The jury summons arrived the day before I was to have neck and hip surgery. Somehow, it wound up in a pile and was forgotten.
A month later, I opened a letter informing me that if I failed to show up again, I would be fined $500 and/or jailed. I could imagine the headline: Criminologist Jailed for Contempt.
I faxed doctor's excuses about the surgery and letters explaining that I had a muscle disease, fibromyalgia, but there was no response. So, on 28 June, I found myself sitting uncomfortably in a room with 70 not very happy people.
A judge came in and tried to eliminate people like the young man sitting behind me who was going to trial the next week on felony charges. The judge said he would eliminate law enforcement officers, pregnant women, primarily care givers for a dependent person., but there was no mention of recent surgery or fibromyalgia.
A man at the back of the room raised his hand and informed the judge that he had sleep apnea. "Well we can't have you falling asleep in the middle of the trial. You can go." The judge responded. Then, another man raised his hand. "I have the same disorder." Neither of these men presented any documentation, but both were released. I raised my hand. Still wearing a neck brace from the surgery, I explained about the fibromyalgia. Without skipping a beat, the judge said. "You'll be fine. The chairs are comfortable." I sat down thinking: "Are you crazy? When you have fibromyalgia, no chair is comfortable."
But, what could I do? When my name was called, I went along with the other jurors.
When we were seated, we were read the charges. A black man in his late twenties was being charged with selling "fake" crack cocaine.
A number of things flashed through my mind. The man hadn't sold crack cocaine, just fake crack cocaine. He might have never been in trouble before and just through he'd try to make a few extra bucks, a stupid way of starting your own business, but if we put everybody who was stupid in prison, there wouldn't be anybody left. The man was black. Since I had written a book about the War on Drugs, I knew that even though drug use is rife in this society, the poor and minorities are the ones who wind up in prison for it.
I also knew that the decision I would be asked to make was whether or not this guy sold fake crack cocaine, nothing more. Under Florida law, if I believed beyond a reasonable doubt that he sold it, I would have to vote guilty. But, if the man were found guilty, the sentence would be determined by the judge. There was a potential of prison time for this offense.
I didn't know if I could send a man to prison for selling fake crack cocaine. I wasn't sure that I would be told what he was in fact selling. If he was selling something harmless, that was one thing, if he was selling something that could kill people, that was another.
I also knew I would not be told about his prior convictions. I would never know if this guy regularly sold crack cocaine and just didn't get a delivery, or if he engaged in a one-off deal.
By the time the lawyers started asking questions I had come to far too many conclusions about the case to call myself unbiased.
Nothing that happened during the jury questioning made me feel any more comfortable. The prosecutor was around 10 years old, and had this self-effacing laugh. Had he been a woman it would have been called a giggle. It was very annoying and did not inspire confidence.
When he started asking me questions about friends in law enforcement, I told him that I felt I had to say that I had written a book about drug policy and that the book had been highly critical of the current drug laws and the number of people we were putting in prison for drug charges. He made a notation on his pad.
The defense attorney was even worse. He was around 12, obviously from the public defender's office, and had that deer in the headlights look of an actor with stage fright. He also giggled, and inserted dramatic pauses of 30 seconds between every few words he uttered. He informed us that the trial was expected to last one day. This meant that he didn't intend to put up much of a defense.
I looked over at the young man at the defense table. If my life had been in the hands of this attorney, I would have put a bullet through my brain rather than go through the agony of watching him throw it away.
"Do you....uh...believe.....that.....there would be...there is...........discrimination in our community." The defense attorney asked me.
"Yes." I answered.
"What kind? Well racial discrimination, gender discrimination..."
"Can you...uh...do you...uh...could you...."
"Give a specific example?" I finished the sentence in sheer exasperation.
I gave an example, and I saw the prosecutor draw a line through my name. Sure enough, I was asked to step down.
I was relieved. Nothing about this process engendered confidence in me. Sitting on a jury is an awesome responsibility. The last thing I want is to have to decide the rest of a man's life in one day.