August 17, 2014

To Serve or Not to Serve


Illustration via The Journey Begins Here


Illustration via The Journey Begins Here

This week I embarked on a journey through our judicial system, jury duty. You know, that thing none of us want to do, ever. When you get the foreboding summons in the mail, the immediate reaction is, "no! aw shit." And after you've thrown it on the floor and cursed it a few more times you study the particulars carefully pondering whether or not you could get away with simply tossing it in the trash. Why not? It's not like they've got a trace on it...do they? I mean, how would they know we even received it? Somewhere amidst rationalizations your morality kicks in, and in my case your guilty Catholic upbringing. And you've determined you're stuck. Then the "good" voice in your head chimes in with a whole new set of reasoning. How bad could it be? It's our duty to serve. And if you're gonna complain about the legal system and all the idiots on jury's all the time, you better be willing to be one of those idiots.

Okay, you're doing it. You call in, as instructed, find out you do have to report the following Monday morning at 7:45am to the downtown Los Angeles County Court -- the busiest and largest county court in the country. Oh yeah. The night before feels a bit like the night before a medical procedure. I kept trying to remember if it was after 10pm or midnight that I could no longer eat or drink. My nerves were kicking in and I tossed and turned all night. Not sure why the prospect of going to court made me feel so anxious, but it did. Perhaps the fear of the unknown. I'd been to jury duty before but not in several years and I'd never been called to a courtroom or served on a jury. For some reason, in the back of my mind, I just knew, this would be different.

So I got up super early giving myself plenty of time to prepare and get out the door. I was pleasantly surprised when I found the freeway relatively empty for a Monday morning. The instructions on the summons said to park at the Disney Concert Hall. The Disney Hall was six blocks from the court house down a very steep hill, and back again. So I schlepped my backpack, weighted down with a laptop and books. What if I were handicapped? There were no instructions on the summons for disabled individuals nor was there a heads up that performing your civic duty would include hiking down a concrete mountain and back up again. It was a hot day, even at 7:30am. By the time I arrived at the courthouse I was drenched in sweat and limping.

I entered the building with a small group of other prospective jurors, all sweaty and disoriented. We went through a small security line which had been billed to us as "airport-like" security but it was more like Hollywood Bowl concert security. There were armed guards and you did walk through a metal detector but it wasn't very high tech and there were no pat downs.

After making it through that line, we were all thrust into a sea of civil servants and bewildered jurors awaiting the arrival of elevators. Arriving at the 11th floor, jury waiting room, the crowded elevator spilled out onto the floor. I arrived just in time as the clerk was delivering the instructions and orientation speech. The jury waiting room is large like an airport gate section. But the entrance/hallway area had vending machines and tables. I decided to park myself there as nobody else seemed to think that was allowed cause it was technically not in the "classroom" But it was in earshot and nobody stopped me. What a rebel.

They read the instructions and we followed directions depositing our sheets in the correct basket. The first group was called and my name wasn't among them. Relief. So I got comfy with my laptop, snacks and coffee I'd purchased at the snack shop, and attempted to get some work done. About 20 minutes into doing emails, the next group was called...Sarah Mason? Here! Yikes. Okay, let's do this!

I have to admit I was pretty nervous about being called to a courtroom. I'd never done it before and I had no idea what to expect. Would it be like Law and Order? It would be a lot of waiting, that's what it would be like. After being told to hustle up to the 15th floor, we sat outside on benches for about 45 minutes before a clerk came out, read out our names and gave us a jury number. More waiting. About 30 minutes later we were told to line up numerically. My number was 26 out of 55. I didn't know what to expect but I knew there were 12 people on a jury, and that each side got to dump a lot of people so there was a good chance was of those 12 seats was mine.

We walked into the courtroom silently and in single file. There it was, the courtroom, with a judge, and a defendant and two sets of lawyers, a court reporter, a Bailiff. It was pretty quite impressive in a scary civic kinda way. The judge introduced himself and welcomed us to his court. He gave us a basic rundown on the rules and the case and how this would all play out. It quickly became clear that he didn't like people attempting to try to get out of being there as he repeatedly stated the moral and legal obligations we all had to serve.

I was in the "audience" group, meaning we weren't yet in the hot seats but we were privy to the process of Voir Dire. That was quite interesting actually. There were a series of basic questions: Where do you live? What do you do? Do you have a spouse/sig other, what do they do? Do you have adult children? Have you ever served on a jury before?  Then the judge would also ask some more personal questions like; Have you ever been the victim of a violent crime? I sat and listened to the other prospective jurors answer all these questions and was thinking, well I'm not a victim so all I'll have to do is the basics. Then it suddenly hit me, "Wait, Oh my God, I am a victim of a violent crime, a few actually."

I've never thought of myself as a victim. I guess that's a good thing. But over the years I've collected more then a few scars, externally and internally. And as I began to realize this, my anxiety grew. I didn't want to share these oh so personal and painful stories with a roomful of strangers. Oddly, several people did want to share all the intimate details of their lives, with everyone, out loud. What's that about? Are they lonely, do they have some need to be on stage or have an audience? I don't know but it made me uncomfortable. Nevertheless I made it through the day without being called up to the hot seats but the next day would not prove so lucky. The next morning, after another late start, they filed us back into the courtroom. There were a bunch of holes to fill in the hot seats after the attorney's previous day of challenge dismissals. And I knew I'd be landing on a hot seat fairly quickly. My anxiety grew just thinking about having to raise my hand and disclose information about being a victim. Luckily I had the option to request a sidebar with the judge in which I could go up to the bench, and tell my story before the judge and the attorneys privately. Which is exactly what I did.

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I'm not sure why I feel safe telling these stories here, a much larger forum in theory, vs a courtroom. Maybe it's because in the courtroom you're live and in person vs. online, where we are protected by the illusion of intimacy and feel free to share so many details of our lives. For me I think Payson Road has always been my safe haven, even though it is a public forum. And I've been incredibly open about so many details of my struggles with eating disorders. This is different. So instead of sharing the details of my personal encounters with violent crime, I'm sharing the details of how this jury involvement brought up my history and how it effected me.

Approaching the bench was pretty frightening. They had a job to do and it was gonna be harsh but necessary. But they were respectful to me in doing it. I was visibly nervous but articulate and kept my composure. The judge asked me several times if I was able to be fair and impartial in light of these incidents. I said yes. The prosecutor was not so convinced. He continued to ask me questions about my perception of police officers. I gave him my honest answer. "I consider myself to be a fair person. But I would not be being honest if I did not say that I was very angry at the specific police and police departments involved in my cases. That did not handle it well at all. That said, I believe I could be fair on the stand. At least, I would hope I would be. But do I know with 100% certainty how I will react? No."

They questioned me some more and then allowed me to return to my seat and await the process. After the prosecutor and defense attorney's were finished with Voir Dire, each side was allowed several juror challenges. They went back and forth excusing men and women around me. As they departed, I kept moving up in chair numbers. I started at 26 but was now at seat 3. Time to get really nervous. Then the prosecutor stood up and said, "The people thank and excuse Juror #26". That's me! I was free! Clearly I was too big a wild card for him to risk the gamble.

Two competing emotions instantly washed over me, relief and disappointment. Why disappointment? I've been asking myself that as well. I think, although I was relieved to go home and avoid a potentially long trial that also meant deciding the fate of another human being's life (this was a murder trial), I was also disappointed that they didn't pick me. That sounds silly. But it's how I felt. Not in a, last to be picked in gym class kinda way, but confusion, and realization that things in my personal history bar me from participating in the legal process. Part of me wanted to participate as it's a crucial thing for us all to do if the system is going to work properly.

I found myself over analyzing the reasons they didn't choose me. There were many obvious on the prosecution side but the defense was probably not so thrilled with me either. At one point I heard the prosecutor (in a sidebar) say my juror number to the judge and the judge said, "but she said she could be fair". I wondered if the prosecution was trying to have me dismissed without having to use a challenge. I even called my brother who was a Public Defender in NYC for insight into the whole affair. He had much to offer but none of it brought me any real solace.

What was truly bothering me was unearthing old wounds. What had happened to me, happened. It's apart of who I am but I don't think about it daily and I have never let either incident define me as a victim. But it was shocking in a way to realize that I am one of the people who needs to raise their hand when a judge asks if anyone's ever been the victim of a violent crime. It made me realize how much I've actually been through in my life. A lot. I'm not so sure I could serve on any criminal trial or even many civil trials. There's so many angles as to how I would be a bad risk on a jury. Is that a good thing? I mean, in theory, yes but in evaluating my life, uh, not so much.

There's something about digging up these things from the past that is quite sobering. It's like I'm reading a bio of myself for the first time, but then remember I actually did read it once before. And as a person who has struggled for more than half her life with eating disorders, discoveries such as this often lead toward old coping patterns and old destructive friends called ED. Interestingly, that's not what happened. I find myself in new territory. Although truthfully for about 48 hours after I was excused from the trial, I was extremely upset and confused. But I processed the point of stress in a very different way than I would have in the past, consciously. I talked about it, thought about it, wrote about it. Often folks with EDs don't think, just act. That's something I did so well for so long leaving an enormous gap between my emotions and my actions, my mind and my body. But this was a transformative experience. It was painful and upsetting but metamorphic in that, I found an alternate way to cope with pain and stress, and my past.

Since that last day at the court house, I've thought a lot about the people I met and I keep wondering who ended up on the jury. I have a strange curiosity in following this trial through to the end. For those good folks who served with me I hope, it's a short trial. Am I more relieved than disappointed that I'm not serving on that jury? Of course. I don't think getting out of jury duty is the right thing to do nor was it my goal. I second guessed whether or not I should have disclosed that information, in my 48 hour overanalyzing session. But in the end, acknowledging where I've been, being in my truth, and having compassion for what I've been through is a key part of my ongoing recovery.
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