Jury Duty

Jury Duty

Jury duty. These 2 simple words can cause a great reaction in many of us – and usually not a good one.

My usual tactic of avoiding jury duty (calling really late on the last possible day) surprisingly did not work for me a couple of years ago and I was pissed as I listened to the automated voice telling me to be at the courthouse by 8 AM the next morning. It was midnight and I was exhausted.

I arrived exactly at 8 and when I got to the holding area I was astonished to see a vast comfortable room with separate glassed in reading and TV rooms in the back, a great workspace with desks for at least a dozen people, several modern yet comfortable tables and chairs, a huge outdoor deck and best of all, many miles of beautiful blue cushioned couch like seating, with no arm rests so you could actually lie down and sleep. I was in heaven.

After waiting for what seemed like forever we were eventually called downstairs to the courtroom and jury selection began at last.

The judge asked if anyone had any hardships. There were the usual complaints.

“I work and don’t have time”

“I just started my web business and haven’t slept in days” (he got to postpone after about 20 minutes of explaining)

“I look after my ill Father”

The most interesting hardship to me was the Spanish language radio guy who by himself was pretty much the whole radio station, apparently the #1 rated Spanish show in LA.

People out in the hallway were really excited when they saw this guy. He explained to the judge that he basically is the entire radio station and works all day putting together all the news, comedy bits… everything. Without him there is nothing on the air.

Still the judge kept him there.

But when he was asked if he had any biases against landlords or tenants, or could he ever evict a tenant who was not paying the rent and the law showed they should be evicted, he said absolutely not. In fact his station had helped several people from being evicted by landlords and he said it would go against everything he believes in. He was excused.

The best prospective juror by far though was the woman that we jurors affectionately came to call “The Devil Wears Prada”.

She was buxom and short with wild long frizzy blond hair. She was about 25 pounds overweight and her face became increasingly redder the more flustered and stressed out of her mind she became.

She said she couldn’t serve because she was way too busy working at her very stressful job and she was the only one who could do this high end fashion job of sending out an exclusive line of shawls and the owners were in Paris this week and they were dealing with Barneys and (with a wave of her hand) we just wouldn’t understand.

It was awesome. The judge informed her that she could stay or postpone her service for a few months. She said it would be even busier during the holidays and that since she was already here, she would rather stay now than have to reschedule.

Smoke seemed to be coming out of her ears. I think she even tried to say that she would have a bias against the landlord but the judge asked her that if she saw all the facts could she make an unbiased decision? She visibly slumped as she said yes. The judge seated her as alternate juror # 14.

The dwindling group of us were a wonderful mixture of bright, articulate, civic-minded people that I could see being good friends with. Three of us were actresses including a lovely woman who was one of the creators of Reno 911.

Several people in the courthouse were extremely excited to see her, especially the cops.

Our own wonderful court concierge (I forget her official title) the lovely Jackie was also was a fan.

The down to earth and absolutely fantastic judge Carlin was a dream come true. He was a kind, friendly, bright, compassionate man who explained everything to us beautifully and thoroughly. He was extremely passionate about the judicial process and as he guided us with a sure, fatherly hand, he managed to instill in us his joy with the process, and the importance of the work being done.

Two men, ten women, with a sweet hearing impaired man and the Devil Wears Prada lady as alternates. We were ready to go.

We began with the legal counsel for the plaintiff, a man who was- how can I politely say this- not quite a member of the dream team. Nor a Rhodes scholar. Quite possibly the bottom of his class.

He was around 60, tall, homely and thin, with bad skin, a growth on his lower right lip and a suit that was several sizes too big for him. I’m sure he had dandruff.

Where did they find this guy? What would posses them to hire him?! Oh wait let me guess-he was probably the cheapest guy they could find.

He had an awkward way of being- nervous, slumped and defeated even while standing and speaking.

His voice was strangled and thin and he had to be told a few times to please speak up.

I won’t go into all the many boring details of the case (your welcome!) which went blessedly quickly as it turned out.

It goes quickly when you don’t really have a case.

Cliff notes version: a rent controlled building was bought by a corporation in 2009 and they were trying to evict a sweet little old Hispanic woman who couldn’t understand a word of English and had lived in the building for 16 years with her 2 daughters and her grandson.

The plaintiffs said she hadn’t paid rent for January, February and March of that year, even though she sent certified money orders for those months, which the plaintiffs signed for, and then “mailed them back” to her! Seriously. She sent more than she owed in rent, they signed for them, looked at them, and then mailed them back. Unreal!

To this day no one knows where the money orders are and they have never been cashed.

I would hazard a guess that the evil landlord still has them or he has shredded them.

Day 2- alternate juror # 14 is a no show! We are all seated and the judge tells us that he knows what is going on and he will deal with her later and he will be able to tell us at the end of the trial what happened.

Wow! Our minds were racing as we began the proceedings.

About 25 minutes later, DWP herself enters dripping with sweat and stress, smoke definitely coming out of her ears, her face blotched and crimson with a look that can only be described as pure misery. She confers with Jackie on the side and sits sullen faced for about 15 minutes as we try desperately to remain focused on the endless drivel that emanates from the drooling maw of the non ivy league and barely functional plaintiff’s attorney.

DWP eventually leaves, never to be seen again. I feel that we are all collectively, secretly, disappointed. Our entertainment is gone.

I give her 5 years before she drops dead of a heart attack if she doesn’t change her lifestyle.

The plaintiff’s evidence was shown up on the screen. The lawyer pointed out that we could see that the defendant did not over pay her rent. In fact she had underpaid over the last 16 years to the amount of-are you ready?- $1.42. Yes one dollar and forty two cents. And the guy was serious.

The hardest part about being on a jury, is not being allowed to say anything and to sit there expressionless and listen to this kind of stuff. It was at this point that I wanted to take $1.42 out of my purse (hopefully all in pennies) and hurl it at the landlord and his sad sack litigator.

The main public defender for the defendant, a young woman in her mid thirties of Indian descent, did a nice job of showing how the rent was paid on time for all the years the defendant lived in the building. She also showed how the landlord had tried to evict her before and how they tried to raise the rent on the bogus grounds of too many people occupying the unit.

She had records of everything and for her closing argument even had a large handy dandy chart which showed the 2 main questions that we had to answer for this case. I knew we would be deliberating for about 5 minutes tops.

Even though I could not say anything, I would occasionally give the evil eye to the landlord. He just stared straight ahead, going through the motions that were required of him to try to get this woman out on the street so he could have more money in his pocket.

We started on a Monday morning and by Wednesday at 11:30 AM we had the case.

We went into the jury room, got our instructions and prepared to pick our foreperson. When asked if anyone wanted to volunteer, I couldn’t keep my hand from rising and so I became the jury foreperson.

I was correct with the 5 minute deliberation time guess. We were all pretty disgusted with this case. Especially because they had tried to evict her before a few months previously. She won that case acting as her own attorney.

We all really admired this sweet little lady and were happy she had her sharp as a whip daughter to help her fight the evil bastardos who would undoubtedly try this again in a matter of days.

Jackie was surprised to get the double buzz so quickly and we re entered the courtroom with a bounce in our collective steps.

My favorite part of course was being able to say,

“Yes your honor we have reached a verdict”.

He went around to all of us to make sure we voted the way we voted and then thanked us for our service. He said we could now talk to any and everyone about the case. We could talk to him afterwards, the lawyers may want to ask us questions, we didn’t have to answer if we didn’t want to, and we could ask them questions.

He then asked if any of us had any questions.

“What happened to the Devil Wears Prada!” came the cry. We sat on the edges of our seats.

She was late-she had called- and said she was going to be fired from her job if she served on jury duty. The judge informed us that this was illegal but they didn’t have the personnel to go to Paris to arrest the employers so they postponed her jury service for 6 months. And she will probably not get as short a case as this one.

It wasn’t as dramatic as we had imagined but we were pleased she would have to return to perform her civic duty.

“Any other questions?” judge Carlin asked.

I raised my hand.

“How many times can he do this to her?” I enquired as I motioned to the scumbag landlord.

The judge-God bless him- gave the most wonderfully calm, non biased answer you could imagine. He said the plaintiffs could try again if they felt they had just cause, and also there was something legal that the defendant could do to limit these occurrences.

She would have to get some kind of legal injunction against the landlord to stop the harassment. Crazy. But at least she had some recourse.

When we adjourned, we gathered out in the lobby feeling great about the outcome, but sorry this sweet lady had to go through this ordeal. Several of us hugged her and her daughter and told them to keep fighting this creep.

The plaintiff’s lawyer came up to me and asked how we reached our verdict. I told him this case never should have been brought to trial because they didn’t have any evidence supporting their claims. She sent the rent checks in on time and they sent them back by regular mail. No proof.

It was a clear case of trying to evict a long term tenant to get more money in rent and I thought it was disgusting.

I wheeled around to the cretinous landlord who was listening a few feet away and admonished,

“You should be ashamed of yourself!”

He immediately jerked his glance away from mine and looked heavenward as if hoping for some kind of redemption there.

His lawyer then whined that the defendant could have inquired about the money orders not being cashed but I stopped him before he could go further.

“You asked my opinion and I gave it. This should never have come to trial. This was a waste of time and money and you should be ashamed for trying to evict a little old lady who has paid her rent on time every month for the last 16 years.”

Justice!!! Oh the sweetness of it. To be able to give them a piece of my mind in a polite and professional way was icing on the cake. I almost had to be scraped off the ceiling it was so exhilarating. OK maybe not quite like that but I felt high from the experience.

It was definitely one of the most interesting 2 ½ days of my life.

It was an honor to serve on this jury and although it can be a tad inconvenient it is a truly rewarding experience. I highly recommend it.

Our justice system is pretty great and to be part of the process is quite fascinating. And if you are picked for jury duty at the Santa Monica courthouse, I hope you are lucky enough to have judge Carlin on the bench. That man is a saint!

Catherine McClenahan