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I could’ve thrown it in the trash, but I didn’t. I filled out the form and mailed it in like a good little human. Next thing I know: blammo! I hit the jury duty jackpot and served five weeks on a semi-high profile death penalty case. Being face-to-face with the victim’s family every day as well as with a defendant whose fate rests in your hands, I didn’t really need any reminders of just how serious an obligation this was. I expected to be angered, depressed and creeped out by the trial. I did not expect, however, that it would end up being not only the crime itself but the prosecutors and some of my fellow jurors that would make me feel this way.
Truth be told, I have no one but myself to blame for getting into this situation in the first place. Quick Tip #1: when filling out the jury summons you receive in the mail, do not check the box marked “homemaker” just because you think it’s funny. Checking “homemaker” is a one-way ticket to Suckerville, aka the Long Trial Pile, where you’ll be joined by retirees, the unemployed and AT&T employees, who get unlimited jury duty pay.
In addition to ensuring that you’ll be eligible for the very longest of trials, checking “homemaker” can also prove rather humiliating when you’re being questioned in open court and are forced to admit that actually you are only “making a home” for yourself since you are childless and single. This bit of embarrassment may have worked to my advantage though, since I ended up being designated as an alternate. Phew!
My case involved Jim Fayed, a wealthy gold trader who was accused of the particularly brutal murder-for-hire of his estranged wife Pam in a Los Angeles parking garage. I read about this case when it happened in 2008 and I remember thinking that it seemed as if he probably was involved, but I was absolutely committed to giving the guy a fair shake. When the stakes are this high, i.e., a possible state-sanctioned execution, you’re gonna have to prove that shit to me.
Fortunately for the prosecution, they were able to prove that shit. Quick Tip #2: when you are arrested and under suspicion for murdering your wife and housed with a scum-bag, career informant, don’t be so afraid of looking gay that you don’t check the guy’s crotch for the wire. That’s right. We listened to a 3-hour, secretly recorded conversation between the defendant and his cellmate in which we actually heard the defendant patting down the informant to find a wire, yet avoiding the crucial junk area! Are you kidding me?! Had I been listening to this tape in a Magic Johnson Theater instead of a courtroom, I would’ve yelled out, “Look under his dick, dummy!” It’s pretty hard to be found innocent when they have you freely admitting to the crime on tape. I’m guessing that this is the one and only time that homophobia has actually benefited society in any way.
They had an airtight case, but were a couple other things about the prosecutors’ style that I found offensive and off-putting. Like during jury selection when they needed to make absolutely certain that we would all be able to issue a death penalty, and the lead prosecutor said, “Did you notice that when I mentioned “death” a hush fell over the room?” No, actually, I didn’t: because this isn’t a cocktail party, it’s a murder trial courtroom and it was pin-drop fucking silent in here before you even got out of your chair! Sorry, but telling me to notice something that didn’t happen sort of makes me hate you for being a shameless manipulator.
Think I’m being nit-picky? OK, well, how’s about having an FBI agent wheel in cases of gold bars confiscated from the defendant’s gold trading business, then ceremoniously unpacking and stacking the gold bars all over the prosecutors’ desk right in front of the jury box, and then having the jury pass one around so we can all touch and hold a gold bar. What is the purpose of this PT Barnum-like move? Did he think that the skin-to-gold contact would shoot an electric current deep into us, bringing to life our inner greed like a baby Frankenstein and make us think, “Holy shit, I would TOTALLY kill someone over this! They’re right: he IS guilty!” Kinda found it insulting. Oh well, I guess it was cool to hold an ingot...
And then there were the assistant DA’s unnecessarily omnipresent PowerPoint slides. Here are some actual quotes: “If Jim Fayed didn’t do it, who did? BATMAN?” Click: Batman slide. “The defense is offering you a buffet of explanations.” Click: buffet slide. Really?! The assistant DA’s favorite PowerPoint slide of all, though, was a red herring dropping down the screen on a string and then bouncing. He used this Monty Python-esque bit of goofery over and over and over again (mentally cue the sound effect: doy-oy-oyooiiinngg!) without regard for how sad or serious the current murder testimony was.
When you find yourself more disturbed by the tactics of the prosecution than by bloody crime scene and autopsy photos of the victim, something’s really wrong. But that wasn’t all that was wrong. I had the rather uncomfortable experience of having two other jurors kicked off the trial; jurors that obviously didn’t take their obligation to be fair as seriously as one might hope. Sorry, ladies, but when on Day 3 you’re going to rant to me about how the defense should not have the right to cross-examine witnesses (which is kind of a cornerstone of our goddamned legal system) and how you know the defendant is guilty because he’s not crying at the defense table, it is my obligation to turn you knuckleheads in.
This probably didn’t enhance the quality level of the jury panel, however, since one of the replacements was a fellow alternate named Monica who, according to other jurors, had “led a fascinating life.” Monica told anyone who would listen that while visiting Thailand, she had helped the FBI by finding their most-wanted man and received a $10,000 reward; she was also close friends with Muammar Gaddafi, who supposedly sent his personal driver to pick her up and bring her to his lavish parties; oh, and Monica was going to start her own television station when the trial was over. Fascinating life or pathological liar? You decide. (I know I have!) At least now Monica can add the truthful item “sentenced a man to death” to her list of fascinating life events. Although, perhaps in her retelling, she will claim to have been the judge.
Before you think that I couldn’t find a single bright spot in this five-week period of stress, sadness, and disillusionment, let me present to you Quick Tip #3. I can’t vouch for this in every city, but in LA when you are summoned for jury duty, do yourself a solid: get there early, go to the cafeteria, and order up a plate of their bacon. Courthouse bacon will blow your fucking mind!I would actually serve on a death penalty jury AGAIN just to get another crack at it. It’s that good.
Was $357.84 adequate payment for five weeks of stomach-churning stress, a lifetime of disillusionment, and an inability to ever again walk to my car in a parking garage without imagining myself being cornered between my car and the next car and slashed to death? I don’t think so. Not even when I factor in the sublime deliciousness of that courthouse bacon.