THE words ``must serve'' were stamped on my jury duty summons with the finality of a jail sentence. There would be no more excuses, no escape, and, probably, little fun. Jury duty never comes at the right time. Invariably, it intrudes either on a long-planned vacation, or a big project at work. For the last two years I had been winning at the game of civic duty dodge. The day arrived when I ran out of excuses, and ``deferrals.'' After stiff-arming the courts five times, the ``must serve'' order landed with the thud of a judge's gavel. It was time; two weeks of torpor awaited. Few enter the criminal court jury room at 100 Centre Street with the illusion of re-creating the drama of the movie classic ``Twelve Angry Men.'' There's no confusing the central jury room with a Hollywood-style tense courtroom, even during the legal profession's autumn high season.
Bleary-eyed, unshaven, and ornery, we the jury slouched on hard, wood benches or upholstered seats covered with more coffee stains than fabric. Worn tweeds and baggy corduroys had replaced the usual workaday uniforms. Each morning, I rushed downtown ... to wait. And wait. Boredom hung thickly in the air, along with the stale odor of disinfectant. People's faces were barely visible as noses plunged into the morning paper of choice, or plastic cups of black water pretending to be coffee. Some snored away the morning hours. We were captives, not unlike the accused we would eventually judge.
Slowly, an odd familiarity crept into the morning routine. During roll call, I grew accustomed to hearing names like Aphrodite, Flossie, Rubic, and Lourdes roll by like stops on a commuter train. Ethel honked out the names with all the tenderness of a drill sergeant. She enforced the jury room rules like a testy librarian. Fortunately, she had a teasing sense of humor: ``Jurors, you can come closer, we don't bite.'' Ethel had become our den mother, and we obeyed her - or else. She had taken control of our lives: when to get up in the morning, when to arrive, when to eat lunch, how long to take, when to stop gabbing, and when to leave. Not since grade school did someone shuffle my daily schedule with such authority. None of us dared rebel.
Suddenly, all that was comforting about Jury Room 1517 vanished in the spin of a lottery basket. ``Andrew Marton, please pick up your things and walk into the room to my left,'' Ethel ordered. My jury world shrank as 60 of us were escorted down a dim corridor to a courtroom. As the court's oak, double doors swung open and the witness stand came into view, some of my smug lackadaisical attitude dissolved. Very quickly, I was one of 14 (12 regular jurors and two alternates) selected to sit on an assault case.
Before I could decide whether to be flattered or insulted at being chosen so quickly, the prosecution called its first witness. The evidence was Perry Mason touchable: a Mace gun, a knife, several instant photos of the slashed plaintiff and the bruised defendant. With each witness, I strained my ears and eyes for a clue of guilt or innocence. My knuckles turned white as my hands clutched the chair. Was that a tear rolling down one witness's cheek? Isn't he looking at his lawyer too often? My forehead plowed new furrows as I strained to pick out inconsistent versions of the crime. Soon, my concentration wrapped around the case, shutting out almost all other thoughts. I no longer noticed the commotion of spectators filing in and out of the room or the court guard snoozing in a corner. I had never listened so intently before.
Nor did I pay much attention to the 13 other men and women who crowded into the jury room every morning. In fact, no one said much of anything to each other. What was there to say except to speculate on when the putty-colored walls of our jury room were last painted and why they couldn't fumigate the smell of sweat, urine, and varnish that perfumed our 20-by-12 foot room?
There we were, 14 strangers: nine women and five men, ranging in age from mid-20s to late 50s, white, black, Hispanic, Oriental, your average ``I Love New York'' chorus. On the judge's orders, we couldn't talk about the only thing we had in common: the trial. At first there was silence, and plenty of reading. My eyes rarely strayed from Anne Tyler's prose. Another juror was buried inside an E.M. Forster paperback. A third licked her pencil while doing the crossword puzzle. There were the fidgeters and the pearl strand players. Shy morning ``hellos,'' launched like balloons, led nowhere. In our quiet haven, time metronomed away. At lunch time, we took separate revolving doors outside.
The suspense at the trial was matched by the quiet speculation as to who would break the ice back in the jury room. A crack, as wide as a smile, emerged with the picture of a family pet. His brawny name, ``Rocky,'' and mutt stock made us all laugh. Unprompted, another juror continued the pet show-and-tell. Stories of a rabbit, a chow chow, even a cockroach-eating lizard, were offered like tokens between two suspicious tribes. The conversation began to dribble with talk of the Yankees (``They're out of it,'' moaned one.), Lotto strategies (``Who's got yesterday's number?'' asked another) to why Bobby was back on ``Dallas.''
Identities soon came up for air. There were names to learn: Jane, Bill, Francesca, Bob, Susan, Raquel, Claudio, and Colette. And professions to discover: printing, theater, journalism, academia, art. Once-private habits became shared property, exposed to judgment and sympathy.
As we worked toward a verdict, more personal snapshots were passed around. Several confessed to having been assaulted and the sheer terror of the experience. Sorting through the case's numerous contradictions, some tempers flared. ``Why won't someone answer my question?'' insisted a woman bent on clarifying the law regarding using a knife in self-defense. Body language was one response as one juror paced, arms folded tightly around her. Another juror, before casting her vote, curled up in a fetal position of thought. Another buried his head in his arms.
The jury had a common struggle to arrive at a unanimous verdict. What I took for granted - that any accused man is presumed innocent until proved guilty - resonated with greater force than I had ever appreciated. We all had opinions, gut feelings, and armchair theories, but we were bent on resisting the easy bait of emotion. Over 10 hours, we sifted through the shards of evidence, the transparently biased testimony. We had to remind ourselves that if the prosecution left any ``reasonable doubt'' about the man's guilt, we were obliged to find him innocent. As we tried to convince each other, the intimacy inside our room grew. I had never listened more closely, nor expressed myself more carefully, to another person than when I was called upon to explain my reasons for my vote.
IF I dreaded the inevitability of a jury summons, I grew to value my new friends from the jury. It wasn't so much the minutes spent laughing at pictures, or learning that Raquel hated toasted wheat. Those enticing details paled next to the common responsibility we all shared. Our decision - a unanimous verdict of not guilty - affected a man's life.
At the risk of sounding corny, jury duty allowed me to participate in a process of decisionmaking that, more than 200 years ago, led to a series of laws ``we hold dearly.'' In essence, it was a chance to see democracy work in its purest form by assembling 12 strangers and allowing them to judge one of their own with the laws shared by all. It was fitting, then, that after reaching our unanimous decision, someone whispered, ``It works! God bless America.'' We all nodded and 12 friends filed slowly back into the courtroom.