“Being on jury duty is one of the most important peacetime duties a citizen can do.”
Circuit Court Judge Bill Chapman.
I arrived at 8:30 Monday morning with the 90 or so other
unlucky blessed Madison County citizens who were called for jury duty. We filed through security slowly, with many of us being wand-ed by the stern deputy manning the metal detector. Now, I’d complain about the time it took to get through security, but considering most of the folks who come into the courthouse aren’t real happy, I didn’t mind the delay. It’s a fine example of “better safe than sorry.” No sense of dying of lead poisoning on my first day.
We received our red “Juror” stickers and were instructed by the bailiff not to talk to anyone who wasn’t wearing a sticker. The devil on my shoulder tempted me to talk to the man who was loading the vending machine so I would get kicked off. But then I thought I might end up in jury jail for contempt of court. I behaved.
Some of use were ushered into a spare courtroom so we could sit on the most uncomfortable wooden pews I’ve ever encountered. I looked at the comfortable chairs that the defendants normally sit in and thought I’d stick with the wood seats. Some engaged in small talk. Two ladies behind me figured out that they owned retail stores in the same shopping center in the 1980′s. That’s a classic Mississippi thing. Stick around long enough and you’ll find out that you are kin.
The bailiff called us into the main courtroom. Madison County’s Circuit Clerk, Lee Westbrook listed off some do’s and don’ts and then looked at me and said, “On a personal note, Marshall, I miss your radio show.” That’s when I knew they knew that I knew that they knew that they knew.
The walls in the courtroom were a special shade of blue that just sucks the light and the life out of the souls. Actually, the court house was quite nice, but I think the prospect of jury duty has the same effect as sitting in the principal’s office. We all kind of sat there quietly. Lee rolled out a TV and showed us a video about what to expect. I think the video was from the 1980′s. The TV judge told us not to go out and investigate crime scenes on our own. And I had high hopes of being Magnum P.I. I marveled at the hair and noticed that most of the information was stuff I had learned from watching 4,000,000 hours of judge shows on TV. You know — Perry Mason v. Matlock.
Then the judge entered the courtroom. The bailiff, Deputy Earl Taylor, did the traditional, “All Rise” and like an adult version of Simon Says, we all rose. Madison and Rankin Counties are in the same judicial circuit (and considering the growth of both counties, I’m surprised they both don’t have their own circuit). That means they share two judges. Today we had Circuit Court Judge Bill Chapman.
I was impressed with the judge. He was direct, funny and had complete command of the courtroom. He said that he was looking for jurors who’d pay attention, follow the law, not form opinions until all evidence is heard and would base their verdicts on evidence and the law. He then rattled down a few questions he was required to ask by law:
1. Were we 21 years old? (yes).
2. Would we follow the law? (sure).
3. Were we a qualified elector or a landowner for more than a year? (yes 2x)
4. Can we read and write? (kind of).
5. Had we committed an “infamous” crime? (no. Nor a famous one).
6. Were we a bootlegger or sold alcohol to minors? (no).
7. Are you a common gambler or habitual drinker? (not regularly but I can learn.)
8. Had we been a juror in the past 2 years? (no).
9. Did we have a case pending in the court? (no).
And then of course, were we 65 or older? If so, you could have said no thanks to jury duty. No one did. And the judge was thankful.
There are two other rules that I thought were interesting. Apparently if you work for the Mississippi Department of Corrections or at the Mississippi State Hospital, you are exempt from jury duty. Apparently the legislature deemed those jobs too important for the people working there to serve on juries. So judges have to kick them off.
Then came “Do you have a hardship that would keep you from serving?”
Several people did. And they were promptly excused. The judge was not hard on anyone. At that point, I raised my hand. I am teaching at Ole Miss tomorrow night and asked him if I could get off early so I could make the trip. I told him I was more than willing to serve and did not mean to cause difficulty. He said that it would be too hard to shift around the schedule so he excused me from jury duty.
He asked me my name and I told him.
He said, “Oh. Please don’t draw me.”
I smiled, held up my sketchbook and said, “Too late. I already did.”
I have to admit, the whole process made me proud to be an U.S. Citizen. I know, I know — it’s strange to embrace what so many try to avoid. But I did.
And with that, I walked out of the Madison County Courthouse. My jury duty career was suddenly over before it even began.