My first day of jury duty, the Santa Ana winds were blowing, so I arrived soggy with sweat at the hideous 19-story office building in which Los Angeles County justice is meted out. It appeared as though we couple of hundred prospective jurors were about 60 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian, and maybe 99 percent bitter and resentful about having been wrenched from the glamour and excitement of our everyday lives. We were shown an inspirational film whose narrator droned on about the responsibilities of those residing in a democracy. Oceans white with foam and the Statue of Liberty made their expected cameo appearances. An officious County employee droned a little oration in which she used the phrase “at this time” repeatedly, and explained that there was nothing anyone could do about our waiting room being cold enough to store meat in, even though the hot Santa Ana winds had raised the temperature outside to 90° F. Nor did the water fountains work, but we were to derive solace that they didn’t work on any other floor of the building either. Defying dehydration, I occasionally ducked into the men’s room for handfuls of water. In a blind taste test, I would have been able to distinguish it from Pellegrino 10 times out of 10.
At last my number was called. I was to report to Dept. 126, presided over by Superior Court Judge Mildred Escobedo, up on the 15th floor, where, as advertised, the drinking fountains didn’t work. Fifty-five of us waited forever in the corridor outside her courtroom. I didn’t know anyone still named unsuspecting female infants Mildred. It seems a cruel practice.
We were finally allowed into the actual courtroom, surely the most depressing place in North America, with ultra-dismal fluorescent lighting that rendered even Prospective Juror 2, who’d looked quite sexy out in the corridor, gray and miserable. The defendant, accused of having tried to murder a fellow Latino, was a rotund little guy in a wheelchair. All we saw of him was the back of his head.
The last time I was summoned for jury duty — in San Francisco in the mid-90s — I was sent home almost immediately, seemingly because of my black leather motorcycle jacket and sneer. It wasn’t so easy this time. I hoped that glaring at the prosecutor might suffice, but it very quickly emerged that I had very stiff competition for his and his opponent's peremptory challenges. One young woman said that, because the defendant was in a wheelchair, she’d find it impossible, regardless of the evidence, to convict him. It seemed not to occur to her that he might have been injured in the course of trying to kill the other guy, or molesting schoolchildren. Another, who a couple of years ago had been convicted of grand theft, said he’d be unable to believe anything a prosecutor said. A retired firefighter, on the other hand, promised not to believe anyone who looked as though he might be in a gang, which I understood to mean: any young Latino.
Several said they could never find innocent a person who didn’t speak up in his own defense. A few said that a single witness’s testimony could never be sufficient. I could see the DA, whose dismal nausea-colored dress shirt was especially ghastly in the fluorescent light, wanting to roll his eyes. I have never enjoyed the company of the very stupid, and in that dismal courtroom, you could cut the stupidity with a knife, though all weapons had of course been confiscated downstairs, at the building's entrance.
A former fireman didn’t use these exact words, but essentially said he was prepared to take as God’s own truth any testimony by a cop. A fat, neckless prospective juror seated in front of me had four very distinct folds in the back of his head. It occurred to me that addressing Judge Escobedo as Your Highness rather than Your Honor might get me sent home, but might also get me locked up for contempt of court. They’d need 12 jurors and two alternates. I was Prospective Juror No. 22, and it appeared certain that at least 10 ahead of me would be banished either for being delusional or hopelessly dimwitted or for not speaking English. It wasn’t looking good. By the time Her Highness dismissed us for lunch after the DA’s 50 minutes with us, it was looking perfectly awful.
I got myself Japanese at a restaurant on Hill Street in which all the employees seemed to be Latino. It wasn’t at all good. The California rolls were approximately the diameter of a Frisbee, and who ever heard of cutting a piece of California roll, rather than putting the whole thing in your mouth? I returned to the courthouse in an ugly mood.
The defendant was nowhere in sight. We seated ourselves. Her Honor said she had bad news. The trial was now projected to last into December. Around 48 prospective jurors groaned or wailed or rent their garments. Only those who didn’t understand English did not. Her Honor turned out to be kidding. What a cutup, Mildred! She delivered a little oration about how we should be grateful to live in a country with Our System of Justice (I suspect that’s largely true), and how we shouldn’t have groaned and wailed and rent our garments, and sent us on our way.
Free at last. Good God almighty! Free at last!