It’s doubtful he knew why we were laughing at him. He just stood there, holding his keys, as the metal detector beeped and flashed and the rest of us chuckled.
We were standing on the fourth floor of Hoapili Hale in Wailuku. Just out of the elevator, we were lined up behind that floor’s metal detector. It was really quite simple—you walk up, place your spare change, keys, wristwatch, cell phone and any other metal in these little cups, place the cups on an x-ray conveyor belt and then walk through the detector.
But this guy was having problems. He placed his keys and change and phone in the cup all right, but then he—for whatever reason—decided to carry it through the metal detector, which promptly went off, giving all the rest of us some much-appreciated laughs.
We were, after all, doomed.
There are few pieces of paper that strike more terror into the heart of an American than a Jury Summons. In school, we learn about the wonders of our legal system: placing the burden of proof on the State, the right of cross-examination of witnesses and evidence and, above all, the right to a public trial by a jury of our peers. And these concepts are reassuring, even if we haven’t read the latest on China or Myanmar.
Reassuring, that is, until the State decides that we’re now considered “peers.” Then we’re screwed.
Being a government document, the Summons itself isn’t exactly inviting, with its frequent use of words that are underscored or written in bold type, all caps, italics or all of the above.
“PURSUANT TO HAWAII REVISED STATUTES SECTION 612-19, YOU ARE HEREBY SUMMONED TO APPEAR FOR JURY DUTY,” read my summons, which assigned me to the Circuit Court of the Second Circuit, in Wailuku. “All jurors must call AFTER 5:00 P.M. ON FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2007. THE COURT WILL NOT INFORM YOU PERSONALLY ABOUT ANY CHANGES.”
Anyway, I called, and my courtroom was indeed going to be in session. So on Sept. 10, 2007 I put on long pants, nice shoes and a nice collared shirt—these acts were surprisingly difficult for me—and reported to Hoapili Hale so I could place my keys and cell phone into a small cup, walk through a metal detector and then, possibly, hear evidence and deliberate on a verdict. But first I had to get through the metal detector, which for some reason was placed directly in front of the elevator doors, making standing in line more than a little awkward.
* * *
A friend once told me he’d trade his right to have a trial by jury for never having to deal with jury duty again. His reasoning was that he figured it was “highly unlikely” that he’d wind up in court (I think he too casually dismissed the idea of civil litigation, but no matter) and that, even if he did, he trusted that the judge would be fair.
I tried not to roll my eyes too obviously.
Going to jury duty (some government officials prefer the softer sounding “jury service,” but the State of Hawai’i refreshingly embraces the word “duty”) was never a question for me. Sitting on a trial for more than a few days was going to wreck havoc with the paper, but I also knew there would be few sympathetic ears at the courthouse listening to that particular excuse.
Also gnawing at the back of my head was this line near the bottom of the summons: “FAILURE TO COMPLY AS HEREIN ORDERED MAY RESULT IN THE ISSUANCE OF A BENCH WARRANT FOR YOUR ARREST AND/OR OTHER PENALTIES AS PROVIDED BY LAW.” And I wasn’t alone in my concern, either.
“So what happens if you just, you know, throw the summons away?” more than one friend asked me when I told them I was called up for jury duty.
The language in the warning is certainly scary, but I waited until after my jury duty was over before calling Melvin Arakawa, the court administrator, and asking whether any of those harsh penalties actually happened to people who tossed their jury summons.
“Rarely,” he said. “I can’t recall that happening.”
Arakawa said that those who don’t respond to the first summons would get a second letter, and then a third—each increasingly threatening. Failing those, a judge could “force them to appear.” Still, Arakawa said the court didn’t set out to be harsh.
“People put the notice on the refrigerator, and then they forget,” Arakawa said of those who might just not show up to court. Those people would get a “mild chastising” and a rescheduled date of appearance.
Arakawa said he didn’t have “hard numbers” documenting how many people simply disregarded their jury summons, but said “most” show up in court when called.
Of course, not everyone has to do jury duty. State law allows all elected officials, judges, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, members of the armed forces “on active service and deployed out-of-state,” people who live more than 70 miles from court and those at least 80 years old to “claim exemption from service as a juror.” A few bills floated around the state Legislature this term that would add dentists and those at least 75 years old to the list of exemptions, but they’ve been carried over to the 2008 session.
* * *
Judge Richard T. Bissen presides over Courtroom 4. Sworn in as a 2nd Circuit Court judge in April 2005, Bissen is a former Maui County Prosecuting Attorney who previously served as Governor Linda Lingle’s First Deputy Attorney General. His comments to the 50 or so prospective jurors were straightforward, but friendly.
As Bissen outlined the day’s case—alleged child abuse—and said the attorney’s estimated it would probably take just two days, and then the court clerk began pulling random poker chips out of a bowl to see which of us would end up in the jury box, I began thinking about how much easier all this was here than on the Mainland.
In the early and mid-1990s, I served on two jury panels, both in Los Angeles, California. Both cases took place in the famed Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, which back then was known simply as the Criminal Courts Building. It’s where they tried O.J., Robert Blake, and most recently, Phil Spector. It’s also home to a cavernous, incredibly depressing place known as the Jury Assembly Room.
There, hundreds of strangers mill about, reading, watching TV or just staring vacantly out the window at the downtown streets below, waiting for a disembodied voice to call out their names and send them to one of a few dozen courtrooms.
In 1992, the year I first served on a jury, service was tough. It was 10 days minimum, regardless of whether you actually sat on a panel. Pay was a miserly $5 a day.
On my first day I wound up on a jury panel in a case of alleged attempted murder. We heard evidence for three or four days and then deliberated for a day. After we rendered a guilty verdict (the would-be victim survived the attack and positively identified the defendant both in court and to a witness immediately after the attack), the judge sent us back to the Jury Assembly Room to finish out our 10 days.
Thoroughly sick of the place, I went to a jury clerk and asked to be excused early. I said I’d already served on a panel (true) and college was starting up again in a few days (a slight exaggeration), but I still had three days left of service. To my surprise, she immediately cut me loose.
All that has changed. These days, in LA and on Maui, if you’re not picked for a panel on your first day of service, then you’re excused. The pay here is $30 a day, and they pay your gas mileage both to and from the courthouse. And given Maui’s small size, jurors are sent straight to courtrooms, rather than massive Assembly Rooms.
* * *
Bissen began reading off the names of the attorneys and the defendant. He asked the 12 prospective panelists and the rest of us still sitting in the gallery if we knew them. I was counting on this part to get an early ticket out, but try as I might, I couldn’t recall ever hearing of them before.
As the prosecutor and then the public defender began asking the panelists questions, I started doing quick arithmetic in my head on my chances of getting called up. I only vaguely listened as clues to the case began unfolding.
The defendant, a male, was from Micronesia. One prospective juror knew one of the witnesses against him—his young daughter—from an upcountry school.
I alternated between staring at the back of the defendant’s head, watching the attorneys very politely ask jurors if they’d ever been convicted of crimes and the all-important bowl that held my number. Every once in a while the judge or an attorney would ask a prospective juror to the bench, and then they’d huddle and talk while white noise played over the court speakers. Then attorneys would start exercising their preemptory challenges—booting jurors for whatever reason they wanted—and my probability arithmetic would accelerate.
An hour went by, and we went on break. Sept. 10 happened to be the first day of the Superferry hearing in Judge Joseph Cardoza’s courtroom, so I spent my breaks heading over there to chat with witnesses about how things were going.
By noon, it was all over. Bissen swore in 12 jurors and one alternate with me still sitting in the gallery. “Please don’t cheer too loudly on your way out,”? he told the dozen or so of us who’d never heard our numbers called, and we left.
We were free! Free to go back to work! Woohoo!
Waiting for the elevator, I started chatting with one woman I knew (her daughter works for the paper as well) who’d sat in the gallery with me and also never got called. It turned out we had identical plans on what to do had we actually gotten called up.
As the attorneys questioned the prospective panelists, it became clear the case was hinging on the issue of corporal punishment. Both attorneys were probing the would-be jurors’ views on spanking: Did you believe there was a “range”? of legal punishment options for children, which included spanking? And if you didn’t believe in it, what would you do if you married someone who used it on his or her children?
If called, I was simply going to say that I absolutely did not believe in any form of physical punishment for children. I would say that I accepted that spanking was legal, but that I abhorred it and would never do it—absolutely true opinions, but I’d use the harshest terms I could muster.
Chances are, given what the woman and I witnessed in the courtroom, that she and I would have been excused for advocating such views. In fact, everyone we watched who either came out strongly for or against corporal punishment was eventually excused.
But was this necessarily a good thing? Did believing that corporal punishment was awful constitute pre-judging the defendant’s guilt, even if I believed that corporal punishment was legal? If not, was it wise to kick people off juries because they held strong opinions on issues central to the case?
Neither of us knew. Shrugging my shoulders, I looked around. That guy who earlier that morning had walked through the metal detector still holding his keys was also waiting for the elevator. Assigned to another courtroom, he’d also evidently missed getting on a jury panel. And that, more than anything else I witnessed that day, gave me hope for our legal justice system. MTW