I Thought the Know-Nothings Were Extinct

While I was in the jury selection room last year, I conducted a little anthropological research. This was not by choice; my intent had been to quietly work on the second draft of “Heart of the Warrior”, but the chatter of those around me made it difficult to focus.

The chief subject of my study was an older woman who had somehow managed to avoid a summons up until now. She had a number of odd opinions which she shared loudly with those in her vicinity, but what interested me was the way she closed off discussion when her notions were challenged.

In itself, there’s nothing unusual about someone shutting off contrary information. Certain news channels even cater to those who already know all they care to. What caught my attention was how she went about it. By way of example I’ll use the AT&T snitch discussion.

According to her, AT&T spontaneously detected that a) her daughter was cursing on the phone b) to her own daughter, c) who is a minor. The phone company then informed the police and unpleasant federal charges ensued. Therefore you should always be wary of technology.

By now we should all be aware that our communications are (at least) randomly scanned for certain key words and phrases by Homeland Security, but they frankly aren’t likely to give a shit about cussing. You’re more likely to attract their attention by saying that your car bombed out on the way to the airport.

But let’s posit that AT&T is itself scanning all conversations for cuss-words. That’s a ton of data passing through filters and detectors just to monitor naughty words, but let’s say they do it. They would then need to detect that there is a child on the line. Possible, within a small margin of error, for extremely young children perhaps. Older teens would be practically impossible, though. They’d then need to investigate possible instances of children hearing naughty words to actually identify all parties and their ages. This is a massive expense of additional equipment and labor just to protect virgin ears, purportedly being done by a for-profit company.

When one of those hearing this tale pointed out that it would be difficult for the phone company to assume the burden of policing language, she immediately shut down the discussion.

“Well,” she said, “I don’t know about that, but my daughter was convicted.”

She had launched into this story, not to talk about her daughter’s plight, but to back up her assertion that technology is evil. Now, with that portion of the tale challenged, she acted as though it was an irrelevant detail — one that warranted no discussion. Her reinforcement of the outcome served to assert that she’d been right, whatever she’d been talking about.

I didn’t get much writing done, as I was drawn into her bizarre performance. She held court for the entire morning, espousing her baseless views and deflecting any criticism with her trusty shield of Not Knowing. (Global warming doesn’t mean that there won’t be cold weather. “I don’t know about that, but I had to turn on the furnace earlier this year.”)

She even had theories about how we were being called up to be dismissed. Despite the fact that they were clearly just going through a stack of forms in no particular order, she had an elaborate explanation that evolved as names were called. At first this stunned me, as she’d resisted any input for over three hours. Then I realized the difference.

She disregarded only what she didn’t witness. Her experience informed her opinion, and she didn’t trust the experience of others (or at least of strangers). Human nature, really; it’s just that I’ve rarely observed it so blatantly and repeatedly expressed in such a short span of time. My own experience was that things get shouty when conviction butts into knowledge, but that never happened here. Perhaps it was that the others in the conversation were simply killing time and weren’t all that interested in convincing her of anything.

I don’t know about that, but it’s a probably a good thing I was only observing.


Judge Not, Nor Jury Either

After freaking out for several months about my impending jury duty, it of course became a non-event. I showed up shortly after 8:00 AM, slightly delayed by the metal in my belt, and had chosen an aisle chair by the 8:15 reporting time. Of the four scheduled trials one had ended in a settlement, two had the defendents cop a plea, and one defendent (perhaps having seen us) opted for a bench trial. According to my Twitter timestamps, we were all let go around 10:30.

Of course, “let go” drastically oversimplifies the process. We were called up, one at a time, to return our badges and collect our pay cards. Then we stood in line at a custom ATM that read the cards and spat out — rather contemptuously — $17 for our inconvenience.

I had nearly made it back to my car (in a university parking lot half of a mile away), when the day again threatened to become legal. At a 4-way stop I witnessed a driver run the stop sign and smack the rear of another car.

The offending driver pulled up next to me and stormed out of her car, barking about lawyers and such. She asked me if I’d seen what happened, and I warily admitted that I had. Then the driver of the other car came over, and the woman who’d caused the accident started yelling at her.

“You had a stop sign!” she roared.

The women who’d been run into goggled at this and simply retorted “So did you.”

There was an awkward moment as the first woman stared at the sign she’d blown through.

“Oh God,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

At that the two started to sort things out rationally. Relieved that my testimony would not be needed after all, I quietly slipped away.

Having dodged the jury box and the witness stand, my only remaining goal for the day was to stay clear of the defense table.

Trial by Trial

My jury summons is for next week, and my thoughts of late have centered on the trial I sat on the last time I answered a summons.

It was the first summons I’d had to answer; every time previously had been for courts where my parents lived while I’d been away at college. Everyone had assured me that all I’d have to do would be to read a book for a while. In the unlikely event I wound up on a jury, I was told, it would be some minor suit that would be settled as soon as the opening statements were over.

Instead, for three days I heard testimony about a murder over hurt pride. The whole thing was upsetting, and not just because of the stupid waste of lives.

We all know that TV is filled with lies, but sometimes we just don’t want to believe it. In reality judges are unengaged, lawyers are inarticulate, police lose evidence, and there is no moment that makes the case irrefutable. There’s just a parade of witnesses that aren’t allowed to say much and twelve people trying to make sense of it.

So I’m really hoping that this time I just get to sit and read for a while. The plot would undoubtedly be better.

Registering Complaint

I got a notice from the county to register for jury duty. This is different from a summons; it’s sort of preliminary step where they want to remind me that they own my ass and might decide to claim it soon. I need to fill out a questionnaire (why are so many government communications centered on forms?) that basically ensures that I can’t run away. Later, perhaps in the next month or two, I’ll get the actual notice. Unless I don’t.

Being on a jury is weird, but that’s not what I’m worried about. A few years ago I served on a murder trial. It’s dull, and it will kill your illusions about the oratory skills of lawyers, but it’s not difficult or stressful. If it’s my turn again, then it’s my turn.

What bothers me is the uncertainty of it all. I have a trip coming up in a few weeks to which I’m really looking forward. With the two-week response window and time for data processing, there’s very little chance that any summons would conflict with my long weekend. I know this.

Nonetheless my brain is working on the assumption that the notice will arrive while I’m out-of-state and that it will all end with me on the wrong side of the jury box being judged by sensible people, who reworked their plans to fulfill their obligations. I fear they won’t understand that two nights of monster movies at a drive-in in Pennsylvania is more important than waiting around to maybe be selected to possibly hear a case.

Maybe I can submit Vincent Price movies as my defense. At the very least, my crime would seem trivial in comparison to his trail of cinematic slayings.