Jury Duty


     I lived in Philadelphia for thirteen or fourteen years before the first time I was called for jury duty. One day or one trial. I sat in the jury selection room all day without hearing my name called until it was time to be dismissed; I was given a check for $6.00 for my one day's service, and that was it. It was another fifteen years or so before another summons came. Same deal; sit there all day long, leave with a check for $6.00. Good time I brought a book with me each time. After that I got summoned every other year, all but the last time was the same--sit and read all day instead of doing something productive in exchange for the munificent sum of $6.00. The last time I got called I was up against a deadline and told the judge I might not be able to make a fair and impartial decision out of a need to get back to work. The judge dismissed me, and I left after one day.

     I'd been in Broward County for something more than three years before I got summoned to report for jury duty on July 25, 2007. Again, one day or one trial. Frankly, I hoped to sit there all day and be released without being called for a panel

     I showed up at an ungodly hour of the morning (7:45 AM to someone who isn't a wage-slave is way too early to be someplace), had the orientation, answered the questions, and was sworn in. This time, my name was called for the very first panel. We went to the courtroom and sat outside it for probably half an hour before we were brought in for the jury selection process.

     First the judge asked us a series of question to ascertain that we were qualified to sit on the jury; are you a US citizen, a resident of Broward County, do you know anybody in the courtroom, are you currently involved in a criminal or civil, etc. Then came voir dire--the process during which the lawyers ask the jurors questions to determine whether anybody has preconceptions or prejudices that would render them incapable of reaching a fair and impartial decision. The questions were horribly repetitive, but we found out what the case was--the defendant was accused of exposing his sexual organs in a lewd and lascivious manner in a public place--he was accused of masturbating while in jail.

     All of a sudden, I wanted to be on this jury.

     The defense attorney asked at one point, "Would any of you like to hear the defendant's side of the story? Show of hands." As I was raising my hand I thought, "Damn, I just blew it!" So I immediately said, "I understand that the defendant doesn't have to say anything, that it's up to the state to prove its case." I also mentioned the Fifth Amendment.

     At the end of voir dire, we were sent outside the courtroom for a time while the judge and lawyers selected the jury. We were brought back in and the jurors named. Wow, good save on my part, I was juror number four!

     There was one witness who testified, a guard in the jail. No other evidence was presented. Here's what the defendant was alleged to have done and the circumstances:

     The guard was in a glass-walled "control room" facing the cell area. A corridor ran between the control room and the cell area and the opposite wall of the corridor was glass. The corridor was a frequently used passageway for guards, other jail staff, other people with business in the jail, and visitors.

     The state alleged, and the sole witness stated she witnessed, that the defendant, on two occasions, stood in the doorway of his cell, exposed his sexual organs, and masturbated in full view of the guard in the control room and anybody passing through the corridor. The witness said that the first time she saw it, she ignored it. The second time, she moved him to a cell where he could masturbate without being seen from the corridor or the control room. Then came a day when someone else had moved him to another cell, half of which was visible from the control room and the corridor. On this day, the defendant sat on the foot of his bunk, in full view of the corridor and control room, exposed himself and masturbated. It was that last exposure for which he was charged.

     The defense did not dispute any of the facts as given by the state's attorney and the witness. Instead, the defense claimed that the cell was the prisoner's home, and therefore he was not exposing his sexual organs in a lewd and lascivious manner in a public place. The defense also argued that masturbation is a natural thing for a man to do if he doesn't have access to a woman, and he should not be deprived of liberty for doing something that was so primal as getting sexual relief.

     The state countered with the argument that he could have masturbated without exposing himself to all and sundry. "If he'd done it under a blanket, we wouldn't be here today," the witness said.

     At length, and it seemed like a very great length because of the repetitiveness of the lawyers' summations, the jury was sent into the jury room to deliberate.

     It was evident that the defendant had done exactly what was alleged. After all, the defence didn't dispute the basic facts. And none of us had a problem with a prisoner masturbating while in jail. The question we had to resolve was whether or not the act and been done in a public place. The corridor was what did it. Because visitors to the jail, or people being given a tour of the jail, might at any time, and without notice to the prisoners, come along the corridor, we determined that the jail counted as a public place, and was covered by the law. We found the defendant guilty as charged.

     The judge thanked us, shook our hands, and gave us certificates of appreciation, then dismissed us, although any who wanted to remain to hear the sentencing could do so. He also informed us that we couldn't talk to the lawyers about the case, although we could but didn't have to talk to the news media.

     I had just been a member of a jury that rendered a verdict that was going to deprive a young man (he is 20 years old, and was nineteen at the time of the offense) of his liberty, so I felt it incumbent on me to stick around for the sentencing. Mind you, none of us knew why the defendant was in jail at the time of the offense, how long he had been there, or, for that matter, whether he was still there.

     He was still in jail. The defense pleaded that, as it was seven months since the charge was filed, the sentence be time already served. The state asked for the maximum twelve months, to be served consecutive to the ten years he was already serving for armed robbery. The judge talked for awhile about his philosophy of adding time to sentences, and giving consecutive sentences, then passed sentence: sixty days consecutive.

     When I made to leave the courtroom, I was stopped by reporters from the Miami Herald and the Sun-Sentinel, which is the Broward County newspaper.

     The next day I bought both papers to see if I'd been quoted accurately. The Sun-Sentinel article was so accurate I sent the reporter an email (copy to her editor) commending her on it. The Miami Herald article, on the other hand, misquoted me. I had said that because of the glass walls and visitors passing along the corridor, the jail was a "limited access" public place, and was therefore covered under the statute. The Miami Herald article quoted me as saying the cell was a limited access public place. In other words, according to the article, we found the guy guilty of jerking off in jail! I emailed a letter to the editors, to the reporter's editor, and to the reporter about it, in which not only did I say I'd been misquoted, but that had the defendant done anything to make his masturbation private, we wouldn't have found as we did.

     After my one day trial experience, I almost look forward to serving again. Ah, in case anybody in the court system is reading this, that doesn't mean I'm volunteering to be summoned again.