Law and Order in 1990’s Manhattan: Dreaded Jury Duty

My memories of the judicial system in New York City in the 1990s evoke blistering summers of relentless heat blasting you in the face as you step outside the cool marble buildings in Manhattan. Although I have fond memories of the locale, lunchtime in the Chambers Street neighborhood, which abuts Chinatown with delicious Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese restaurants and dessert in Little Italy and although virtually all the court buildings are marble and the courtrooms themselves are air-conditioned, I hope to never tread those corridors again.

These juridical encounters are grim and abrasive. I cannot forget them. They are the stuff of low drama. The outcomes are sad and debilitating and it is hard to see how justice has been served. But there is a kind of rough justice. Jury duty signifies the meeting of classes, races, ethnicities at times of crisis, often times involving life and death, in ways hard to imagine outside of the justice system, as jurors judge the actions of their fellow citizens.

When I discovered that the records of Britain’s Old Bailey had been digitized and made available to the scholarly public, providing a rich treasure trove of information, I was reminded of my jury service. I was reminded that in the courts, life apes art (the original “Law and Order”) and vice versa. One can find the grisly drama that life seldom affords us otherwise.

These stories are the headliners from which the TV show was derived. All that is missing are the sound effects and the lawyers in good suits. (Public defenders do not tend to dress in designer wear.) You learn at least one lesson about the workings of the justice system and perhaps you emerge feeling that you have been a useful cog in the system, helping justice be served.

Why am I dwelling on this? Well, I have just been summoned to jury duty for the third time in as many years. I find myself muttering, “subdural hematoma, petechial hemorrhaging” repeatedly. These phrases, frequently cited as the outcomes of violent attacks, describe trauma, choking or a blow to the head– usually ending in death and cited in cases argued before the New York County Court. If there is a corpse, chances are it’s a homicide.

Yes, both phrases signal that you’re dealing with violent crimes and that you may well want to think hard about your possible role in helping adjudicate the crime. For the juror these cases can be nightmares of violent images, testimony, and court appearances that remain with you.

First the ugly truth of the trial. The chief figures are not likely to be manicured, middle to upper class celebrities, not even Reality TV stars. I once did observe a celebrity trial for the so-called “Upper East Side rapist” and celebrity impersonator Robert Chambers. Light bulbs flashing, the roar and the howling of reporters and trial voyeurs. That case too appeared barely disguised on a “Law and Order” episode.

The people who come forward both as the accused and witnesses are likely to be poor, illiterate whether in Spanish or English so that they can scarcely understand what is going on let alone represent themselves well despite the presence of interpreters, They frequently complain, justly, that they are losing a day or two or three days of work in order to appear in the courtroom and they could lose their jobs.

Those jurors who speak Spanish are sternly told not to do their own interpretation. However, there was a running dialogue with one of my fellow jurors who told us flatly that we were not getting the whole story and added colorful detail to all the repugnant stuff we heard. The judge removed her from the jury but the damage was done. The juror’s commentary prejudiced us against the woman who was charged with murder. In this case our middle class guilt and/or compassion does not help either the accused or the victim.

How did they get us into court? The juror selection notice is deliberately patriotic, “do your civic duty and we will even pay you a pittance (per day).” The notice is also mildly menacing. It lists the dangers of refusing to appear, a significant fine or a subsequent summons. In reality there is no real penalty so you must consult your conscience to decide.

Savvy possible jurors, however, know that they can negotiate with the judge and the lawyers to postpone their selection to a more convenient time. Or they calculate that the recent changes in proceedings will provide excuses that are tailored to the judge. For example, in the winter months, “I have to go down to Miami with my family,” one will argue. Or another lawyer will argue: “My office needs me, it’s our busy season. I am indispensible!” To which the judge or lawyer may reply, “Go with God.” Or not. And you’ll get another summons shortly and repeat the process. Many just go to the courthouse resigned to their fate. It’s easier to get it over with.

During juror selection they weeded us out. No one with distinctive ethnicity, motives, attitudes or opinions which might hobble the proceedings of the case need apply. Sometimes all it takes is an angry or bizarre left or right of center religious or political position to alienate the lawyers and be dismissed. At other times especially when the juror pool has failed to hook a sufficient number of potential jurors, or when the selected few in business attire are pointedly hanging on their phones and laptops, there may be a more compassionate response from the judge and lawyers. They want a broad sample of easily manipulated jurors. Ideally people whom actually work for a living, and they may settle for less than ideal candidates as a result. And let the well-heeled go.

Parading in and out, to and from the halls to the courtroom. If you’re on a jury and selected to be foreman, think first. It involves real responsibility, helping to herd the jurors and organize their testimony and bullyrag the tough ones into an agreement. If the proceedings are stalled you will be pressured to get them moving again. The judge and lawyers will rise up and attempt to milk you of the issues that are stalling the proceedings. Nobody wants a mistrial, not if they’ve learned how awful that might be – nothing resolved and they would have to try the case all over again. Think hard before you accept this task.

When the trial day runs over and the proceedings are stalled – jurors are charged to eat their dinner at a seedy local restaurant (true, it’s at the court’s expense- think watery spaghetti) without discussing the trial. They are ferried to their court appointed hotel, a similarly seedy joint on the other edge of town, in a blind van so that you have no real idea where you are.

Sharing a hotel room with peeling plaster and paint, and the real possibility of bedbugs. And the judge says you can’t read a newspaper or watch TV or talk to each other about the trial. So physical discomfort motivates you to expedite the proceedings. The trial itself – what we’ve learned via “Law and Order,” re: “subdural hematomas and petechial hemorrhaging.” Two phrases from “Law and Order” that have become part of the lingua franca, only here they are alive in photos and the comments of witnesses.

Petechial hemorrhaging refers to choking which produces red lines, burst blood vessels in the eyes of the victim. Hematomas refer to a blow to the head which causes the brain to slosh back and forth in the brain case, causing it to be badly bruised. Both are likely fatal. Yes, a homicide. So somebody did it. You have to help find out who did or who did not do it. It is seldom black and white.

The worst case I can remember dealt with a Hispanic woman and her lover, both drunks, living in a seedy part of town. He, the victim, is disabled and she is a possible monster. He appeared to have been beaten, choked, and, appallingly, actually set on fire over a two-day period, ultimately killing him, slowly. Several people who were witnesses in court, day laborers, the friends of the couple, went in and out of their apartment, over a two-day period. They observed violent arguments between the couple. But nobody did anything.

These witnesses were angry that they were losing their days’ wages by testifying and couldn’t understand why they should have to suffer as well.

How did it end? Hard not to conclude that she killed him. Bit by bit. What you might call a lingering death. Nobody else was left standing. She was not likely to be able to argue effectively on her own behalf.

What was the outcome in court? The probable killer was remanded to a life sentence in prison. Her three small children, in court, listening to this awful testimony, cried incessantly. They were remanded to the care of the killer’s sister, who bore a close and chilling resemblance to her sister.

Was justice done? Who knows? We filed out, some crying, others running for the subway to get home and away from this deadly place.

Not again. Not this time. Not even if it’s a plain vanilla case of forgery or robbery. I am going to excuse myself this time.

I don’t need any more nightmares. I want to catch a break this summer, go swimming in the ocean, write the great American novel, at the very least find excellent air conditioning and watch “Law and Order” reruns. I do not want to participate this time. Wish me luck!