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Judgment Day

Head Cases: You don't want to act like a dummy if you expect to be selected for a high-profile criminal trial.

Jury duty forces our intrepid good citizen to balance civic duties with dishing bestseller dirt

By Kelly Luker

If it hasn't happened yet, chances are it will. You empty the mailbox and there it sits, coiled like a red-ribboned snake between the National Enquirer and the Lillian Vernon doodads catalog. You draw back in alarm, but too late--you've been summoned for jury duty.

With about 1,200 jury summonses flying out of the county building each week, the odds of being chosen are much, much greater than winning the Lotto and, frankly, the experience is far less exhilarating. In fact, if you're under 75 years old and have anything that resembles a life, that envelope most likely represents a big pain in the butt.

Or, that's the way it was before The Trial. You know which one I mean--the one where jurors, potential jurors and even dismissed jurors had six-figure book deals long before the Juice accomplished the most astounding end run the field of justice has ever witnessed.

So it was with mixed feelings that I opened my personal invitation to be a participant in Truth, Justice and a possible blockbuster novel. The routine is always the same--upon receiving an invite, the lucky citizen is required to call in every night for a week to determine whether the courts will require his or her presence the following day. According to Santa Cruz Jury Commissioner Deanie Lindgren, the odds are about three out of four that he'll need you.

Bring a good book (may I suggest Madame Juror or Reasonable Doubts) and prepare to kick back, because the name of the game in jury selection is wait, wait, wait. For those of us with the attention span of a wart hog, it can be excruciating. To keep from leaping out of those godawful rock-hard pews and running screaming into the street, you might want to ruminate on a few deep questions.

Like, what does the judge wear under those robes? If chosen, how will I blow my five bucks a day earned for this civic duty? And, where are the clowns who really should be on trial--the demented fool that invented voicemail, the drivers who leave their turn signals on and, well, everyone who's managed to annoy me in the last six months?

Suitability Quotient

Groups of 16 are called to the jury box, asked to take a seat, then individually grilled by both the prosecutor and defense attorney for suitability. What follows for the audience is a brief show-and-tell of your life: occupation, marital status, hobbies and previous run-ins with the law. My group was low on serial murderers but heavy on gardeners, inexplicable for a town with so many horticulturally challenged yards and once nicknamed "Murder Capital of the World."

This naked vulnerability is a little sore spot for those of us who had made it this far in previous jury summons, only to be jilted for who knows what reason. In my case, it could have been the tie-dyed caftan that billowed about me (it was the '70s, okay?), or the paperback I kept surreptitiously trying to read in between those dumb attorney questions, but suffice it say I didn't make the cut. As they say, many are called, few chosen.

Vowing to beat the odds this time around, I wore sensible pumps and tried my hardest to act like a grownup. It worked. Proving the adage that justice is indeed blind, I was picked.

It was both good news and bad news when we jurors were told the trial would last only three days. Although I could then rush back to work where I make roughly double what jury duty pays a day, it did not bode well for the book proposal. As dreams of making my millions the old-fashioned American way--capitalizing on another's misfortune--began to fade, it was time to focus on the business ahead. And, contrary to popular opinion, the main order of business is not keeping the eyelids propped open.

Even for the most cynical and jaded, something magical happens when we win a seat in the jury box. Suddenly, we have been moved from the comfort of the peanut-gallery and armchair-quarterback position of the legal system, where we whine and complain and contemptuously judge. Now, we are the legal system.

The two sides took turns, using everything they had to prove the defendant--in this case an alleged hit-and-run drunken driver--guilty or innocent. The defense attorney was good, damn good. He captured the jury's attention each day by changing his lapel pin. No big deal, you say? Try sitting in a straight-backed chair watching someone gesture and talk for eight hours and see what holds your attention, pal.

And he actually introduced a smidgen of doubt as to the accused's guilt, a remarkable feat since his case was so weak that if it wandered out on a beach it would have gotten sand kicked in its face.

The prosecutor took to the floor--no lapel pin, but interesting shoes--and mopped up the details before both lawyers rested, allowing the jury to take the evidence to the chambers.

Full Court Press

Those who have seen Twelve Angry Men --or The Trial That Dare Not Speak Its Name, for that matter--know that this is the most crucial moment of the proceedings. It is the time to form simmering animosities against one another, indulge in name calling, slip into sexual escapades and maybe bribe the bailiff. Disappointingly, we were not sequestered in the Omni Hotel suites like the gang in Los Angeles.

Of course, this may have been due to the paucity of Omni Hotels near the Watsonville courthouse. Instead, we got a little conference room with a blackboard and instructions to hash it out until we came up with a verdict.

Opportunities for hanky-panky were grim with this crowd, and we all reached a decision before I could hurl my favorite epithets, burst into tears or be rushed out on a stretcher after a spectacular breakdown.

The jury filed back in and allowed the foreperson to deliver the guilty verdict to the less-than-surprised defendant. Although the pride of answering my call to civic obligation was dampened with the weight of my now ruined bestseller (Madame Juror: Love's Hot Justice), I'd have to say the experience was worth it. There was the pleasure of being greeted each night by the Luker clan with, "Well, did you hang 'em or fry 'em?" And, there was a certain warmth (or chilling realization) that the courts rely on my wisdom.

Like the judge lady said, there ain't a lot of times when you gotta serve your country during peace- time. As far as obligation, it beats dressing up in cammies and crawling on your belly through steaming jungles, risking your life in godforsaken lands.

Now there's an idea. Maybe, I'll join the Green Berets. There might be a bestseller in that.

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From the June 20-26, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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