Over a maroon industrial carpet, the beige walls of the Jury Assembly Room 101 were neither warm nor inviting.
Along with several other hundred cattle citizens, I was “invited” to come to the Criminal Justice Center to serve as a potential juror for “one day or one trial.” I was among the two-thirds who responded to the summons. More than one-third do not.
Those on hand, and I, had passed through airport-style security – metal detectors to walk through and an X-ray for your possessions to be belted through. Nothing like making you feel special for the task ahead.
We were to report at 8:15 and by the time I cleared security, it was 8:35 and the jury assembly room was two-thirds full. Potential jurors have to go through the same check point as everyone else, while court personnel have a separate line. Someone should suggest that to Jury Commissioner Dan Rendine.
I think jurors should be given the courtesy of the shorter line because, at least for that day, they are court personnel. Oh! Free parking, too. No, it is not impossible.
Since someone should suggest is, I called Rendine's office, left a message and got no callback. Maybe I should have sent a summons.
[3/17 Update: Commissioner Rendine called, apologized he couldn't get back to me earlier. The $9 pay is a state mandate; passage through security is in the sheriff's hands, and he is working with nearby garages and parking lots to get reduced rates for jurors. The No. 1 complaint of jurors: No coffee or refreshments. (Coffee was costing $100,000 a year Rendine said.) No. 2 complaint: The pay. No. 3: Cost of parking0)
There were more than 50 of us taken upstairs in an elevator reserved for jurors – not even cops can use it – to go through the process known as voir dire, which is questioning jurors about ability and biases, to winnow the juror pool.
Two things I knew: It would take a while and I would not be selected.
I was in the pool for the criminal trial and the accused criminal wore the Roman collar of a Catholic priest. (The trial of Rev. Andrew McCormick resulted in a hung jury on Wednesday.) I knew it would not be a quick trial and the other thing I knew was that I would not be seated on the jury.
How do I know that? I know that because of the many times I have been called, I have never been selected for jury duty. Why? Think about what I do for a living. Does the prosecutor or the defense attorney want to have someone on the jury who is really paying attention – and who might later turn the experience into a column in which someone might be held up to scorn?
Praise is possible, too, but that’s not how they think.
[Commissioner Rendine, a former crominal defense attorney for 35 years, said he would LOVE to have journalists as jurors, people who are used to dealing with facts.]
The impressive thing about the process was the diversity of the jurors, who reflect Philadelphia – whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, male, female, young, old, well-dressed and not.
A pleasant court officer (who did not introduce herself by name) greeted us and provided an overview. We were given a confidential questionnaire to fill out, sheet 1 or 2 (there was no sheet 2) which asked about our background (anyone close to you a victim of crime?, do you give more weight to a police officer’s testimony?) we viewed a film strip with several judges explaining the process.
In the “old days,” I remember when the court provided coffee, tea, milk, juice and pastry but that went away with various budget crises. You do get a check for $9 for the day of service. The check arrives within a few days, or mine did, anyway.
You are allowed to read, to use your cell phone (unlike the “old days” when they were confiscated before admission) and you are urged to not speak.
Some people read, some people text, some people sleep.
Various groups of jurors are assembled and sent off to courtrooms where they undergo the next stage of questioning, the object being to get the most pure, unbiased group of jurors possible.
My group was elevatored up to Room 908, presided over by Common Pleas Judge Gwendolyn Bright. Two lines of jurors were seated in the jury box, the rest of us filling the five spectator rows in the courtroom. The attorneys and the defendant were already seated.
Prior to being assembled in that room, a court officer said he expected a “short” trial. “Short” is subjective. As soon as I saw who the defendant was and heard the list of those scheduled to testify, I knew it would not be “short.” The judge said she expected it would take about two weeks and she was right.
The judge then read, one by one, a long series of questions. By now, each juror had been assigned a number and given a plastic squjare with that number. If you wanted to answer “yes” to any question, you were to hold up your number, which was written down by a member of her staff.
Of course, people were asked if they had heard of the case (I had), if you know any of the participants, if you were a member of Rev. McCormick’s congregation. Jurors were also asked if they had been a victim of sexual assault, and I’d guess 20 people held up their numbers, and not all were female.
I was impressed, and depressed, by how many people held up their number when they were asked if they were less likely to believe sworn testimony from a member of the clergy. I do not believe they answered that way knowing that would get them kicked off the jury. I believe they were truthful.
There were some 20 questions and after answers were reviewed, a large group of jurors were excused, among those the victims of sexual assault, and, of course, Your Favorite Columnist.
It was a bit after 12 and we were sent back down the jury assembly area to sit and wait for another assignment. A staffer down there said the court’s needs were filled and we were excused, with the thanks of the court.
I’ve seen the process before, and although I am never selected, I am always impressed by the seriousness the potential jurors report for their civic duty. and dismayed by the unseen many who do not.