Virginia Garrison | November 6, 1997

They say jurors bond when sequestered for a trial. Reporting to Riverhead for jury duty two weeks ago, I got to see a little of that camaraderie among citizens who didn't even get selected.

I wasn't in much of a mood for making friends - just tired and filled with chauvinism about living on the East End and working for a newspaper. Hot stuff compared to these UpIsland stiffs - including the women who ran the show in the main jurors room, whom I promptly sized up as "Motor Vehicle types," meaning, I suppose, unimaginative bureaucrats working undeservedly cushy bankers' hours.

Naturally, all my suspicions were confirmed as I stealthily surveyed the other people in the main jury room. As groups of them were sent off to various courtrooms, I had a chance to refine my impressions of the dwindling number left in the main room.

Female, long straight hair, black leather jacket, red lipstick. Male-identifying, I surmised, and not too bright.

That sort of thing.

At last I was sent along with several others to a courtroom, where the lawyers' questions yielded still more clues.

Plaintiffs' attorney: What do you do for a living, Ms. So And So?

Asian woman already observed to be wearing dressy professional outfit, with apparent reserve: I'm a psychiatrist.

Attorney: Would it pose a hardship for you to return for a trial the week of Nov. 13?

Woman: Well, yes, I already have patients scheduled that week.

Aha! I thought. Just as I suspected, a cold fish.

Bit by bit, however, the evidence didn't add up. If these UpIslanders were so dull, how to account not only for the psychiatrist but also the nattily dressed landscape architect who had run his own business for 25 years but, to his credit, had never been involved in a lawsuit? Or the does-something-with-computers man with long bangs and a Clark Kent demeanor?

And what about the attorney who had to use an unenclosed pay phone in front of a hall full of jurors to call home and announce he'd be too late to take his son to the orthodontist?

I was excused from the first case and sent off to a second. During a break in the courthouse lunchroom, I sat with three people who were still in the running for the first case. They were weighing their chances of actually being selected for that trial, which was about who was culpable and to what extent in an automobile accident. The cute young black guy who worked for U.P.S. was a shoo-in, teased the two white women, Curly Hair and Retired, with what sounded like affection.

After lunch I was excused from the second case and sent back to the main jurors room. There I found Retired, who had by now been eliminated from the first case. "I think they didn't like the fact that my husband was a cop," she said sorrowfully.

Before long, another of the lunchroom trio, Curly Hair, returned to the big room. Then other members of the original tribe who had not been in the lunchroom came dribbling in: Computer Bangs, Psychiatrist, Motorcycle Jacket.

What happened to you?

They kicked you out?

I knew you'd get the boot!

We're the reject club.

Nobody wants us!

U.P.S. came in, too, but was allowed to leave for the day. He had indeed been selected.

A reunion party was in progress. Where's the hospitality lounge, Motorcycle Jacket asked the Motor Vehicle types behind the big desk at the front of the room.

Curly Hair, it turned out, had been forced to reveal that her fiance, with whom she lived, had been disabled in a truck accident. "I can't help it, I think it's his company's fault," she said somewhat shakily.

The lawyers refused to believe she could be impartial. Motorcycle Jacket, who, incidentally, had almost had an accident on her way to Riverhead, had some sort of a similar situation.

Retired defended her own integrity. She had no opinions about her husband's job as a cop, she insisted, except to say his 4-to-midnight shift had been rough when their children were growing up. She had retired 10 years ago from a job that involved supervising many people and seemed to miss it very, very much.

We gossiped about the fearsome prosecuting attorney, agreeing that we didn't like him, although he was handsome and probably won all his cases. I worried that such chitchat would intimidate Computer Bangs, the only male left in the group. But C.B. chimed in cheerfully that if the attorney was so offputting to jurors he probably lost all his cases.

We set off en masse for another once-over for another case, this one a malpractice suit involving a psychiatric patient who had set her hospital bed on fire. It was no laughing matter, of course, but too late in the day for even the lawyers to treat it all that seriously.

All our eyes fell on the Psychiatrist, and one of the group whispered teasingly that she had a clear conflict of interest. The cold fish giggled like a schoolgirl.

Was it relief or pride we felt when Retired was chosen as an alternate juror? A young Janitor who nodded agreeably to everything the lawyers asked him was chosen as the other alternate they needed, and we were excused from the courthouse, although Retired, like U.P.S., had a date to return two weeks later.

Back in the main jurors room, before we'd been called for the final interrogation, Retired had expressed her sympathy for the court women, whose jobs involve playing videotapes about trial by jury versus trial by ordeal, not to mention calling out people's names and trying to pronounce them.

"You wouldn't want my job for the world?" the court employee echoed, laughing. There was enough disbelief in her voice that you'd think Retired was making the career mistake of her life.

Virginia Garrison is The Star's managing editor.