by Joelle Charbonneau
Almost two weeks ago, I did my civic duty and reported for jury duty at the Chicago Criminal Court building. I’m one of those strange individuals who can’t win a raffle or the lottery to save their soul, but every year without fail I get a jury duty summons. Normally, I watch the video on how to be a good juror, I type away on my laptop for a bunch of hours, eat almost inedible cafeteria food and go home without doing anything more exciting than watching some guy picking his nose in the corner.
This time I got called to be on a jury panel. Whoo hoo. Okay, this part was kind of exciting. After all of my jury duty visits to the courthouse (and yes, there have been many) I’d never actually made it into a courtroom. This was at least different and interesting. More interesting was being read the indictment. This was a murder trial. Wow. I felt like I was in an episode of Law and Order. Pretty cool stuff.
Funny, but once you step inside a courtroom time ceases to exist. Court time is different than regular time. It took 4 ½ hours to question 40 potential jurors. Some folks thought they were on Letterman and gave us lots of information about their love lives and their reading habits. (Male magazines were mentioned at least once…I wish I was making that up.) Some folks were quick and to the point. Others slept.
Nope. Not kidding. The woman next to me started snoring five minutes into questioning. Loudly. The prosecutor dropped his very large binder of papers to jolt her into awareness. That worked for about three minutes until she started snoring again. The defense attorney then leaned over and asked the prosecutor to drop his book again.
I have to admit that the byplay between to the defense attorney and the prosecutor during those snoring moments was interesting. Clearly, they got along. Not exactly the animosity that you often see portrayed by the two sides on television. They laughed every time she sounded like a buzz saw and raised their eyes at each other. Needless to say, that woman didn’t make it onto the jury. But I did. Not that I wanted to. I did try saying I was a murder mystery author. I even got questioned about my upcoming book and asked to give a blurb about the story….fun marketing, but it didn’t get me booted from the case.
What followed was three days of lots of waiting in the jury room followed by longer periods of time in the jury box. My fellow jurors and I arrived at noon and often didn’t see the inside of the courtroom until 3. We rarely left the courthouse before 6 or 7 p.m. (The last night was actually 1:15am, but that was after deliberations.) While I wasn’t happy about the delays or the long periods in the courtroom, I understood them. But more than one of my fellow jurors did not share my outlook. Every one of them took it as their duty to pay attention and reach a verdict, but more than one hated how long it took to question a witness. They were waiting for the rapid fire dialogue that you get on Law and Order and in the movies. They didn’t want the slow, have to connect each dot, have to verify each fact method that needs to be taken.
And that got me thinking about how false expectations were set by the fiction we see and read every day. So here’s my question to you: has the way our court system is portrayed in books, movies and on television hurt the judicial process as a whole? Do we expect the courtroom to be an exciting place filled with A-ha! and Gotcha moments? And if it isn’t what does that do to the defendants sitting on trial? Do we side with the defense when the prosecution fails to provide the entertainment we expect after watching TV on our living room couch? What do you think?
After this case, I personally think there is no less exciting place than the jury box in a courtroom during a murder trial. No matter if you are certain the defendant did or did not do the crime, you are the one that controls the next ten, twenty, fifty years of his or her life. It makes for great fiction, but in the real world, jury duty sucks.
(not) Produced by Dick Wolf