Impressions from Two Weeks of Jury Duty

It’s been two weeks yesterday since I first reported for jury duty.

On that first morning, a Thursday, I arrived to find a line snaking out the entrance of the courthouse. I made my way through the security screening and up to the jury assembly room, watched the video and filled out the forms as the court clerk instructed. I had brought my laptop with me, but before I even pulled it out, the clerk drew and read out the names for the first selection panel of the day. Mine was among them.

I spent the rest of the day, apart from lunch, sitting in a tightly-packed, windowless room with 34 other prospective jurors and four attorneys. By the end of the day, they had whittled us down to sixteen. The selection panel resumed the next morning and continued through lunchtime. On Friday afternoon, I learned that I had been chosen as one of the six jurors who would be seated for the case. The court clerk told us to call Monday evening for instructions and dismissed us for the weekend.

On Monday evening, I dutifully called the designated number and listened to the recorded message, expecting to learn where and when to report the following morning. Instead, the recording instructed the jurors on my case to call back the next day. On Tuesday night, the recorded message was the same: call back tomorrow. By the time I called again on Wednesday night, I was half-wondering if I had only imagined that I would need to serve on a jury. But that night’s message was different: it said to report to the courthouse Thursday morning.

The next morning, I met the rest of the jurors on my case, and a court officer led us through narrow corridors and winding stairs to a jury room designated for our use. There, we waited nearly two hours before she returned to bring us to the courtroom. The judge read us instructions at length, then dismissed us for lunch. That afternoon, we heard opening statements from both sides. At the end of the day, the judge instructed us to return the following Tuesday to continue the trial.

This week was the first full week of the trial. We’ve spent three and a half days listening to testimony and waiting out of earshot while the attorneys and the judge debate points of law. All of the courtroom drama that I assumed was fabricated for television has played out before our eyes: the crescendo of questions striving toward a narrative, objections overruled or sustained, rapid-fire cross-examinations. It seems to be a matter of excruciating importance what we see and don’t see, what we hear and don’t hear, in what order and from whom.

I’ve settled into this unexpected routine as much as I can. Every morning, like clockwork, I catch the local train at Times Square and transfer to the express at 14th Street, although there’s no particular reason why it should work out this way. For the rest of the day, time moves in languorous ebbs and flows. The clock on the courtroom wall is frozen at 5:59, and sometimes sitting in the jury room reminds me of my long flights over the Pacific, a simultaneous doubt and faith: Is time even passing? Surely time must be passing. On the night of the third day of the trial, I went on Etsy and ordered a wristwatch, something I haven’t owned in over a decade. I hope it arrives before the trial ends.

In these two weeks, the temperatures in New York have creeped from brisk to scorching. The jury has relaxed into our role, swapping button-downs for neutral tees, slacks for jeans and shorts, dressy flats for summer sandals. We’ve developed a strange sort of camaraderie in our shared seclusion. “Maybe we’re on reality TV,” one juror quipped. One brought Italian espresso to share, and another passed home-baked cookies around the jury room. Now and then, someone reads aloud from a newspaper. We take turns politely stepping into the sonorous stairwell to make phone calls that are all the more audible for the echo.

In this way, we’ve slowly learned about one another’s lives. We’ve learned the courthouse’s secrets: the basement entrance that never has a security line, the paths and patterns of the tangle of corridors and stairwells. Day by day, I’m receiving an education in esoteric and highly-specialized areas of knowledge that I have never before needed and will probably never need again.

The judge tells us that we are the judges of the facts. It’s astonishing sometimes to think that I’ve been entrusted with the power to decide what is true. Every day, we hear two diverging versions of the same story, told in puzzle pieces. We are the archaeologists of the real story, reconstructing a fractured picture that will never equal the original. Every day, the judge reminds us to keep an open mind, and I re-examine how trust works for me, how truth works for me.