Jury Duty

I was excited to be summoned to jury duty.

Most people don’t say that. It’s a pain in the butt. There’s no fame or fortune linked to it. The $9 a day isn’t enough to pay for parking, let alone lunch, in downtown Pittsburgh.

I’m an old reporter and I thought it would be exciting to be in court again.

And the irony wasn’t lost on me when I took an oath to be impartial in listening to evidence senators acting as the jury in President Trump’s impeachment trial were being asked to do the same.

Allegheny County’s criminal courts are in a beautiful ancient Romanesque building centered around a courtyard and linked to the old county jail by a bridge my mother called the “Bridge of Sighs,” when she worked there as a nurse in the 1970s.

Entering the courthouse is like going into a dungeon. All dark with old signs that haven’t changed since the 1930s.

The jury room is up several floors in a big courtroom.

We jurors entered the room like we were entering a church for a funeral, except there was paperwork involved. No one spoke to each other and if you did it was quietly, respectfully. Except for the girl behind me complaining that this was her fourth time in two years she’d been summoned.

Paperwork  signed, vouchers handed out, we awaited our fate. It’s a roll of the dice. One day or one trial.

Courts in New York state where I worked for 30 years are very simple, there’s no romance to it.

The court clerk begins the session saying “All rise. This court is in session the Honorable XYZ presiding.”  Blah, and business begins.

Pennsylvania is a commonwealth, a more English definition of government.

“All rise,” sang out the court clerk. “The Court of Common Pleas is now in session. The Honorable Judge Edward Kozlowski presiding. All those with business before the court draw near and be heard. God bless the court and God bless the Commonwealth.”

The judge sat down. Then we sat down.

The judge explained what was expected of us and left. I read one of four magazines I brought with me. (I  knew it was going to be a long day.) I could see a woman in front of me knitting. (Man, why didn’t I bring mine along.)

The young man next to me looked bored. I handed him a magazine. He told me he was worried about his job working in a warehouse. He earned about $15 an hour and he wasn’t sure his bosses would pay him for the time off if he got picked to be on a jury. Nine bucks a day in jury pay wasn’t going to cover him.

About 15 minutes in they called the first 20 of us to a separate room for jury selection. I was juror 20. We filed into a room where two defendants and their defense teams and prosecutors looked us over.

This was jury selection for a big trial. The clerk read the charges. The two were accused of a mass murder that killed five people and an unborn child at a backyard barbecue.

I vaguely remembered something about it. We weren’t living in Pittsburgh when the shooting took place in 2016. It was obvious everyone else in the room knew exactly what case we were being asked to sit on. https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/after-4-years-wilkinsburg-mass-shooting-case-comes-down-to-3-week-trial/

The clerk handed out a four-page single spaced witness list that had more than 100 names on it. It looked like cops in three municipalities would testify.

The judge warned us we would be asked to serve 10 to 15 days on the jury.

The judge, defense and prosecutors left the room. They called the first juror for questioning. Fifteen minutes later they called the next juror, the young man I’d been chatting with.

We waited some more. I fidgeted. I had a blood test and treatment scheduled for next week. I flagged down the clerk as she collected the witness list.

I’d be more than happy to serve on the jury, I told her. But I have stage 4 cancer and treatment next week. If you could tell me when the court’s day normally ends, I could call and reschedule them to later in the day?

She patted my hand. There’s no problem. They won’t let you miss your treatments, she said.

A little while later they sent us out to lunch with orders not to go to the courthouse’s fourth floor and not to say anything to anyone about the trial.  We wandered out, smokers lighting up when they hit the sidewalk.

An hour later, we were back in the room looking out at downtown through the big windows and trying to figure out how to pass the time.

The clerk returned. Turns out they only needed two more jurors. You’re free to go. Thanks for your time. Your check will be in the mail.

The chatty young man had never returned to our room.

The trial lasted almost three weeks. The charges against one defendant were dropped the day the trial began and the jury acquitted the second. It’s a big scandal. People want justice.

I wonder if the chatty young man still has a job.