Eight hours of nothing, but worth it

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Column by Jim Clark

The oversized post card came in the mail a few weeks ago with those two dreaded words on the outside: “Jury summons.”

I was summoned for May 23, this past Monday, at 8 a.m. at the Marion County Justice Center. There was a whole list of items that I could use to get out of serving, but none of them applied to me. I really didn’t mind, so I got up Monday morning, actually later than usual, and went downtown.

Parking was not a problem. I followed the directions on the post card and found where to park and walked to the entrance. I entered through the automatic doors, threw my keys in a basket (that was the only metal I was carrying) but also put my pens in there, walked through the detector with nary a beep, retrieved my stuff and went to the Jury Assembly area, which is right near the front door.

There are various signs that say “no newspapers” as you walk in, a bitter pill for an editor to swallow, but you are allowed to bring magazines, they have some magazines there, and they even have a very reasonable book sale (hard covers only $1). I brought a crossword puzzle book.

I checked in, and one of the two clerks scanned the bar code on my post card, something I hadn’t even noticed was there.

From there you go into a large room with rows and rows of blue chairs, and you sit down. While there are rows of chairs, there is limited access to those chairs, so if you don’t sit near the center aisle or the aisle near the entrance, you have to climb over people. I know they’re trying to cram in as many seats as possible, but a little better layout of chairs would have been nice.

After 8 o’clock, a deputy clerk, who spent all day keeping us well informed, swore us in and explained what would happen. Then a very friendly judge walked in, explained things to us, and allowed people to line up to speak with him privately asking to be excused. I expected a few people would do that, but the line stretched the entire length of the room, and took almost an hour to clear.

Body language was very important. We couldn’t hear what was said, but you could tell instantly who was released and who was retained. Nearly everyone had to stay.

After getting over the surprise of the length of the line, I started looking around at people, and was equally shocked at how people, especially the men, dressed. I was always taught that when you went to court you wore your Sunday best. I had a jacket and tie on.

Apparently there were only about four of us who subscribed to that theory. Others wore anything and everything. There was one guy who looked as if he had parked his surfboard just outside the center. He came complete with the “bushy bushy blond hairdo” made famous in the song of the 1960s.

Then they started calling panels. The first two had approximately 14 each, which I interpreted to mean that they needed a jury of six and one or two alternates. The third one, the last of the morning, required 40 people, so I assumed that meant a 12-person jury and about eight alternates. When I got home I looked it up on the clerk’s website, and there was a life felony trial for robbery with a firearm, so I assume that was the big one. Found out later in the week that he was convicted, but there were only six people on that jury, so now I don’t know why they needed 40 at once.

After that, nothing until after lunch. There is a café in the building run by a caterer with the intriguing name “La Familia,” but the line was so long I just grabbed something out of the snack machine.

After lunch we waited and waited, then they finally called 14 more people. But about an hour later, our friendly clerk came on, jokingly asked if we were all awake, and then told us to go home, and she didn’t want to see us again for at least a year (a jury selection rule – if you show up, you can’t be called for another year).

That, apparently, meant that some cases were settled by a change of plea or, if they were civil, a settlement.

All the choices of panels are made randomly, and evidently the computer didn’t like me. But at least I was there, and that’s what makes the system work … people need to be there to give justice a choice of who will decide the fate of those on trial.

So if you get a jury summons, don’t be looking for excuses to get out of it. Go ahead down there and serve. Remember, what you feel is routine and boring is actually helping determine the future of someone facing charges.

Just remember to bring something to read, but, sadly, not a newspaper.


Jim Clark is the editor of the South Marion Citizen. He can be reached at 352-854-3986 or editor@smcitizen.com.