned me), so I can't say how long they took filling out the alternate spots. I'm just glad I wasn't there to see it. Imagine being the fourth alternate on a two-month trial on one of the hundreds of thousands of asbestos claims in the country. Both boring and inconsequential!

But my four days of service were fun. :) Or would have been, if I hadn't had the doom of being selected hanging over me!


pritcher said...

I really enjoyed reading this. Glad your doom was averted.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I didn't know they'd let people write. Interesting