Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Jury Duty Story

It came up on Friday that one of my coworkers would likely be out for jury duty tomorrow, Monday. Hearing about jury duty always takes me back to my jurying experience, so I thought I would share my mildly embarrassing experience.

It was St. Louis, 1999. I was working at B. Dalton at the time. I hated working at the mall, so when I got the jury duty notice, it wasn’t the annoyance that it usually is. I got called in on the second or third day of the week. I showed up as per instructions at 8am and sat around on uncomfortable benches, waiting to be called. I can’t remember what I was reading at the time, but I’m pretty sure I brought something large. Maybe Les Miserables?

Anyway, lunchtime came and went. I was finally called up (along with a lot of other people) sometime after 1pm. I marched into a courtroom with probably 50 other people, one of whom, Colleen, I already knew from my wife’s job.

We got the first bit of “good news” immediately: We were informed that this civil case could take up to two weeks to try. They asked that people who couldn’t be away from their jobs that long to come before the judge in her chambers and give their excuses. Then they gave a long list of things that didn’t qualify as good excuses. Basically, unless you either owned your own business, were a doctor, or had a short-tempered pimp, you couldn’t get out of jury duty.

Then more waiting in benches even more uncomfortable than the first. Finally, after letting a handful of possible jurors go, the actual selection process began. The lawyers began by giving us some very general information about the case: It involved a lawsuit against the gas company by a woman who was horribly injured in a gas explosion. Starting at the front of the list (the 12 people already sitting in the jury booth), they began asking questions. They weeded out people who had been involved in lawsuits against utility companies, and people whose family members had suffered horrible burns, and people who generally thought the utilities people were out to get them. (One guy in particular tried to convince the attorneys that he really wanted to stick it to the man. I think they let him go.)

I had no excuses. I ended up on the jury, and Colleen ended up as an alternate. By that time it was early evening, so they sent us home and told us to come back at 9:00 the next day (which means I got to sleep in a little).

The trial began the next morning with opening statements. The plaintiff was a woman who had been preparing her father’s house for sale after he died. She went into the basement through a pair of storm doors and her husband followed behind her. When she tugged on the cord to turn on the hanging light, the spark lit a mass of gas that had built up in the basement after a gas line coming into the house had cracked. The husband, who was only a step or two into the basement, was blown out onto the yard and suffered relatively minor injuries. The wife, who was much farther down and at the heart of the explosion, didn’t fare so well.

According to the defense, the gas line broke in a spot that was beyond the point that the gas company was responsible for. It was a horrible accident, but it was out of their hands.

The first witness was the husband, who described in horrid detail what had happened that day at the house, from their first arrival until his wife was writhing in agony on the lawn, screaming while the neighbors hosed her down. Now, I’ve been called squeamish before. I prefer empathetic, or even empathic. His story disturbed me. I knew I was going to need a light lunch that day.

Next up was the wife. She had a horribly disfigured, scarred, and asymmetrical face. She had these lumps on her back where doctors had inserted balloons to stretch the skin for a skin graft. Her story picked up after the explosion, explaining how she felt as the flesh burned from her body, how she wished she would just die instead of having to feel so much agony. Then she went on to discuss the painful surgeries and the even more painful rehab, all in unbearable detail.

And I do mean unbearable. As her story went on and on, my head and my stomach conspired against the rest of me. Eventually, I couldn’t take it any longer. In the middle of her testimony, I interrupted:

“Excuse me, your honor, but I think I’m going to be sick.”

She bade me exit with all haste. I ran to the jury room and put my head between my legs. That’s how the remaining jurors found me soon after, when the judge ordered a recess.

Eventually I calmed down enough to stand. The bailiff told me that (gulp) the judge wanted to see me in the courtroom. I had no idea what to expect, what unknown rules of the courtroom I had violated, what my punishment might be.

The judge asked me if I would be able to continue. I told her I couldn’t if the testimony continued down the same path. It was just too much for me. Which was the truth.

So I was dismissed, and one of the alternates took my place.

I found out from Colleen that the case was settled out of court a few days later. I still wonder whether my outburst had any part in that eventual settlement.

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