Adventures in Jury Duty
The night was already turning rancid when Marc Anthony arrived to remind me of my past. Around eleven, my new teaching course friends and I had arrived at one of Guadalajara’s hottest clubs and danced happily for a few hours. I got completely hammered though, and high off of some weed Ruben bought from a guy running a hotdog stand. Everyone was brushing up against each other in the humid room, and half the sweat on my body belonged to other people. A stranger had spilled a pint of Stella all over my top grain leather boots while stumbling past me to the bathrooms, and then groped me as he’d steadied himself. I’d lost my keys but decided to worry about it later. I could handle a lot on a night out.
It was only when Marc Anthony’s 2013 hit single “Vivir Mi Vida” came on over the loudspeakers that I decided I needed some air. Hardly a decision, really–I had an almost physical reaction to hearing “Vivir Mi Vida” again. Not because the song was bad, although it was, but because four months earlier, I’d had to listen to it on repeat for a week in a stuffy courtroom in Van Nuys, set to a slideshow of a Belarusian couple’s demented Cancun vacation photos.
Sadistically, this club was located on the second story of a building, and I almost twisted my ankles on my way down the steep, beer-coated stairs. My high heeled boots didn’t help–quality leather is porous and they’d absorbed most of the stranger’s Stella Artois, but the volume of liquid had overwhelmed them, and my feet were simmering in a sweat-yeast concoction, squelching with every step. When I finally reached the end and pushed the door open to feel the night air on my skin, the relief was immediate but not complete. I could still hear Marc Anthony’s voice seeping onto the street as he sang the chorus: “Voy a reír, voy a bailar, vivir mi vida,” lie, lie, lie, lie!
I sat on a bench across from the club. A homeless guy came up next to me and offered me a puff of his cigarette, which I accepted. He told me in Spanish that my hair was pretty. Anna, the Belarusian woman from the Cancun vacation photos, had beautiful hair, like shimmering white soft-soap drizzling into your hand. Pretty hair was a trap–you could never dye or chop it for fear of ruining your natural beauty. It subjugated you.
“No,” I said, “Es Fea.”
“Feo,” he corrected.
My friends came down to collect me after that, saying that I needed to stop wandering off without telling anyone, and they were taking me back to Ruben’s apartment to unwind.
I squelched half a mile back to Ruben’s place, speaking very little, trying to find the words to describe what I’d been feeling. “Everything’s just up to chance. I mean, I was somewhere else last month, and now I’m here, with you guys,” was what I eventually came up with. Everyone agreed halfheartedly and changed the subject. “And it’s so unfair,” I pushed on, “like how that guy was homeless?”
Ruben said that maybe I should lie down.
In the early months of 2018, I was called for jury duty. It was a period of general malaise–I had graduated from college just a few months earlier and ended up unemployed, unhappy, and unsure what to do with my life. A jury summons had arrived the summer before, but I’d forgotten to deal with it. The second summons, sent in late February, was harsher, citing my failure to appear and threatening fines and penalties so, although I felt that the justice system was a farce and the individual could have no real effect, I registered on the LA jury duty portal and showed up to the courthouse at 7 AM.
The Van Nuys Civic Center was a sleek and modern complex surrounded by bail bond offices and pawnshops, with abandoned shopping carts and tumbleweeds blocking the sidewalks and large piles of trash rotting in shaded corners where the wind had blown them. A statue of a muscly, generic Native American stood in the middle of the complex. To make a sincere but metaphorically confused political statement, some earnest vandal had dipped the statue’s hands in red paint. A man in a covered booth directed me to the right building.
The jury waiting room was like the Greek underworld: dimly lit, passively miserable, and removed from linear time. After getting through security and filling out some paperwork, I sat alone with sunglasses on and headphones in, rereading the same page of a novel as the upstanding citizens of the San Fernando Valley filtered in. My sunglasses made it nearly impossible to read but I didn’t want to give any hint of encouragement to the retiree sitting across from me, who occasionally looked over as if to strike up a conversation. At one point, we were shown a video from the nineties about the cherished American institution of the jury trial, and what this meant in California, The Greatest State in the Union. No more progress was made until after our lunch break. The spirits of the dead were growing restless.
Eventually, the bailiff summoned the first group of prospective jurors to appear before the court. About fifty of us were led from the jury room to the court and instructed to wait in the hallway for another two hours. I’d been broken down enough by now to talk to the others. A Korean woman fed me pocky while showing me videos of her children.
When we finally saw the judge, a woman in her fifties who looked like my least favorite middle school teacher, it was only to eliminate candidates based on financial and medical hardship. As a healthy, unemployed 22-year-old living with her parents, this didn’t help me. Still, I was convinced that once it came to questioning, I would be eliminated based on my personality. Professional types often disliked me instinctively. I was reactive and disrespectful, and it was my hope that either the defense or prosecution lawyers, after looking at me and hearing what I had to say, would deem me unfit to participate in the criminal justice system.
By day three, I was worried. We spent most of each day just waiting around, and the real adults told me that while waiting was normal with jury duty, they’d never wasted this much time sitting on metal benches outside of a courtroom before. In court, the questions were not designed to let me broadcast my degeneracy. The case centered around domestic violence, which I had no personal experience with, and the lawyers’ only elimination criteria was bias. When the prosecution asked me if I thought people were likely to lie about abuse, I had to say no, and when the defense asked me if I thought it was possible, I had to say yes. As for experiences with the system, they were scant. Nobody in my family had ever been charged with a crime except for an uncle who’d been caught with weed in high school, and although my mother’s cousin was murdered by a serial killer, it had happened before I was born.
Some candidates went on the offensive to get excused. One woman nearly shouted at the prosecution that yes, people lie about domestic violence all the time–her ex-boyfriend had stabbed himself in the arm to get her arrested. Another guy seethed that he’d been called for jury duty twice a year for over twenty years, and he would let himself be thrown in jail for disobedience before serving on another jury. I came up with elaborate stories to discredit myself but when actually confronted with the lawyers’ questions, I ended up just telling the truth.
By the end of the week, I was officially juror number nine. There were twelve of us, as is customary, plus two alternates, who had the unenviable task of sitting through the entire trial without getting to vote unless one of the real jurors either died or got disqualified.
According to the 1968 Jury Selection and Service Act, a well-balanced jury should be “selected at random from a fair cross section of the community.” Having grown up in a time when political nihilism was the default, I was surprised to find that my jury actually met this expectation. The group skewed older, as retired people are more able and amenable to serving on a jury than those with full-time jobs, but there seemed to be no trend in either race or gender. Among the retirees, we had a sweet old Cuban lady who wore real pearls to court every day, a Black gospel singer who’d toured the country with her six kids, and as an alternate, a Russian doctor who’d gained American citizenship by serving as a medic in Vietnam. We also had a very friendly white vet tech who’d switched to the swing shift in order to serve on the jury, an Armenian real estate agent who was always arguing into his Samsung Galaxy, and the Postmaster of Santa Monica, an older Black guy whose supreme calm and confidence allowed him to act as social Xanax when the rest of us seemed about to revolt after hours of waiting.
The trial got off to a rocky start. Our judge told us, on the fourth and final day of selection, that the trial would last another two weeks. This was met with sighs of discontent. The next day, they only let us into the courtroom deep into the afternoon, and the lawyers had just enough time to give their opening statements. The prosecutors, a male-female pair of attractive young Asians, told us that they would prove through photographic, video, and text-based evidence, that the defendant had been abusing his wife for years, and the level of violence was only escalating. The defense lawyers, two middle-aged Russian Jewish men, one with fantastic hair and the other bald, explained that their client had been framed. When closely examined, the evidence against him would collapse like a house of cards. The defendant, Ivan, glanced over at us shyly. He was a strikingly handsome IT professional in his forties with a strong jaw and Siberian husky eyes.
The next week, the prosecution produced their star witness, Ivan’s wife Anna. Quiet and nervous, she looked like, and in fact was, a runway model. Blonde and blue-eyed like her husband, Anna was 24 and so thin that she seemed slightly translucent–5 foot 10 and 112 pounds, as the prosecution repeatedly stressed. I would occasionally zone out during her testimony and focus in on the prominent bones of her wrists, or the tips of her ribs jutting out below her clavicles. She wore borrowed pantsuits two sizes too large, paired with starched button downs and a high ponytail. Even still, she looked otherworldly.
The prosecution showed us pictures of the couple’s apartment so often that we had the layout memorized. It was a cramped and dingy space–she wasn’t with him for the money. They had Anna recount the details of each abuse charge while displaying pictures of the room where it happened behind her, along with mirror selfies she’d taken of her bruised body. It became a disturbing game of Clue. In the dining room with a wine glass, in the living room with a remote, in the bedroom with a fist. Their evidence was overwhelming, including about a hundred photos of bruises, medical reports, witnesses, dozens of text messages in which Ivan threatens to murder Anna, and a video confession showing Ivan beg for her to return, apologize for hitting her, and promise he never actually meant to kill her.
The evidence kept me up at night. He’d strangled her, leaving finger-shaped bruises around her thin neck. He’d broken her finger by punching her when she was covering her face with her hands and made her tell everyone she’d slipped by the pool. He told her that their baby son would grow up without a mother, and it was her fault.
By the end of the two weeks we were told the trial would take, the prosecution was still presenting evidence. The lawyers frequently showed up late, although the jurors were always on time. Waiting in the hallway with them for hours, I really got to know the other members of the jury. The Cuban lady said her landowning family had fled from Castro in the fifties, and even showed us a Christmas card her mother had sent her from jail as a political prisoner. The Postmaster of Santa Monica told stories about his days as the Postmaster of Compton. When Obama had enacted a subsidized cell phone program in 2009, a few mailmen had just decided to steal all the phones they’d been told to distribute, walking out with duffel bags full of blackberries to sell on ebay. The Russian Doctor took a liking to me, telling me I looked like his daughter and trying to describe the particular smell of Napalm. The vet tech was sleep deprived and losing money every week the trial stretched on, but tried to keep a good attitude. “Isn’t it strange,” she’d say, “that we all came from such different places and met here on this jury? Life really is mysterious.”
Three weeks in, I’d developed a deep antipathy towards the smug incompetence of Judge Andrea Thompson. She acted like we were entitled when we asked for a timeline on when this trial would end. I looked her up on The Robing Room (RateMyProfessor for judges) and relished in her 2.5 out of 10 rating. When we piled into an elevator for lunch looking particularly miserable one day, a bailiff from a higher floor nodded at us sympathetically and asked, “Judge Thompson?” He said that in the future we should throw out our jury summons. The courts don’t have the resources to pursue charges for jury shirking and if they try to make an example out of you, all you have to do is say that you never received the letters, and they can hardly prove you’re lying.
The retirees were enjoying the social interaction and the Postmaster of Santa Monica, getting full salary from his government job, appeared indifferent, but by the one-month mark, the rest of us were really suffering. My face looked haggard, and my bank account was dwindling. With no car, I took the bus forty minutes each way to Van Nuys. I started eating Melatonin gummies in the daytime because my psychiatrist thought I looked like a junkie and refused to give me benzos.
We were only allowed in the room for about three hours a day, and the prosecution spent most of that time rehashing the same information. When the defense got their turn to cross examine Anna, they needled her for days, asking if she was a liar, if she was a drunk, if the bruises in her photos weren’t actually done with makeup. The prosecutors or the judge interrupted her any time she tried to explain herself, so she answered in icy monosyllables.
The evidence against Ivan was overwhelming, so when his lawyers finally got to present their case, they had to rely on manipulation. Their strategy was to weaponize Anna’s good qualities against her. Her beauty made her vapid, and her modelling career proved she had the makeup skills to fake bruises. She was an alcoholic party girl, who’d broken her finger and bruised her legs while out clubbing. Even her love of her son was used against her. It gave her a motive: lying in order to gain full custody.
They called character witnesses, Ivan’s drinking buddies Nikolai and Konstantin, and a woman he’d dated for two months in 2012 named Svetlana. They all said that Ivan was way too nice to ever beat his wife. Nikolai and Konstantin had known him for years and never seen him lose his temper. He used to open doors for Svetlana and pay for all of their dates. When asked, on cross-questioning, if their opinion of Ivan would change if they had proof that he was guilty, only Svetlana conceded that it would. Nikolai, who was testifying through a translator, repeatedly pretended not to understand the question. Konstantin said simply, “It is a matter between a man and his wife.”
This led into four straight days of petty arguments over the Cancun cruise slide show. The defense asserted that Anna couldn’t possibly be abused if she was smiling with Ivan while holding an iguana in this picture at 1:32, while the prosecution contended that this was in fact a fake smile, and if we looked closely, we could see the pain in her eyes. Did Anna make the slideshow on her own, or did Ivan force her to do it, picking out the music and the pictures she was allowed to use? By the end of the week, I was hearing “Vivir Mi Vida” in my dreams. I’d see Anna at the beach with Ivan, smiling at me in a way that either was or was not secretly masking anguish. “Lie, lie, lie, lie!” Marc Anthony would sing. On Friday, we audibly groaned when we saw the slideshow set up again. The defense was forced to play it on mute.
The Vet Tech negotiated the sale of an African Grey Parrot to the Postmaster of Santa Monica. The Russian Doctor hinted at war crimes he’d witnessed in a region of Cambodia that the US Army denied invading. He told me that Anna was a liar, an actress, and I was just too pure of heart to see it. I received a job rejection email while walking around aimlessly at lunch and had a panic attack, sobbing and gasping behind the Angeleno Mortuary.
The sweet old church ladies, when they saw me return with red eyes, thought somebody had died. I was too embarrassed by my own weakness to tell them I was simply going insane waiting outside a courtroom for hours on end only to hear Type A freaks in charcoal suits argue over whether or not a Belarusian runway model had willingly or unwillingly put together a vacation slideshow.
I made the judge meet with me to release me. I was going to claim hardship. When I communicated this to the bailiff, she seemed to think it was ridiculous.
“It’s only a few more days.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, depending on how things go.”
The lawyers and, to my surprise, the defendant sat in to hear the judge and I negotiate. Ivan, strangely, looked concerned for me. Was I just imagining that? He really was handsome. Evil, though. I told Judge Thompson that I had no time to work and was losing too much money, considering the trial was now running over double her original estimate. This was actually kind of true–I’d been writing essays for international students through a barely legal Chinese essay mill before the trial and hadn’t had any energy to do so since. She asked me to hold on for just a few more days. She’d let me go if I insisted, but couldn’t I do just a few more days? Otherwise, I’d have wasted over a month for nothing. I reluctantly agreed.
The other jurors questioned me when I left the courtroom, and I told them what the judge had said. Just a few more days, three at the most. The Russian doctor looked disappointed that I’d been convinced to stay on. He was the first alternate, and desperately wanted to weigh in on the case.
Ivan’s trial dragged on for another week and a half. The defense argued that the certified translations of the couple’s texts were inaccurate. He wasn’t really calling Anna a bitch–the term was more affectionate in Russian. They also tried to trick the older jurors into thinking that Anna couldn’t have been beaten in the couple’s apartment on one of the dates she claimed, because she’d posted a picture of herself in Minsk on Instagram that day. Ivan briefly took the stand at one point. Playing up the sad puppy angle, he spoke softly in uncertain English, answering mostly “yes” and “no,”with the occasional “I would never hurt her,” or “I love my wife, but it seems she has found someone new.”
When we finally made it to the deliberation room, I thought the discussion would be quick. I’d just graduated from liberal arts school, where attitudes were different. The college president had once been forced to hold a discussion panel on rape culture after massive fallout on the student body Facebook page from a sticky note placed under a cafeteria light switch that said, “You wouldn’t like it if somebody turned you on and left!” Perhaps I was naive.
With the Postmaster of Santa Monica as our foreman and refreshments provided by the nice church ladies, we began early in the morning on a Thursday. To my surprise, many jurors felt uncertain. They agreed that Ivan had done something, but thought Anna was probably exaggerating too. The defense theory that she was lying in order to gain full custody of her son had struck a chord, as had their portrait of a Russian femme fatale.
I was Anna’s most militant ally, disagreeing every time one of the others doubted her integrity. The Anna-Ivan divide was determined more by age than gender, although the Postmaster of Santa Monica basically believed her and one sullen guy in his late twenties began rolling his eyes every time I opened my mouth. Having looked like a sad sack for the entire trial, I think I surprised them with my vehemence during deliberation. I surprised myself too.
I did concede occasionally, just to move forward. The prosecution wanted to charge him with violating a restraining order based on a mysterious camera found outside the apartment where Anna was staying. It was obviously Ivan’s, but the device connected to an account that both had access to. Not guilty on that charge. Fine.
The real estate agent was convinced that she’d broken her own finger clubbing as the defense claimed, based on a video where she laughed at a joke Ivan made about how clunky her finger cast looked. I couldn’t concede here. The logic was too stupid. We argued for maybe twenty minutes before settling into an awkward, deadlocked silence. The Postmaster of Santa Monica suggested a snack break. The vet tech looked at me pleadingly. Couldn’t I just let it go? So we could all go home? Wasn’t I the one that had forced a personal meeting with the judge to get everything over with? I was starting to feel guilty about making such a fuss.
And then, a revelation. It hit me in my heart before my brain could process it–a sensation exactly like the beginning of an anxiety attack.
“Nikolai said she slipped by the pool!”
“What?” asked the real estate agent.
“What did he say?”
“Anna said she fell by the pool and broke her finger, right? And Ivan said she broke it when she was out clubbing, and he’d never heard the pool story. And then Konstantin said she broke it by the pool, basically confirming her story while testifying on his behalf!” I was growing too excited.
“Konstantin said that?”
Nobody else remembered this. We decided to request that the transcript be read back to us. While we went to lunch, the court reporter searched for any instance of either Nikolai or Konstantin mentioning Anna’s finger. I bought fries but was too agitated to eat them, and instead walked around Van Nuys in the ninety-degree heat, talking on the phone to a college friend about a movie script I would write. It involved a group of jurors meeting on a bank robbery trial, seeing the robbers’ mistakes through the evidence, and pulling off their own heist. I didn’t tell him about the broken finger drama. A nervous sense was developing that I’d imagined the whole thing and would lose all my credibility with the other jurors. I was already the youngest, and the only one who’d cried alone through lunch one day and demanded a personal audience with the judge, so this credibility was probably already tenuous.
When we returned, we were sent back to the jury box for the reading of the transcript. The court reporter first announced that Nikolai had not mentioned Anna’s finger at all. I felt eyes on me. I’d wasted everyone’s time. She took what I felt was an unnecessary pause before telling us what Konstantin had said about Anna’s finger: She’s a clumsy girl. She broke it when she fell by the pool. I finally let myself look around. The real estate agent nodded at me, impressed. The old church ladies looked close to astonished. (“The recall these young people have,” the gospel singer said later.) Ivan and his lawyers stared straight ahead, and I smiled for the first and last time in that courtroom.
By noon the next day, we’d found Ivan guilty on most of the thirty-something charges brought against him. We filed into the box for the final time, and Judge Thomspson read out the decision. Ivan’s head drooped down dramatically at the first guilty, and he seemed to deflate even more with each subsequent hit. The defense demanded that the judge poll the jury, making us verbally confirm that we all agreed with the verdict. Ivan looked at us pleadingly as the bailiff went down the line. One by one, each person said yes.
“Juror number nine, is this your verdict?”
Even if you think somebody is an irredeemable monster, you still feel pretty bad looking him in the eye and confirming that you’re sending him to prison on a number of felony charges before deporting him back to Eastern Europe. If I’d had my way though, he’d have been convicted on even more counts, so it seemed pathetic not to meet his gaze as I said, “Yes.”
The Russian Doctor shook his head sadly in the elevator as we all descended for the final time. “She is an actress,” he murmured. “She has tricked you.” The rest of us were elated to be free, agreeing that we’d delivered justice and promising each other that we’d ignore all future jury summons.
I went to Guadalajara a few weeks after the trial ended to learn how to teach ESL, and though the vet tech halfheartedly suggested that we all keep in touch, I never heard from any of the other jurors again. I didn’t even learn Ivan’s sentence, as that was to be read at a separate hearing and I could never remember his long Russian last name. The whole experience dissolved like a bad dream.
I still feel that jury trials, like life itself, are random in an essential and disturbing way. What if the Russian Doctor had been a juror, and I had been the alternate? Why did Tanya McDowell serve five years for falsifying her address to get her kid into a better school district, while Casey Anthony walked free from child murder charges? Why are some people sentenced to ten years in prison for weed and others to eleven months for molestation? Why are we tossed around by life like trash in the ocean?
Still, we got justice for Anna and her son. I got justice for Anna’s broken finger. And Ivan got what he deserved. I really think he might have killed her if we’d let him off.
The county refused to pay me for my last three weeks of jury duty. They paid out at the end of each month, so I got a check for the first two weeks, but on the third I chose a bus pass instead of the 15 dollars a day honorarium. Working out that it made more sense to take the money, I refused the bus pass for the next three weeks but never received a check. On the phone they told me that because I’d taken the bus pass for one week, I had forfeited my right to the honorarium for the rest of the trial. I knew this could not be correct, but after hours of talking to various administrators and being transferred and put on hold and transferred again, I realized that nobody would ever feel strongly enough about this injustice to fill out the paperwork to fix it. Days on end of listening to “Vivir Mi Vida” while looking at a psychopath’s vacation photos and they wouldn’t even pay me. But you do what you can. Best not to dwell on that sort of thing. “Para qué sufrir, ¿Pa’ qué?” as Marc Anthony would say.
Why suffer? For what?
Ella Genevieve Alexander is a writer from Los Angeles. She has had work published in HuffPost and Longreads.