So… several years ago I was called for Jury Duty down at the Daley Center, which for those of you not from Chicago, is both the city and Cook County courthouse in the heart of the Loop. It mostly tries civil cases, ie lawsuits. As it happens, I don’t mind being called for jury duty. It is my responsibility, and I take it seriously. In fact, I’ve kind of wanted to be put on a murder case, and I was questioned for a murder trial. Unfortunately, they rejected me, and I haven’t yet had the privilege of serving on a jury. Maybe today would be different.
Follow along. This is what we call a Chicago story.
I arrived at 8:30 AM as instructed. I went to the jury room where after about 45 minutes we were shown a video about the rights and responsibilities of being a juror. I didn’t realize that America is the only country in the world that allows a litigant a jury trial if they wish. Yay USA.
Btw, Timothy Evans, who used to be a firebrand alderman, is now the Chief Judge of Cook County. Boy, has he changed! I sense he likes the life. And a younger, mustachioed Lester Holt was the on-camera narrator. It may be time to update the video, guys.
I was assigned to Jury pool #1, and I promptly thought, “Wow! This could be a short day.” I waited (that’s mostly what you do when you’re called for jury duty) for them to start calling the pools. Imagine my disappointment when the first up was #11. I sagged. The second was #12. More sagging. But the 3rd call was my resurrection: it was Pool #1!
Off I went, with about 35 of my newest best buddies to the 24th floor, where, of course, we waited again, for about half an hour.
At about 10 AM, we were led into the courtroom. Plaintiff, defense… each with two lawyers on either side. The judge welcomed us talked a little about what we should expect, that it would be a one day trial, and that it involved a traffic accident in a parking garage.
My blood pressure shot up. Yeah, I knew I was in for a civil case. But a traffic accident? In a parking garage? Really?
The judge gave a few more details, then asked if any of us wanted to make a comment after voir dire. I raised my hand.
The lawyers asked questions… if one of the principals in the case wanted to become a pastor, would that be a problem for us? Nope. If another did a stint in rehab, was that a problem? Nope. Had any of us been the victims of a crime? If so, what? (I was mugged at Maggianos 8 years ago. Unharmed, but trapped in the revolving door while my wallet was lifted). No big deal.
Then the defense lawyer asked the most convoluted question I’ve ever heard. For a writer, that’s a CODE BLUE… if you can’t fricking understand the question, how can you answer it? Apparently everyone agreed, because the lawyer tried to rephrase it and asked, “Does that make any sense?”
I piped up and said No. For some reason, everyone in the courtroom laughed. Including the judge who said, well, I guess you have your answer.
Twenty minutes later they called the people who’d wanted to make a comment into the judge’s chambers. I was the last to be called. I went in. The lawyers were there, the judge behind his desk.
“Well, Hello author,” he said cheerfully. “Are you any relation to Lillian?”
I winced. I get that all the time. “I only wish…”
“So what do you want to say to us?”
I took a breath. “I’m sorry, your honor. I know I’m being unfair. But I’m already prejudiced about this case.”
“I realize I don’t know the facts of the case, but it sounds to me that this is a frivolous lawsuit that should have been settled a long time ago. There are so many more important issues that the Cook County ought to be considering that I am honestly irritated that I have to deal with what might turn out to be a fender bender. It’s a waste of the court’s resources and energies.”
The judge stared at me. The lawyers’ faces turned red. There was silence in the room.
Then the judge laced his hands behind his head. “Well now, Ms. Hellmann. Based on your comments, I think you would be a PERFECT juror down at 26th and Cal. And I’m going to see that you go there.”
Again, for those of you who don’t know, 26th and Cal is the criminal courthouse for Cook County. That’s where they adjudicate the murders, the drug deals, the armed robberies, etc.
Now as far as I know, the judge didn’t know I was a crime fiction author, although I suspect that the lawyers, all of whom had laptops, probably Googled me before I came in. And it’s not that I don’t want to go down there. It’s just that I need to plan for it. It takes over an hour to drive from where I live, and I have to do something about the dog, if I’m going to be gone all day. But that’s not what you say to a judge.
I knew what he was saying. He knew what I was saying. And we both knew I wasn’t going to be on this jury.
“Whatever you think, Judge,” I said.
This could have been the end of the story. But hey, this is Chicago.
The judge and lawyers came back into the courtroom and announced who was on the jury. I wasn’t, of course. Then the judge said, “The rest of you can go back to the jury pool room, collect your checks, and go home.
Except for Ms. Hellmann.”
Everyone looked at me. I smiled at the Judge. The sheriff’s deputy escorted me down to the jury pool room and told the clerk behind the counter that I was NOT excused and that the judge wanted me re-assigned to 26th and Cal.
The clerk frowned. I knew he was thinking “WTF?” He asked me to step aside while he handed over checks to the other excused jurors.
I waited. Again. About twenty minutes.
Then he motioned me over. “I think I know what’s going on,” he said. “You’re the type that marches to a different drummer, aren’t you?”
“Not really,” I said. “All I did was tell the judge I thought it was a frivolous lawsuit.”
“Ahh…” the clerk said, and nodded. Then he cocked his head. I knew he had a weighty decision to make.
Finally he said, “I’m not gettin’ involved in this. Here’s your check. Take it and get out of here before anyone else sees you.”
I mouthed the words “Thank you,” took my check, and hurried to the elevator before he could change his mind.
Don’t you love Chicago?