A photojournalist’s look inside the courtroom

“Jury Service is a solemn obligation of all qualified citizens. Excuses from the discharge of this responsibility will be granted only for reasons of compelling personal hardships.” (Jury Summons, Halifax County Superior Court)

Compelling personal hardships, indeed. Judging from the hushed conversation outside of Courtroom 1, a number of my fellow jury-duty brethren failed to notice or simply glossed over that two-sentence section of their jury summons.

As I sat inside the spacious confines of the Halifax County Courthouse anxiously awaiting the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of civic duty and moral responsibility, I began to notice a subtle undertone of defiant, bleary-eyed impatience emanating from many of those gathered.

While I listened to round after round of acidic, complaint-laced volleys careen about the hallowed halls, I recalled the swelling of pride in my own breast when I received my summons in the mail: Phrases like “solemn obligation” and “time-honored duty” sprang to mind even before I read them off the page clasped in my trembling hand.

I’m also proud to admit to a more, perhaps unsavory, reason for showing up that morning with a smile on my face and some zip in my stride — the thrill of good old American-style voyeurism. Nothing to be ashamed of here folks, I’m a curious boy and I do happen to be in a profession that encourages such activities.

Alas, my strangely upbeat demeanor would not survive its infancy this gray, fated morn.

“I’ve already lost $200 this morning.”…   “treat us like a bunch of damn cattle”… “I’m fixin’ to get out of this real quick”…   “like I ain’t got better things to be doing.”

What was wrong with these people? To hear comments like these, and far worse, come from the mouths of the hard-working backbone of this nation nearly crippled me with sorrow.

Still, I was somewhat comforted by the knowledge that the foulest among them would be sifted out and sent packing once the selection process had run its course.

Though my morning had gotten off to a less than auspicious beginning, I was heartened to see the approach of a jovial, bespectacled bailiff. “Anybody here for jury duty?” he asked with an infectious grin, only to be greeted by murmurs of impatient sarcasm.

After being coaxed, with moderate success, into a single file line, we were handed slips of paper and pencils; instructed to give our name, address, contact information, etc.; and led into the courtroom.

A brief note about courtroom benches: They were obviously not designed for the purpose of providing comfort or relief to the lower regions and spinal area of the human body. Whether this was done in an effort to keep potential jurors and spectators awake and lively or simply to stress that a criminal court is no place you ever want to be under any circumstances, I can’t say.

What I do know is that the hard, graffiti-infested seats were not improving the moods of my fellow summoned citizens.

“I need to talk to somebody?” one especially vocal member whispered, “I tried to call last night but all I got was a damn recording. I’ve already lost $200 this morning … “

I tried to put these concerns out of my head as I listened to the Clerk of Courts announce that all jurors must be free from past felony convictions, chronic incompetence and mental illness. At this point everyone, including myself, began eyeing his neighbor closely, searching for that tell-tale sign of past criminality and madness.

Further speculation was cut short, however, by the announcement that we would be required to watch a video overview of the jury selection process. I admit to being less than thrilled by this, expecting as I did the type of drab, generic instructional film so familiar from middle school history classes.

My apprehension instantly vanished once the video began and the face of none other than the late, great Charles Kuralt beamed forth from the screen.

“You should consider your work here today as jury ‘service’ rather than jury ‘duty,'” he explained.

Right on, Charlie! Tell me more.

“Jury service is an important obligation of all qualified citizens.”

“There’s no special training required, just good old-fashioned common sense.”

Who could argue with that? I could sense the mood growing noticeably less bleak — a few people were even smiling.

“Your service is part of our nation’s democratic tradition.”

Wow! Great line, Charlie. I could sense a wave of pride swelling across the room.

“Your service to the court will far outweigh any monetary compensation offered.”

Whoops … not a good note to end on. It’s never a good idea to remind middle class, hardworking citizens that their efforts aren’t being appropriately compensated — brows furrowed, heads sank, unease reentered the room.

Nevertheless, I was pumped —   ready, willing and able to do my civic duty for Mr. Kuralt and the fine citizens of Halifax County.

Now came the moment many of the grumbling citizens had been waiting for — a chance to voice their reasons and various excuses for being set free from servitude.

Anyone with an emergency or health-related issue was instructed to line up at the front of the court and voice their concerns to the Clerk of Courts.

Five or six potential jurors eagerly scampered to the front and put forth their various excuses. While I couldn’t hear their voices, I could make out the disappointed expressions and several of the responses from the Clerk.

“No sir, you can’t be excused simply because you don’t want to be here.”

“No ma’am, your schedule next week does not have any effect on your service today.”

Apparently some did have legitimate excuses, because several people came skipping back down the aisle and exited quickly through the swinging doors, as if they wanted to quit the premises before someone discovered their treachery.

Next came the oath-swearing portion of our service. Bibles were lined up by the jury box and lawyers tables and, after a few ungodly souls took their oaths without biblical assistance, the rest of us marched to the front, raised our right hands and pledged to do our utmost in the service of honor and justice.

Fulfilling that civic duty in a somewhat economically-depressed county requires a few cost-cutting measures, however, and since there clearly weren’t enough Bibles for everyone, I raced to the front and placed my left palm firmly on a worn, nearly translucent Bible cover. I don’t mind sharing but I’m not rubbing fingertips on top of the good book with anyone.

After a 10-minute break, we reassembled and waited approximately 20 minutes for the various courtroom personnel, lawyers and judge to make their appearances. As the hardwood bench ground into my spine, I couldn’t help but sense the palpable tension playing about the room.

“Got us sitting here all day and the judge just comes in whenever he wants,” offered one solemn soul.

Eventually, the familiar court employees began filing in: The jovial bailiff, the stunning clerk, the court reporter with her alien-like mouth piece and finally, the plaintiff’s lawyer.

The assembled crew seemed quite pleased to see one another. A good deal of laughter and general merry-making was followed by a rather bizarre spectacle: The plaintiff’s lawyer held forth his hands in the direction of the court reporter and received a small dollop of hand cream in return. I’d never witnessed such a thing in a courtroom and was somewhat taken aback. Shuffling all those papers must be terribly hard on the hands, I suppose.

As the lawyer vigorously rubbed his parched skin, a sudden air of seriousness settled over the room. The laughter wilted, the smiles tightened, everyone stood a little straighter. Clearly the judge was lurking about.

Any lingering doubts flew from my head: I was ready, right now, to jump into the fray, to do my civic duty to the utmost of my ability.

“All rise for the honorable …” bellowed the bailiff.

I arose — heart pounding, palms sweating.

The judge emerged from her chambers and, with a regal nod of the head, instructed us to be seated.

“I would like to welcome you all here today,” she intoned in a majestic voice.

This was it! The culmination of a life-long dream. Jury service!

The judge smiled broadly, leaned forward toward the gavel and began her instructions.

“Your services will not be needed today. A deal was worked out in this case last night. Unfortunately, it was too late to call you. We decided it would be best to let you come in and go through the process. Your service has been fulfilled for the next two years.”

My heart whirled, my blood pressure sank. “Ohhh … that can’t be right,”I moaned. A yip of relief issued from the crowd as they stampeded toward the door.

In the dying bedlam, I was left, along with one other soul, sitting in the empty, chill room.

Gypped, wasted, used — these were the words that ran through my brain as I lowered my head and stared at the graffiti on the back of the bench in front of me. I was robbed of doing my time-honored civic duty by a foul, midnight- hour back-room deal! Unbelievable.

As I slowly gathered my spent frame and began to make my way toward the exit, I overheard the other lone gentleman sitting in front address the judge: “Will I get paid for my job? I’ve already lost $200 this morning … “

As I pushed my way through the door, I ventured a final glimpse at the man, arms raised in disbelief, the long ridges in the back of his head shaking sadly to and fro.

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