Honolulu Lite. Extra.

Charles Memminger

Jury duty is a good way
to avoid being
forever ‘infamous’

In the days of sail, when the captain of a king's ship found himself low on manpower, he would send out a "press gang," a group of armed sailors who had the legal power to drag healthy men out of taverns and inns and lock them away on the ship until it was safely out of port. The "pressed men" then became part of the crew for the duration of the voyage, employees, albeit reluctant ones, of their government, doing their duty to God, king and country.

We tend to think that the days of being forced into government service are gone. They aren't. Citizens today are still rounded up and pressed into service, not by press gangs but by summons. It's called "Jury Duty."

I was feeling like something of a pressed hand as I stood last week among a group of 40 or so strangers in a third floor holding room in state District Court. We were the "pool" chosen at random from tax rolls, driver's license lists and voter-registration rosters. From our number, 12 would eventually be picked as jurors in a Family Court criminal trial. My latent competitive nature nudged out my feelings of having been shanghaied as I looked at my fellow abductees. Only 12 would make it on the team, to the big game, and damn it, I wanted to be there. Put me in, coach. I'm ready to play.

I covered courts as a reporter for many years and always was jealous of the jurors. I was an observer, they were part of the action. They had the power of, if not life and death, then life and incarceration. I scribbled notes; they simply sat there looking wise. They were coddled, handed a cup of water at the mere hint of a cough, a sweater if they got cold. And if one of them had to pee, then, by God, the entire court would adjourn and even the judge would stand as they filed out to visit the Little Jurors Room. And to cap it all off, they got a free lunch!

My wish finally came true about 15 years ago when I was summoned to jury duty in the same Circuit Court building where I had worked daily. It didn't take long to realize that jury duty was not all fun and felonies.

There was a lot of waiting involved. Waiting to be called to go wait somewhere else. A vast cattle call of humanity shuffling around, most of the cattle working up excuses as to why they should be dismissed from the proceedings. I couldn't believe it. Most of these people didn't WANT to be on a jury. Their reasons for expulsion were pathetic. ("I'm a psychosomatic dyslexic judio-claustrophobe, your honor. I have a fear of being enclosed in small, over-air-conditioned rooms where Latin phrases are uttered ...")

The excuses rarely work, mainly because the need for jurors is so great. Think about it. Hundreds of people have to be forced through the courthouse meat grinder daily to produce the juries needed to serve in dozens of courtrooms. Five days a week, 230 days a year ... why every man, woman, child, dog and gecko in Hawaii hasn't served on juries at least 12 times already I don't know. The only people automatically exempted from jury duty are doctors, dentists, ministers, priests, attorneys, judges, police officers, firefighters and active duty military. To which you might ask, dentists? I don't get the dentist thing, either.

My problem on that day was not getting kicked out of the pool because I was a reporter. Defense attorneys and prosecutors are looking for "fair, unbiased jurors," that is, people they can lead around by the nose and hoodwink into their way of seeing the case. They don't want jurors to know too much about the law, the courts or, well, life in general. The last thing they want is a smarty-pants newspaper reporter who knows all the judges, attorneys, cops, investigators and, come to think of it, criminals involved.

So you can imagine how surprised I was when I slipped onto that jury, the case of a man charged with attempted sexual assault. In retrospect, it was not that mysterious. The prosecution seemed to want to load the jury with women who would be sympathetic to the victim. The defense seemed to want young local men who might be more open-minded to the terrible misunderstanding involving their client. So during (Caution: Foreign Legal Phrase Approaching) voir dire, or jury selection, the prosecutor was throwing off young local men and the defense was tossing off women with such abandon that I made the cut.

It was an open-and-shut case, so it dragged on interminably. I became jealous of the news reporter in the audience who was able to leave the court room at will while we had to sit through mind-dulling testimony attempting to explain how the particular idiot on trial had managed to leave his slippers in the apartment of the victim, when he allegedly was never there in the first place. We convicted the nitwit in what I believe was a new Circuit Court Deliberation Record of approximately 1 minute and 45 seconds.

Now, 15 years later, here I was being herded into another court room for voir dire and, I'm embarrassed to admit, I was looking forward to it. And why not?

JURY DUTY IS a high calling. It's not as high of a calling as, say, being sent to war. But it's about as high of a calling to which most of us self-consumed, barely ambulatory civilian desk jockeys will ever be summoned. In a democracy you are only asked to do a few things: vote and serve on juries. For a big complicated free country, that's not much to ask. You can't be forced to vote, but jury duty is mandatory. And while missing a few days from work, trying to find parking around the courthouse and being forced to eat cafeteria food may seem a bother, jury duty now is a breeze compared to the "good old days."

Renowned San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli used to point out that in England, circa 1600s, if a judge was displeased with a verdict, he would put the jury on trial and, if not satisfied, would bring in a third jury to try the second. If the jurors were convicted, all their possessions would be seized, houses pulled down, woodlands felled, meadows plowed and "they themselves forever thenceforward be declared infamous." Hey, who needs parking?

Even the painstaking voir dire process has its entertaining moments. Veteran Honolulu criminal attorney Birney Bervar remembers when a potential juror in a Texas trial was told by the prosecutor that a case involved the death penalty.

"Could you impose the death penalty?" he was asked.

"You mean what they do up there in Huntsville?" he asked.

The prosecutor said, yes, that's where they put prisoners to death.

The man said, "Well, if it's on a Saturday I could do it."

The voir dire in our case was less riveting. Because it was in Family Court and involved a minor, I can't go into details other than to say it was a misdemeanor case involving alleged abuse of a family member. Jury selection was swift, which, by court standards, meant it only took half a day. Consider that in the Scott Peterson murder trial in California, jury selection has been dragging on for weeks with a jury pool of more than 1,000 people.

Through a voir dire dynamic similar to my previous experience, I ended up on the jury. It was a much more difficult and emotional experience than the "Case of the Left Behind Slippers."

As I pulled the parking ticket from my truck's windshield and headed home after my duty was done, I reflected on my fellow jurors. They had left their jobs and family, put their lives on hold and devoted themselves to seeking justice in a case no one would ever know about. All for a mere $30 a day and a free lunch. In my book, that's pretty cool.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Charles Memminger, winner of National Society of Newspaper Columnists awards, appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. E-mail


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