I was more than confident, I was cocky.
It was the first week of October. I was sitting at the weekly East Hampton Star editorial meeting. I had already talked about what I anticipated the next few days would bring me on my beat, which is cops and robbers, plus the town’s zoning and planning boards. (Sometimes the last two are confused for the first two, but they are different, I swear.)
I was finishing up, and, almost as an aside, I said, “I have jury duty on Tuesday.”
I know how the system works. Hell, I’m part of the system. I’d be put through voir dire for one or two trials and then dismissed. It would only be a day or two at most. There was no way I’d be chosen.
“There’s as much chance of me being picked for a jury as there is of me being elected president of the United States next month,” I joked. Everyone laughed. Who’d want a juror who covered cops and robbers on their jury?
It had been many years since I’d last done jury duty. Many years. Twelve deferrals ago. Sometimes I would get a summons and ignore it. A second summons would follow the first, this time much sterner. I’d go down to Centre Street and tell them I was going to be away on business, or I’d just started a new job, or yada yada yada. The stories I told the clerks over the years were always true, but I knew that I was ducking an obligation.
“Okay, well, your new date is Oct. 9,” the clerk told me the last time I was there in June.
I was being summoned for jury duty in Manhattan because, while I’ve worked for The Star since the beginning of the year, I haven’t given up our Manhattan residence. Some people are bi-coastal, I’m bi-island.
On Oct. 9 I was due to appear in New York State Supreme Court as a potential juror in a criminal trial. Might as well finally get it over with — I was untouchable. And I wouldn’t receive any more of those pesky summonses for six years.
At 9 a.m. that morning I stood in line with several hundred other potential jurors outside 100 Centre Street, waiting to pass through security. I was reminded of what a quiet town East Hampton really is when I got near the door and looked at the arraignment schedule posted there.
Under the Constitution, after being arrested, arrestees must be arraigned — that is, told judicially what the state is charging them with — within 24 hours of the arrest. In East Hampton, it is an impromptu process. Last night’s drunken driver, after sleeping it off in a holding cell at police headquarters, will be brought to East Hampton Town Court after the judge sitting that day has had an opportunity to review paperwork from the police, usually around 10 in the morning.
Not so in Manhattan. In the city, courts dedicated to arraignments operate throughout the day, 24/7. The jail, known as the Tombs, is attached to the courthouse via an enclosed bridge, so arrestees can be brought right over.
I went to the jurors’ waiting room on the 15th floor. It was the size of a gymnasium, filled with chairs. No worries. I’d soon be a free man.
I had a heavy load that week from The Star. I found a little corner and set up my laptop on a box. I heard my name called. Shoot. I packed up my laptop and headed to the 13th floor.
There were 50 of us sitting in the courtroom. The judge, Justice Lewis Bart Stone, explained that the trial would probably last until about Nov. 8. Jeez, I thought. I’m glad I’m not going to be on this one.
My name was called again, this time to sit in the jury box with 17 other prospective jurors. This was a process that would be repeated as many times as necessary until the attorneys and the judge agreed on the 12 jurors plus three alternates needed to proceed to trial. We were handed laminated cards, on which were a series of questions. The last question was, in essence: Do you have any friends or relatives who are either attorneys, members of a police force, or either accused or convicted felons?
When I got to that one, I paused for a moment, then said, “I have friends who are attorneys, I have friends who are cops, and I have friends who are alleged criminals. That’s my job.”
The courtroom broke out in laughter. Yes! I would be on my way to East Hampton in just a few more minutes.
We were all sent to wait in the hallway outside while the attorneys and judge negotiated over who would be kept and who would be sent home. I talked with two prospective jurors who’d been in the pool of 18 while we waited. He was a doctor and she was a corrections officer.
“You’re overeducated, and there is no way they’re keeping a corrections officer,” I said to them. “We’ll all be dismissed.”
They called us back into the courtroom and called three names. The doctor, the corrections officer, and, of course, me.
Six weeks later, on Nov. 21, 2012, the jury in the case of the People of the State of New York vs. Marte, Marte-Tejada, Meran, and Osuna rendered its verdict. In the interim, the doctor and the corrections officer were released from the jury for personal reasons.
Me, I was still there. The 12 remaining jurors rendered justice as best we could, given the information presented to us. I came away from the experience with a profound sense of gratitude for being able to live in a country where the people are in charge of rendering justice.
Still, thinking back to that early-October editorial meeting, I guess I should have run for president after all.
When he is not on jury duty, T.E. McMorrow covers police and government news for The Star.