I, the juror

EVERY once in a while I learn something, or think I do, and something I learned recently is that jury duty doesn't necessarily have to be a chore. It can also be a rewarding though serious experience. Well, most of the time. The important thing is not to let that official-looking letter intimidate you. All you are really going to find inside are instructions telling you when to report, including time and date, plus where to park near the courthouse without risking a traffic ticket.

Most jury assembly rooms (actually they are more like halls) are generally populated by anywhere from 50 to 200 people. The d'ecor isn't much, unless you are partial to the kind of plastic-upholstered furniture that is all the rage in bowling alleys. Most of the single chairs provided wouldn't quite make it in a fast-food restaurant, either.

Although jurors are generally asked to report each day by 8 a.m., you soon discover that the state employees who alternate taking roll call each morning almost never make it before 9. Most of the ones I had to deal with had as much trouble pronouncing Brewster and Stevens as they did Witkowski. This can be laughable if your name isn't any of the three previously mentioned.

It is also interesting to watch people stake out a certain area in the assembly room on the first day of arrival and never deviate from it. People can also be very inventive about where they clip their official jury badge, my personal favorite being the man who wore his on the front leather flap of a rather stylish loafer.

Entertainment while waiting for a jury call is marginal unless you happen to knit, play chess, or remember to bring along a good book. Otherwise there's fun with probably the first Scrabble game ever sold, a pile of out-of-date magazines, or a frazzled jigsaw puzzle of Cornwallis, the British Revolutionary War general, surrendering his sword to George Washington at Yorktown.

Forget any rights you think you might have to the assembly room television set, unless you are prepared to fight off 50 of the world's most dedicated daytime soap opera buffs. Playing the harmonica in mixed jury company is also frowned upon.

As a juror, I would have to describe myself as a slow starter. That is, the first time my name was drawn and I was ordered from the assembly room to the courtroom, the best I could do was capture one of two alternate spots after the 12 regular jurors had been picked.

This is not unimportant, however, because if one of the original 12 should have to drop out for any reason, it's something like baseball. The judge can suddenly make you his No. 1 pinch hitter.

And this is what happened to me, only under rather theatrical circumstances. We had all been seated and sworn in when a young lady in the first row of the jury box began sounding like the last act of ``King Lear'' with the volume turned up.

``Bailiff,'' ordered the judge in a firm but gentle voice, ``will you please see what is troubling juror No. 4?'' As the bailiff began his modest walk from the opposite side of the courtroom, the young lady in question suddenly stood up, threw both arms in the air as though she had just scored a touchdown for the Green Bay Packers, and exclaimed: ``I'm pregnant!''

The judge responded to this immediately by saying that he was indeed excusing her from the case and from further jury duty at this time. He also added that ``Mr. Elderkin will take your place.''

Since a shooting was involved, this was not a civil case but a criminal one. And in a criminal case, as the judge would later instruct us, the unanimous agreement of all 12 jurors is required for a conviction.

What made this particular case unforgettable to me and perhaps a few others was the identical last name of the defendant, the victim, the judge, the prosecuting attorney, and one of the state's key witnesses. It was Smith in its most popular spelling. The defendant and the victim also had the same first name, although their middle initials were different.

If there isn't a category for this particular situation in the Guinness Book of Records, I can only suggest that one be created immediately.

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