I remember when I was young, and my parents would get their jury summons in the mail. “Oh man, this is the last thing I need,” Mom would say. Dad got out of it, being an ex-cop. Growing up, I realized most people avoided their civic responsibility. Wasn’t this illegal? It sounded like fun to me, sitting in the court room with all that excitement, seeing all the evidence, aiding in the decision of the defendant’s verdict.
I got summoned for jury duty in Ventura County when I was 18. I was excited. I was serving my country, or at least my county. Dad told me to bring a book, “you’ll be doing a lot of sitting around.” I sat on a cold wooden pew, gazing out the window, reading my book. At 4pm, a woman came out, “Thank you for your participation, you are now released.” Wow, just like that.
I escaped jury duty for another 14 years, until I got another summons in September 2000 – a murder trial in Marin County. The defendant was right there at the table, 5 feet away from me. He didn’t look like the murdering type, yet I looked at him as if he was already guilty.
I filled out a jury questionnaire form. The trial was set to begin on October 11th. Phew, I had travel plans to New York City then. They excused me.
A month later, my father was arrested for the murder of his strip club business partner. The tables had turned. My mom, sister and I sat through the jury selection for his trial. These strangers were going to hear intimate details about my family and decide the fate of my father’s life. His current sentence was the death penalty. Dad’s million dollar attorneys hired a jury specialist. “Believe us, it’s money well spent, she has a great track record,” they assured us.
The jury specialist wrote up a specific questionnaire to weed out any riff raff. I was blown away by the magnitude of excuses people had for getting out of jury duty – couldn’t understand English, acid reflux, a sick relative, work wouldn’t let them serve.
A doctor with a private practice said no one could cover for him. Out of all of these yahoos, I figured at least a doctor would be more professional. “Do you take vacations?” the judge asked. “Of course I do,” said the doc. “Well I’m sure you must find a way to get coverage then, right?” “Yes I do.” In the end, the specialist didn’t pick the doc anyway. Republican.
The foreman selected for Dad’s jury was a young woman. She reminded me a lot of myself. We’re in good hands, I thought. I smiled at her a couple of times.
Sadly, my father was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. As Dad’s verdict was read by the forewoman, my sister cried hysterically as the reporters snapped photo after photo of us. I could barely see with the flashes. The judge thanked the jurors for their time and dismissed them. Mom, my sister and I sat there. The jurors scurried by us as quickly as they could, with their heads down. So much for money well spent.
Last May, I received a jury summons in New York City. I told my friends, “I got a jury summons, I’m so excited!” “They’ll never pick you because of your dad,” most said. Why not? I wasn’t completely defendant-sensitive. Hell, I thought O.J. was guilty!
I was scheduled to report for jury duty on July 22nd, 2009. I had nightmares of my dad’s trial. I couldn’t sleep. The morning I arrived for duty I had butterflies in my stomach. I was the perfect candidate – smart, educated and knew the importance of being an unbiased juror.
I sat in the jury room as we waited for our names to be called. I looked around – people were talking, laughing, on their blackberries. I wondered if anyone else had a family member in prison for murder. I overheard people talking about how they get out of jury duty. I wanted to beat the shit out of those ignorant fools.
The court official came back out to read another list of names. I held my breath. “Woods, Laurel” she announced the last name. I grabbed my things and walked outside.
We were led to the court room and sat down. The judge was there, with the defense attorney, the prosecutor, and the defendant. The judge gave us instructions, “I’m bringing you up to the jury box in three groups.” I was in the second group.
The judge began by discussing the case, a drug deal, and our roles as potential jurors. Drug deal? Piece of cake. The judge and attorneys asked the group questions and dismissed some of the jurors. My group was next.
The judge went around to each of us, asked us our occupation, group affiliations and highest education. Pass. Next, he asked about prior arrests, or if we knew anyone in the NYPD or D.A.’s office. Pass.
The judge asked the group if anyone knew someone that spent or was currently spending time in prison or jail. My heart stopped. Some guy raised his hand, “When I was in college a guy in my dorm was arrested for a DUI and spent 2 nights in jail.” What a moron. “Do you think this will affect your ability to give this defendant a fair trial?” “No, I’m good.” “Thank you,” the judge responded.
“Anyone else?” I raised my hand. “My father is serving a life sentence in prison.” Every head in the room turned around to me. The court room had gone silent. I could hear the crickets clear out in the Bayou.
“What is his conviction?” The judge fumbled his words. I paused, “Murder.” Another bomb dropped. People turned their heads around even more, as if they were stretching at the end of a yoga class. “Where is he serving his sentence?” “In California,” I offered. “Do you feel that your father’s conviction will prevent you from being able to give this defendant a fair trial?” “No, I do not.” “Thank you.”
Next the attorneys each had a chance to ask detailed questions. The defense attorney singled me out right away. “Were you involved at all in your dad’s trial?” “Yes.” All of a sudden, I had flashbacks of being cross-examined by the bulldog prosecutor during my dad’s trial. He tore apart every phrase I had uttered in my testimony, trying to put words into my mouth. I had quickly learned to never offer more than what you’re asked.
“Can you elaborate?” She asked. “I sat through my dad’s jury selection, and his trial.” “Every day?” “Yes.” I was visibly shaking. “Did you have to testify?” “Yes.” I could only respond yes or no. “And you still feel that you can give my client a fair trial, given your dad’s situation?” “Yes I do.” “Thank you,” she looked at me unconvincingly.
After both attorneys finished, the judge read out the names to be dismissed. I wanted to be selected more than anything. “Laurel Woods,” my heart sank. Everyone stared at me with a look of sadness. I gathered my things, stood up, and walked out of the court room. Everyone else was trying to get out and I was trying to stay in. I felt rejected and was emotionally exhausted. They’ll never pick me.
Now, I’m a huge proponent for jury duty. Friends and co-workers tell me how they’re trying to get out of it and I proceed to rip them a new one, “Could be YOUR dad’s trial.” I’ve been permanently branded by my trial experience. I’ll never get picked for jury duty and I’ve accepted that. No one in my family will. And that’s too bad.
If only I had told the attorney my thoughts on O.J…
Next time I get a jury summons, I’m showing up to court with a tee-shirt that says “Pops In Slammer” so I can cut to the chase and save us all some time.
***Also, See Nathan Thornburgh’s post commenting on my post here: