My first call to jury duty was for a sensational murder but there is no way that I could have been a juror for that case – I had already formed an opinion of innocence.
This was January 1992 and was for the second murder trial of Carolyn Warmus, a woman accused of killing her ex-lover’s wife. The first trial had ended in a mistrial with a jury that was hopelessly deadlocked at 8-4 in favor of conviction and I had followed the news of that case by listening to the news and reading the papers; never thinking that my interest could disqualify me.
There must have been 200 people called in for that panel and they gave us a large questionnaire to complete. One of the questions asked was if I had followed the previous trial, had formed an opinion and would likely be unable to render an impartial verdict. I answered truthfully and was excused from that case but not dismissed from jury duty.
Fortunately, they were conducting other trials and they assigned me to a civil trial, one that involved a number of separate defendants and plaintiffs. The issue which needed to be resolved was who was responsible for the damages caused to stores in a shopping center when the local Saw Mill River flooded. I thought that this could be a piece of cake but was sadly mistaken.
On the first day of service, we went into a jury room and introduced ourselves to each other and did the usual small talk. We then were called into the courtroom, a rather small room compared to the one where the murder trial was to take place. The judge appointed someone as the jury foreman, explained to us the gravity of the situation, how we were expected to pay attention and not take notes and how important we were to the process. I lapped this all up, grateful to be doing my civic duty in spite of the economic hardship of my missing work.
The attorneys then addressed us and laid out the basis for their cases. What I remember more than anything is how each attorney seemed to take pains in telling us that this is real life and not some television drama. In other words, if we expected drama or soaring rhetoric, we were sadly mistaken. The attorneys were true to their words.
While the lawyers were addressing us, the judge interrupted and sent us out of the courtroom and back to the juror’s room. There we waited for a few hours, talking and wondering what happened. We were called back in and told that we should come back tomorrow at 9AM.
That morning one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs made a remark and all of a sudden, as if launched by a spring in their chairs, the four attorneys for the defendants rose in unison and said “I object”, and not surprisingly, it was sustained. I have no recollection of what was said but I thought that the reaction was comical, almost parody-like.
We listened to maybe another thirty minutes of activity before we were told to go to the juror’s room and wait to be called back. After lunchtime, we were back in the courtroom and had perhaps another half hour of “action” before being sent back. Later we went home with the same instructions – be there at 9AM the next morning.
The next morning when we entered the courtroom, the judge thanked us for our time and dismissed us. He then proceeded to ream all of the attorneys for having a case so poorly prepared that the trial could not go on. He suggested that they return to the drawing board. At that time, we learned that the case was over five years old and it really is astonishing how long things can drag out.
I cannot adequately express my disappointment in the system. I was looking forward to serving and doing my civic duty but also would not expect to spend less than 2 hours hearing the case and over 12 hours sitting in the juror’s room while the attorneys and judge conferenced. It soured me completely on the system, highlighting the imperfections and the wastes that occur.