Amendment 6 – Right to Speedy Trial, Confrontation of Witnesses. Ratified

12/15/1791.

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Let’s stipulate that jury duty is indeed a solemn responsibility and not something to be shirked for shirk’s sake. Let’s also stipulate it can be a mad making experience that may prompt some to–reasonably–run for the hills.

I didn’t shirk and I didn’t run and I answered questions truthfully and, likely to a fault, thoughtfully. And I was not selected for any juries.

Last week I completed a tour of jury duty service at the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court–10 days over 2 1/2 weeks. Only a couple times did I actively participate in a voir dire (the process whereby the prosecution and defense evaluate potential jurors), and both times I’m sure lawyers on both sides had cause to cut me loose.

Generally, prospective jurors in Orleans Parish spread their service over a month, going every Monday and Wednesday or every Tuesday and Thursday, until they reach 10 days. On a tip from my mother-in-law, a seasoned juror, I asked to serve my days consecutively, thus I went Mon-Tue-Wed-Thur two weeks in a row and Mon-Tue last week.

I did a lot of reading and learned how to use the video editing apps on my iPhone. This is my story.

 

Day 1–Monday

Jurors enter in a side door on the ground level of the courthouse (see above video), pass through a security checkpoint, and then pass through a parking garage, guided by lines, signs and arrows.

In a vast room packed tightly with seating, a couple hundred jurors cue at a long counter to sign their name on a clipboard and have the barcode on their forehead juror badge scanned. On a wall in that main room a digital red digit counts down from 12 to 0, indicating the number of courtrooms yet to determine if they will need a jury for the day.

Once checked in, the prospective juror is left to find a place to sit. In the extensive main room, a television blares, and that’s where most jurors quickly settle, through inertia, uneasiness with wandering the bowels of the courthouse, lack of awareness or interest in the other, more quiet rooms, or simply under the spell of the television.

I ducked back out by the elevators and across to an overflow juror room without a television. There I noted the presence of a few colleagues from the university where I work: a Chemistry prof, a Visual Arts prof, an archivist from the library. The last time I served on jury duty, in Feb. 2009, the library archivist also served, suggesting our fates are linked in some excruciatingly banal, bureaucratic way.

Judge Lynda Van Davis (Section B) conducted the brief juror orientation, speaking on a PA system in the main juror’s room (the sound worked intermittently in my room). She made a point of over-gleefully greeting us with a Goooood Monday Morning! She’s an attractive, energetic woman and her shtick is likable enough, which reminded me that, yes, in the state of Louisiana, we elect our judges. We’re not just jurors, we’re voters. She explained what to expect when we got called to a courtroom upstairs, emphasizing the importance of our service and the slow pace of justice.

Reading material? I’d loaded my Nook with a few new books, including Michael Lewis’ The Big Short. Takeaway for the day (p. 32):

In his youth, Eisman had been a strident Republican. He joined right-wing organizations, voted for Reagan twice, and even loved Robert Bork. It wasn’t until he got to Wall Street, oddly, that his politics drifted left …

“When you’re a conservative Republican, you never think people are making money by ripping people off,” he said. His mind was now fully open to the possibility. “I now realized there was an entire industry, called consumer finance, that basically existed to rip people off.’

That sentence struck me as deftly written.

The digital display counted down to zero and we were released for the day at 11:30.

Bonus: Some days around Noon an announcement goes out that the following names are to take their lunch break and return for such and such a time. Usually that announcement is followed with another one releasing the remaining jurors. Anticipation is thick during these announcements.

Day 2–Tuesday

The place was packed, the Tuesday-Thursday crowd. I bet people figure it’s best to get a Monday of work in so it doesn’t screw up the rest of the work week too much.

I kind of skipped out of the main room to the quiet overflow room. Packed, no available seats. Then a court staff person noticed my plight and a few others and led us to still another overflow room. I took one look at the packed quarters and turned on my heels. “No, thanks.” Annoyed, figuring I’d have to find a wall to lean against, already thinking it’d be something I could complain to people about, but the delightful court employee–yes, she was delightful, tall, sleek like a greyhound and efficient–led me to still another overflow room. I’ll call it the Executive Suite, a relatively small space but with desks and cushy office chairs and electrical outlets, even a certain degree of breathing room between the seats, and only a half dozen or so people were there. Clearly, few prospective jurors knew of its existence. This would become my home base. (The room, fellow jurors, if you are unfamiliar with it, is near the elevators. Just go out the door that leads to the parking garage by the elevators and walk straight across the drive. The door is unmarked, if I’m remembering correctly.)

Reading takeaway for the day: Michael Lewis’ The Big Short (p. 223):

This new regime–free money for capitalists, free markets for everyone else–plus the more or less instant rewriting of financial history vexed all sorts of people, but few were as enthusiastically vexed as Steve Eisman. The world’s most highly paid financiers had been entirely discredited; without government intervention every single one of them would have lost his job; and yet those same financiers were using the government to enrich themselves. “I can understand why Goldman Sachs would want to be included in the conversation about what to do about Wall Street,” he said. “What I can’t understand is why anyone would listen to them.”

Released around Noon.

Day 3–Wednesday

My name was called, 40 of 50 I think, for a trial in Judge Lynda Van Davis’ Section B courtroom. The defendant was charged with aggravated burglary, two counts of kidnapping, and second degree murder. In Louisiana a second degree murder conviction means life in jail. The death penalty isn’t in play.

I sat in that courtroom about six hours listening to the first group of 20 prospective jurors being questioned in the voir dire; I was in the on-deck pool. Of the first group, only a half dozen or so jurors were selected and the rest of us were released around 5 p.m. after being told to be prepared to return to her courtroom Monday morning to pick up where we left off. The assumption was we were all on the Monday/Wednesday schedule. I checked with courthouse staff and they said I had Thursday off–and that I would get credit for the day. Day 4 was over before it began.

I was feeling lucky.

I took the streetcar home and at Canal I had to transfer to the St. Charles Avenue line. While waiting for the green streetcar, I took out my iPhone and did the goofy slow circle required to make a panorama photograph. I was at the streetcar stop at Carondolet and Canal. You’ll notice that a figure is crouched beside the Lady Foot Locker …

 

That crouching man stood a few moments later and angrily accosted me. He accused me of working for the FBI. Dan Rather came to mind (“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”). I also remember thinking I didn’t want to have to deal with the police. This old scrawny old man wasn’t going to hurt me, and I wasn’t going to fight him. I reacted as I might to a snarling stray dog: I stomped my foot and made a loud noise to shoo him away. Then I made like I was going to call 911 with the phone I still held in my hand. He circled and took a swing, catching me in the back as I tried to spin away. Then a couple middle age black women who had been waiting for the streetcar came to my defense and got between me and my attacker. One woman in particular made a point to yell at him that I hadn’t done anything to him and he should leave me alone. He finally gave up and walked up Canal. The women busted out laughing when I told them I was coming from jury duty. I said it like a punchline because it was.

Day 5–Monday

I signed and checked in as I had done the other days, as we all do when asked to sign and check-in, prepared to be called up to Judge Van Davis’ courtroom. But the call never came. (I later learned that the defendant had accepted a plea: 50 years.)

Many jurors, 100, 150, were given a questionnaire to fill out for a capital murder case. I wasn’t. I assumed I hadn’t been given one because I’d filled out one for a capital case the last time I had served jury duty a couple years ago (for the Vazquez murder trial) and back then I indicated I opposed the death penalty. Period. Maybe it was all on file? I have no idea, they don’t explain these things and I didn’t feel like asking. It might be a good example of the kind of magical thinking one engages in when one doesn’t know what the hell is going on. I remember at one point a prospective juror confided in me during a voir dire (and yes, I’m indulgently italicizing that every time) that she thought the blond woman taking notes on the other side of the courtroom might be a juror selection expert hired by the defense (a la Court TV); later I learned the blond woman worked for the judge.

I was prospective juror #42 of 50 for an aggravated rape case in Judge Laura White’s Section A courtroom. While cued outside, I noticed a sign:

I pointed at the fire marshal’s notice and asked the court employee charged with shepherding us into the courtroom, “Is that for show?”

She issued a sour nod.

There were probably 80 people in the courtroom.

Councilman Oliver Thomas of 'Treme' fame recently got out of jail after serving time for corruption.

Twenty jurors participated in the voir dire at a time, which placed me in the third group to be questioned, but after several hours and through attrition from prospective jurors getting bounced for saying things like they would vote not guilty no matter what, I made the second group.

Aggravated rape–that’s sex with a child 12 or under (Louisiana law sensibly says a child cannot consent to have sex). Life in prison.

At one point with the first group, the prosecutor asked potential jurors to rate the credibility of the NOPD on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being highest. A few 8’s, then a 20-something black woman said 6. The four middle age white jurors after her all complained about the question and insisted they would treat an officer with the NOPD as they would any witness. After them, a 20-something black man said 5. Three of the four white jurors were bounced, and both of the black jurors made the cut.

Later, when the defense attorney asked a question that the prosecution objected to and the judge sided with the prosecution, the defense attorney complained that the prosecution had been allowed to ask the police rating question, which he took to be analogous. Judge White said simply, “You didn’t object.”

I told the court that I had misgivings about the conduct and professionalism of the New Orleans Police Department. I probably didn’t say it that succinctly or clearly, but that’s what I was trying to convey. It seemed like a civic responsibility, yet I saw time and again, jurors said next to nothing about the troubles associated with the New Orleans Police Department. It reminded me of the time I briefly lived in Peoria, Illinois, and how the noxious rotten egg smell emanating from an ADM plant dominated the city but hardly anyone had anything to say about it.

The prosecutors seemed to take note of my mention of the Justice Department’s recent scathing report about the NOPD. Here’s a taste (and a link to the PDF):

“The prevalence and nature of the force-related misconduct we observed indicates that NOPD officers’ use of unreasonable force in violation of the Constitution is widespread. The incidents of unreasonable force we reviewed reflected generally poor tactics and lack of adherence to all use of force policies, rather than problems with force of a particular type or in particular circumstances. Moreover, within NOPD, unless there is an injury requiring medical attention, there is little to prevent an officer from not reporting force, and it does in fact appear that a significant number of force incidents are unreported at NOPD. We noted particular problems in some areas, including the use of less lethal force, particularly against restrained persons; the use of canines; and the use of deadly force.”

For more, here’s the PDF.

The defense attorney asked me if I heard testimony suggesting the victim had had sex with other partners, would I be more or less inclined to find the defendant not guilty? That may not be exactly how he said it, but that’s the gist of it.

I noted that according to the law, a child cannot consent to sex, and the fact that the victim may have been raped by others would not have any bearing on determining the guilt or innocence of his client.

Around 5 p.m. I learned I would not be serving on this jury and was released for the day.

A jury later took an hour to find the guy guilty. (That story is worth the click, by the way–the victim’s aborted fetus turned out to be the clinching piece of evidence, though the NOPD managed to lose it for a couple years.)

Day 6–Tuesday

Released by Noon. Time for another iPhone movie. It’s inspired by crossing Broad Street in the morning.

Day 7–Wednesday

Released at 11:30. Reading takeaway of the day, from Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker (p.183):

The most important call of all came. It was from the Human Piranha. “I heard you sold a few bonds,” he said. I tried to sound calm about the whole thing. He didn’t. He shouted into the phone, “That is fuckin’ awesome. I mean fuckin‘ awesome. I fuckin‘ mean fucking awesome. You are one Big Swinging Dick, and don’t ever let anybody tell you different.” It brought tears to my eyes to hear it, to be called a Big Swinging dick by the man who, years ago, had given birth to the distinction and in my mind had the greatest right to confer it upon me.

Day 8–Thursday

Released at Noon. Reading takeaway of the day, trumpeter Leroy Jones in Traditional New Orleans Jazz (p. 88) recalling the Fairview Brass Band:

We had great camaraderie between us guys in the band–even the new fellows who came later. It was almost like immediate family with us. We were kids, and we were having fun too. The most important thing is that all of us loved to play music–we would play for nothing. We didn’t have to get a paper route; we didn’t have to shine shoes; and my dad didn’t have to give me an allowance anymore if he didn’t want to because I’d go out on a weekend and make me 40-50 bucks! [Laughs heartily.] For a 13-year-old in 1971 that was good bread. So we got accustomed to making money quite early.

Day 9–Monday

Released in the afternoon because I only had one more day to serve and the trial looked to be a two day affair. Judge White seemed surprised by the arrangement, but after me two more jurors left on the same account.

Reading takeaway for the day from Martin Amis’ novel “House of Meetings” (p.10):

My peripheral vision is ringed by crouching waiters, ready to pounce. There are two reasons for this. First, we have reached the penultimate day of our voyage, and by now it is massively established, aboard the Georgi Zhukov, that I am a vile-tempered and foul-mouthed old man—huge and shaggy, my hair not the downy white of the unprotesting dotard but a jagged and bitter gray. They also know, by now, that I am a psychotic overtipper. I don’t know why. I was from the start, I suppose, a twenty-percenter rather than a ten, and it’s climbed steadily since; but this is ridiculous

 

Day 10–Tuesday

I was not among the 50 jurors called to Judge Camille Buras’ Section H court. I was not among the 50 jurors called to Judge White’s Section A court. I was juror #29 of 30 for Judge Benedict Willard’s Section C court. But as we cued to go in, a plea agreement was reached and we were sent home for the day.

I handed in my badge. I sent a text announcing my release at 12:12.

 

 

 

 

 

Derek Bridges lives in New Orleans, trading in words and pictures. A carpetbagger of long standing, he grew up in the top right corner of IL and later went to college in the middle cornfield part. He has also lived in MS and FL, for educational purposes only, and was diasporized for a time in TX.

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