Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Jury Duty

I got picked for a jury my first day in Federal District Court. There were seven of us on a trial, and for days the only thing I could divulge about it was that it was about finance. During the time that we were sworn not to discuss the trial, even among ourselves, we the jury were just dying to talk about it. But we had to confine ourselves to deconstructing the various comb-over strategies of the several lawyers: one with lots of air for volume, another with a sort of tree line behind a white fringe that I believe had sprouted from plugs.

The trial was alternately stupefyingly boring and highly entertaining. The boring part was the financial statements of the plaintiffs, projected on a screen by the defense. I suffer from tinnitus, as you may remember, and most of the time I can screen it out by listening to surf or music or traffic or even a humming air-conditioner. In this case the testimony was so boring that sometimes I screened out the lawyers by listening to my tinnitus.

I liked the judge, who was visiting from Seattle, and my fellow-jurors, none of whom had been eager to serve on the jury. (In fact, anyone who seemed eager in the voir-dire was NOT chosen.) We were six women and one man, and included an architect, a teacher, someone who had sold advertising for Good Housekeeping, someone who had given her brother a kidney. I also liked being downtown, and prowled around in a different neighborhood every day: Chinatown, Little Italy, Tribeca, the South Street Seaport. Trees are such a rarity in downtown Manhattan that they have special privileges: one blossoming cherry tree was cordoned off behind a wrought-iron fence in a little triangular yard behind a Catholic church, St. Andrew’s, which itself gave me vibes of Rome, the way it was stuck in there among all the municipal buildings. Also, it had a Latin inscription at the top: Beati Qui Ambulant Lege Domini.

What it came down to was that there was a shark and a dupe, and the dupe had duped some other dupes, and those dupes were suing the shark and the dupe who had hired him. The defense dupe acted as his own lawyer. He was a nice-looking guy who never intended to commit fraud. He just hadn’t been willing to give up on this failing company that his partner had walked out on, so he hired the shark, who fingered the dupe, who invited a lot of his moneyed friends to meet the principles of the company at a party at his restaurant on the Upper East Side, and invest.

The best moment came near the end, when the defendant who was acting as his own lawyer had to testify for himself. How that works is that the defendant/lawyer wrote down some questions (on a legal pad, of course) and took the witness stand; then an extra lawyer who had been hanging around for no discernible reason read the questions to him. The oddest thing about this arrangement was that even though the defendant was answering his own questions, he felt obliged to be cagey, saying “I believe so” or "I don't believe so" instead of “Absolutely” or "Never." (At least he didn’t say "I don't recall.") By then, we had heard many descriptions of this “meeting” or “party” at the restaurant, at which there were anywhere from 8 to 60 guests, but the witness for his own defense was the first to register his astonishment at the presence of a woman eating a lobster in nothing but a lobster bib.

I entered the jury room with a single word written in my court-provided stenographer’s notebook: “lobster.” We’d already spent five days in Federal District Court, growing more and more horrified that our tax dollars were being spent like this. We threw around the subtleties of Security and Exchange law for a while. The clerk forgot to give us the evidence (thick books of financial statements), so we had to ask for it. The verdict sheet was very complicated, because there were three plaintiffs and four defendants and three charges, all of which had to be decided separately. It was funny that these extremely rich men (the shark had made $2 million on the deal, and one of the plaintiffs was said to be worth $300 million) were being judged by the likes of us, people who wonder if on their income-tax return they can deduct a $36 rubber alarm clock.

If we found the defendants guilty of violating federal law, we had to award compensatory damages, and if we found them guilty of violating state law, we could award punitive damages. We had lunch (catered from the courthouse cafeteria, from which jurors were excluded) and sent a note to the judge asking for a calculator, which, of course, tipped our hand. Then we nailed the bastards for fraud.


bluenose belle said...

Two things: • Beati Qui Ambulant Lege Domini. What does this mean, something about God & beauty & ambulatory? • Love your mastery of the jargon. Were you once a street urchin?

MJN/NYC said...

Blessed Are They Who Walk in the Ways of the Lord.

or God It's Beautiful to Be Ambulatory!

That could be the motto of a street urchin.