A juror's tale: duty, nobility - and dread

April 18, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

REPORT FROM Juror No. 364, Circuit Court for Baltimore City, regarding the events of April 16, 2002:

8:15 a.m. Arrive at Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse at appointed hour and enter Room 240, Jury Waiting Room, which looks like the stage set for Last Bus Stop to Hell. Everyone sits on hardback chairs that seem to fill every inch of the room.

Some jurors read newspapers. Some stare into space. Some catch quick glimpses of each other while pretending they aren't. To stare is to invade already-cramped personal space. Nobody knows anybody else, though most know the process into which they have been snatched. In the city, no one who's a registered voter escapes the cold, clammy hand of the jury system.

9 a.m. Shown videotaped pep talk by Administrative Judge Ellen Heller, calling all of us "a collection of wisdom." Think of De Niro in Taxi Driver: "You talkin' to me?"

9:15 a.m. Having gone through ritual check-in, Heller video, handing out of $15 cash for valiant service to city, we wait. And wait. Early silence now broken by conversation in back of room, where a group gathers like the funny kids who always sat in the back row of high school study hall to crack wise, tell stories, complain about the system.

It's the way life always works: You build on your grievances. "Hurry up and wait," somebody mutters. "Ain't that the truth," somebody responds. Thus, instant simpatico. Everybody's in the same boat, everybody's got a conversational starting point.

10:15 a.m. Why did they tell us to be here at 8:15? Have now read parts of four newspapers and two chapters of a biography of Sonny Liston, while overhearing bits of hilarity from the gang at the back of the room, a few yards away from me:

"These boys today," says an ex-Marine now working for Social Security, "they're wearing clothes that look like prison outfits, man. The crotch is down to their knees, so when they're running down the street from the police, they have to reach down, pull up the crotch and run like an old lady holding up her long skirt." If this isn't an education, what is?

10:30 a.m. At last, an acknowledgment of our existence: "Juror numbers 1 to 155, please report to Judge Hammerman's courtroom." With mixed emotions, we watch them leave. No one wants to sit in this waiting room all day - but nobody knows what kind of trial awaits those who are called away.

11 a.m. Shift seat slightly. Now sitting among the back-of-the-room jokesters, a good city demographic cross-section. Couple of civil service lifers, couple of Sparrows Point workers, guy who once ran a Route 40 strip joint, a woman who drives trucks cross-country.

11:30 a.m. Talk of movies, TV, children, grandchildren, favorite comedians, restaurants.

Noon: Talk of snoring. One guy's been out like a light ever since Heller called us "a collection of wisdom."

12:30 p.m. Lunch. I go across the street to a sweltering cafeteria and get in line behind a familiar face: State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

"Come on, lady," I say, full of my usual blithe spirit, "you're holding up the line."

"How are you?" Jessamy says, smiling as she recognizes a familiar mug.

"How do you think?" I say, gesturing to my "Juror" name badge.

"Oh," she says. "`Hurry up and wait,' huh?'"

"Exactly."

"Well," she says, "you're being a good citizen, and we appreciate it."

We are thus sharing a little secret: Everybody knows jury duty is an act of noble citizenship, and everybody dreads the thought of taking part in it. We are wedded to our routines, to our sense of self-importance at work, to the belief that the world couldn't possibly get along without us for a day or so.

But, as we assemble after lunch at 1:45 p.m., and then another hour slips by in the waiting room, something rather nice is happening: The conversation does not stop. We're all taking delight in each other's chatter. We've been pulled from the sameness of everyday life and given a change of pace, a change of faces. This feels nice.

2:45 p.m. About 50 of us are called to Judge John Themelis' courtroom. A bit of routine crime in the city, which Themelis describes briefly: A young man allegedly ran a stop sign and was pursued by police. They allegedly found 49 bags of cocaine on him.

3:30 p.m. I am dismissed from the case, owing slightly to a three-decade history of writing about drug traffic's effects on the city. I walk out of court thinking to myself: The day has been a nice change of pace. I met lots of terrific people. I feel enlightened. I did my bit as a citizen. I actually look forward to the next call to jury duty.

Until the day that summons arrives, when I will inevitably say to myself: Oh, no. Not this again.

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