In Which I Walk the Hallowed Halls of Justice

At the end of December, I received a summons for jury duty. The notice stated that I was expected to fill out an online questionnaire, and then should plan to show up at the Centre County courthouse at 8 a.m. on February 5th for jury selection. I fretted about it, of course, but I'd been summoned before; and all of the prior court dates had been cancelled well before they came due. So I figured that would also be the case this time. In fact, it was not.

I called the courthouse several times before the date, asking if my jury duty was still on (it was), and where was my parking tag (they emailed it to me), and would I have to go through a metal detector (yes, I would), and was I permitted to bring my camera into the courthouse (yes, indeed; but I would not be permitted to use it to take pictures during the actual trial).

The day before the event, I called again: yes, it was still on. What would the day's schedule be like, I asked. The gentleman who called me back said that a typical court day is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a break of at least one hour for lunch somewhere around noon. He told me that the jury selection that occurred Monday had finished up around noon.

With delight at the anticipation of a possibly short obligation, I phoned my husband to let him know. He'd been insisting on driving me to Bellefonte for the event, in spite of the fact that I'd told him I had no idea when I would be done or what might be asked of me. So, thinking we might get a nice lunch at Jim's, our favorite Bellefonte restaurant, and possibly a freebie of an afternoon together, I accepted his offer. Little did we know what a long day it would turn out to be.

Bellefonte is nearly twice as far as my usual commute to work, so we left home around first light on Tuesday, arriving at the courthouse at 7:50 a.m. I can tell you that because this is the very first photo I took there, and that's what the time stamp says. My husband dropped me off right in front of the courthouse and left, planning to come back around noon to meet me for lunch. The sky was doing some neat things, and I saw a throng of people crowding at the steps to get in to the courthouse. But I did take a minute for a few pictures. The statue is of Andrew Gregg Curtin, a former governor of Pennsylvania.

I walked in through the front doors of the courthouse and went through a metal detector, and then headed up the big stairwell to the left to Courtroom #1, where I joined about 60 other people who all had identical papers in their hands labeled Official Jury Summons. The summons has a bar code on it, and we were directed to present our papers to a man and a woman sitting at a table down front, who would scan those bar codes to check us in. So shortly, I was registered and sitting in what felt like a church pew. We were each given a tag to put on that said simply: JUROR.

The sign on the door to the courtroom had said no food or drink, but many of us brought items in. I made myself comfortable, hastily downed a snack bar and drank some water, as several people made opening remarks about what we would be expected to do on this day. The person in charge was a visiting senior judge. By 8:40, he was standing in front of us telling us that "It is our fervent desire NOT to waste your time." He asked us to set aside our prejudices and listen impartially to anything we would hear, so that we might arrive at a fair and just decision.

By 8:45, we'd all been sworn in, and we received additional instruction: not to do any google searches about any names that might be mentioned, not to discuss the case with anyone else or with the other jurors. And then they proceeded to select 30 of us to come forward and sit up front. I was number 18 out of 30. Everybody else was expected to remain in the courtroom in case they went through all 30 of us and did not find 14 people who would do (12 jurors and 2 back-ups).

As each person came forward, the judge asked each one individually: the court dates are expected to be February 13, 14, and 15; would it be a hardship for you to participate as a juror for those dates? With a little lump in my throat, I thought about my much anticipated lobster bisque date, scheduled for February 13 with good friends; sadly, I said, "No, your honor" to his question. I pictured my friends eating delicious lobster bisque without me.

About a half-dozen people answered Yes, it would be a hardship, and they were dismissed. One man said he had to officiate a wedding at 4 pm on February 14, Valentine's Day. The judge said he could not guarantee that jurors would be released by that time, and so he dismissed the man. And so it was that love quite possibly won out over justice on this day.

As we stepped forward to the front of the courtroom, a man directed us as to where to sit, and he insisted that we slide together, with our belongings beneath the seat and no room between us, so that we were sitting shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh. This was a nearness I have not experienced with strangers possibly ever, and do not hope to experience again anytime soon. And that is how we sat from about 9 a.m. until our activities concluded just before 5 p.m.

Shortly after 9, the judge told us that they had decided to do "individual voir dire." So the judge and all of the official people up front in the courtroom went into a little room labeled Jurors, and each potential juror was called in to have a little chat with them about whether we thought we could indeed fulfill the obligations expected of us. I thought about Keyes from the film Double Indemnity, questioning us under the bright lights until we caved in and told the truth. We watched as the clock ticked along. Each juror was in the little room for 15 to 20 minutes. The waiting was tedious. It looked like it would be a long day. "It seemed more exciting than this on Perry Mason," I said to the lady sitting next to me.

Somewhere around 10:30, I got a tickle in my nose and I felt sure I was going to start sneezing. I thought if I started sneezing, I might not stop. I moved and bumped into the person to my right. Moved back, bumped into the person on my left. I got a sudden, irrational feeling that I was going to start screaming, and just have a meltdown and scream, and scream, and scream. But I took a sip of my water and picked up my paperback (thank GOD for that book), and tried not to think about it all, and after a minute, I was OK.

The sun started to break through and I could see it was turning into a pretty day outside. Around 10:50, they gave us a ten-minute break, and I walked outdoors into the sunshine; came back through the metal detector. I am a person who often eats her lunch by about 10:30 or 11 in the morning, so I was starving by noon, and kept watching that little Jurors door to see when the judge would come out and release us to go to lunch. A bit after 12:30, he finally did; we had one hour, he said. And I RAN for the door.

My husband, who'd been waiting for 40 minutes, was not in a very happy mood. (Hey, I told him that I'd have no control over my comings and goings!) But we walked quickly over to Jim's and had chef salads and cottage fries. It was a nice break, and I told him about all of what had happened so far. By 1:30, I was back in the courtroom, sitting on my bench shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip like a good sardine, behaving myself for the most part.

Around 2 p.m., they decided to pick another 10 names, bringing the pool of potential jurors up to 40, out of the original 60 or so who showed up. Everybody else was dismissed. We started chit-chatting among ourselves, talked to some of the officials. What if they didn't pick enough jurors before 5 p.m.? What then? Someone said it would be an option for them to keep the jurors they had so far, and throw the rest of us out and start over with a new jury pool. But they have to give at least 30 days' notice to jurors, and the trial is already set for next week. So we continued.

I'd told my husband I couldn't imagine we'd be done before 3 p.m., but 3 came and went and voir dire continued. I finished my book. I would not have thought that I would have needed TWO books, but next time, I'll come prepared with more than one. A good book makes all things bearable. But when it was gone, I despaired. I also started talking to the lady to my left, a veteran of FOUR jury selections and several trials.

We made small talk, chatted about cats. When she got up to go to the ladies' room, I said, "Hey, hurry back or you'll miss something." We had a good, solid laugh over that. (Juror humor can be very dry.) By 4 pm, she and I were wondering whether we'd get OUR turn in the little room marked Jurors. "I DEMAND they take me in that little room and interrogate me," I said; "I've EARNED it."

One of the jury commissioners was joking with those of us who were still stuck there. We were asking questions about what he did, about what might happen next. "You can say you spent a month in Centre County courthouse one afternoon," he said. And we all laughed, dryly, as jurors are wont to do. For it felt like it had been very long indeed. We were finally dismissed for the day around 5 p.m. In the end, despite spending the whole day at the courthouse in waiting, I was not selected to be a juror, and so here is where my story ends.

For my soundtrack song, I've selected a tune that I feel is fitting: John Mellencamp, with Justice and Independence.

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