Be prepared for roll call at 10:30 only to wait in the hall until 11:20 before they open the doors of the Chambre du accusation. After 40 minutes of voir dire, adjourn for lunch until 1:30. Wait again in the hall until 2:10 for Mr. Serious, the courtroom manager, to poke his head out the door and call numbers. By the second day, we were fully institutionalized. Any murmurings from an official person and we queued up as submissively as lemmings. We were on government time.
At least we were free of the rubber room downstairs, waiting to be assigned a case, listening to the Orientation Lady explain the Rules of the Hardship Exemption for an hour straight, like she was hawking cubic zirconia on QVC. Five times she reminds us to turn in our forms, lest we not get credit for service. No certificate, no credit. Understood.
Lunch is a blessing as Grand Park is rather grand at midday: yoga classes, futbol, and sunshine…
…and photoshoots on the City Hall steps. A culinary cornucopia but a short walk away. It’s the nicest public space in the City. Say this for the One-Party State, they spare no expense making downtown wonderful for public employees.
Then its back to the 11th floor and its unforgiving benches forged from the same material as bowling balls. Confined in the brutalist aesthetic of the building, it’s easy to forget the rich legal history that played out here: OJ. Manson. The Menendez Brothers. The Nightstalker. Remembering the acquittals, is there something about the confinement of jurors in such unforgiving architecture which causes them to bond with defendants?
The accused was frail and elderly, a dead ringer for Ho Chi Minh, down to the wispy grey beard. Small, 5’2 at best, like Manson. Bespectacled, inexpressive. He sat with bony hands clasped on the table in front of him, listening to his translator through earphones as though receiving a telegraph report from overseas. During the sidebar, he rubbed each of his fingernails in turn, like worry beads. He and his lawyer sat at separate tables, and she did not confer with him. When the judge read the charges: sexual assault against a child, an audible shudder passed through the room. There were no family or friends in the courtroom bearing witness. He was as alone as a man could be.
We were in the Clara Shortridge Foltz building, named for the first female lawyer in California. Both Public Defender and D.A. in the case were women, and looked like TV Lawyers; trim, well-coiffed, ready for a close-up. They wanted to know we felt about memory, ten years after the fact. How we felt about the testimony of teenagers, recalling events of early childhood. Were they capable of lying? The defense counsel offered a hypothetical: if I told you a man was eating a BLT sandwich, how would you really know it was bacon between the bread slices? The D.A. altered the metaphor to the example of peanut butter and jelly: if you saw a man holding a sandwich and there was jelly in the corners of his mouth, would you consider that evidence he had eaten a PBJ even though you never saw him take a bite? The defense tried a new tack in the voir dire: If a witness states she doesn’t remember something are you willing to not fill in the blanks? I could sense the lineaments of the case take shape and realized I wanted no part of it.
As Juror No. 60 in the pool, I was never called into the box. After three days of feinting and bluffing and prodding of the jury pool, both counsels engaged in a late afternoon flurry of peremptory challenges, not unlike the call and raise cycle that finishes off a poker pot, and suddenly the jury was seated and sworn.
Spared another week downtown, I saw the Valley as so many of my neighbors do: as a stream of taillights inching up the 405, our non-negotiable tax. I tried a podcast, but it didn’t hold my attention. I found myself thinking of Hiromitsu Shinkawa, the Japanese man who was swept out to sea on the roof of his house after the Tsunami and floated in the North Pacific for a week before discovery. In that scenario, you have nothing. Or you can have nothing, plus God’s mercy. That’s up to you. Maybe that’s why the defendant’s hands were clasped, facing twelve angry commuters who hated him the moment they heard the charges.