I returned home on a Sunday from a week in the Yucatan, and was ushered straight into a courtroom. I found in the quick contrast that jury duty in New Orleans has much in common with life in the jungle.
I know the process well, as this is actually my fourth go-round. I was one of three different sets of twelve citizens in criminal court who convicted two men of murder and one of rape. I was on a civil panel that was dismissed literally an hour before the start of what was projected to be an eighteen-month class-action trial, when the two parties settled.
But that was a while back. This time, the Jury Pool Clerk tells us that since the population and pool of jurors has been decimated post-Katrina, registered voters now have to serve a term for the courts every two years, rather than every five. And that since waves of violence have increased the need for trials, there are fewer people to try more criminals. Physicians, priests, and policemen, all once exempt from this service, must now participate.
I found that criminal trials are at least not boring, often bloody and macabre. The accused murderer in one of my earlier cases was wheel-chair bound, and sat on his front porch in his chair with a shotgun in his lap until the woman who supposedly stole his bottle of fortified wine came walking by. He rolled forward to gun her down, and then calmly went back into the house, to later plead himself the poor misjudged life-long cripple. An incredible journey of discovery followed, revealing, among other things, that he was paralyzed from a prior gunfight.
Civil District Court carries no diversions or intriguing narratives, but rather handles large, money-laden lawsuits, in the case at hand determining whether a man died from asbestos inhalation at his workplace or from his own extended ingestion of cigarette smoke. Federal Workplace Regulations, medical and scientific reports are stacked high on courtroom desks for reference. In the end, if fault is found, will be a further period to determine how much each of the seven defendants is to be held responsible.
Jury selection, with me a part of the first panel of potential jurors, started Monday and went on for nine hours, then was underway again as of 9am today. Why twelve people’s opinions were required, versus a solo judge’s expert decision, was not discussed. In this case an “ad hoc” judge, a retired adjudicator, had been requested to return to the bench, reinforcing that the trial is expected to take an extended period of time. Months.
Eighteen lawyers fill the room, and over 100 witnesses are listed as prepared to testify. Sixteen attorneys represent corporations and insurance companies. Two represent the plaintiff widow and her six middle-aged children.
To start the voir dire questioning, and select a suitable jury, the panelists are first subjected to extended boredom, a witness list recitation by the plaintiff’s lawyers, then faced with bullying and intimidation by attorneys for the defendants. Impeccably-dressed white male lawyers begin earning their corporate paychecks and massive hourly fees with extended bouts of repetitive questioning. The lead attorney decides that I am not submissive enough, and zeroes in on me, clad as I am in bright summer vacation apparel. I tell him I have lived with a lawyer for twenty-nine years, and at least know the basic rules.
The suits do not like this, and frown at my Hawaiian shirt.
I do not want to be locked in a room with these people for even a day longer. Though other prospective jurors seem quite interesting. The lively, outspoken woman sitting next to me in the jury box is named . . . Precious Slaughter. Ms Slaughter, that Rubenesque bundle of giggling ebony flesh, seems happily and appropriately disconnected from the somberness of legal mechanisms.
As an aside, Slaughter is actually a common name here. There is even a Slaughter, Louisiana. I can picture the elder Mrs Slaughter watching that darling girl pop into the world: “My, isn’t she Precious?” And so she is.
Twenty-two years later Precious seems unimpressed with the legal mechanism at hand, and tells me so in detail when we are sent to lunch. She makes me laugh.
But when we are brought back into the courtroom, she and I are both summarily dismissed. I give a spontaneous excited whoop. By way of reprimand, the judge solemnly points to the US flag behind his bench.
I can only salute and say: “Judge, I served.”
I did. Alongside Precious Slaughter.