Our Flawed But Fab Jury System
And a Few Other Favorite Things

By PJ Parrish

When you read this, I will be sitting on a hard plastic chair somewhere in the bowels of the Leon County Courthouse. Duty calls…

People go their entire lives without getting called to serve on a jury. Me, it’s like the common cold. It always finds me. And no matter what I say in voir dire, I have almost always gotten seated. Must be my honest face.

I’ve been called up nine times and been seated on seven juries. A couple cases were settled and the others were pretty ho-hum. A man we convicted of drunk driving, who luckily didn’t kill anyone. A city contractor caught driving a garbage truck without the proper permits who we convicted but knocked down his fine to $30 because he was a working guy. Then there was the woman who was suing a trucking company for hitting her car, claiming extreme emotional and physical distress. It was so bad, her tearful daughter vowed on the stand, that mom became a recluse who couldn’t walk or even reach down to pet her dog Charlie.  So sad…until the insurance company’s lawyer showed us a video of the woman coming out of a strip mall, holding her hands high, a gesture I immediately recognized as someone who had just gotten her nails done. A second video showed her bending down, grabbing the floor mat out of her car and banging the hell out of it against a curb to get the dirt out. I think we awarded her a couple hundred bucks toward medical bills. Or a new manicure..

I always thought these mundane cases had no real effect on people’s lives. Until the last jury I served on. It involved a cop and a black teenager. The cop was accusing the kid of assault after a routine traffic stop. To make a long story short, the cop’s case didn’t hold water and after about an hour of deliberation, we decided the kid didn’t do it. I will never forget the sight of that kid and his mom breaking down and sobbing after the verdict.

Life, when it really hits you in the face, is always stranger and more poignant than fiction.

So tomorrow, as I sip my cup of bad vending machine coffee and await my turn, I will be thinking again of our peer judicial system. Flawed as it may be, as it still has the power to humble me. If you’ve got any stories to tell about your own brushes with it, weigh in today while I am tied up. (I will try to reply as I can, if the wifi is working.)

Or you can have some fun and play the following game. It’s called These Are A Few of My Favorite Weird Things. Hit it, Maria!

 

(Aren’t you glad I spared you a video of Julie Andews?)

1. Favorite Movie Most People Have Never Seen

Mine is the Bagdad Cafe. It is a 1987 comedy-drama set in a desolate truck stop and motel in the Mojave Desert. I’m told it’s loosely based on Carson McCullers’ novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, but I’ll be danged if I see it. It’s about two women, a lonely German tourist and an irascible black mom, who chuck their husbands and form an unlikely friendship. Jack Palance is great as Rudy Cox, a strange Hollywood set designer who desperately wants to paint the zaftig Frau Münchgstettner.  At first, the movie feels just weird and angry. But it  weaves a magic about how one person can change another’s life. And the song I’m Calling You (nominated for Oscar) is haunting:

2. Favorite Book Nobody Else Has Read

Mine is Time And Again by Jack Finney. I don’t remember how I discovered this book. Probably in a used book store on one of my pre-Kindle travels because I always run out of things to read and have to scout out the nearest English-language bookstore. Actually, lots of folks know about this book. Stephen King calls it “a great time-travel novel” and I think our own James has mentioned it. In a nutshell:

When advertising artist Si Morley is recruited to join a covert government operation exploring the possibility of time travel, he jumps at the chance to leave his twentieth-century existence and step into New York City in January 1882. Aside from his thirst for experience, he has good reason to return to the past—his friend Kate has a curious, half-burned letter dated from that year, and he wants to trace the mystery. But when Si begins to fall in love with a woman he meets in the past, he will be forced to choose between two worlds—forever.

It was written in 1970 and supposedly Robert Redford tried to make a movie out of it. Lionsgate recently optioned it again. In 1980, the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour weeper Somewhere In Time used the exact same time-travel technique as Finney’s book. The book has lots of cool photos of old New York.

3. Favorite Disgusting Food

On my first trip to Paris with husband two, we were young and foolish. Our French was pretty bad back then and there was no such thing as iTranslate. We went to a restaurant called Le Petit Zinc and, feeling frisky, ordered something called ris de veau. It was delicious, tasty meaty morsels swimming in Madeira mushroom sauce. We finally asked the waiter what it was, and he had his fun with us, saying “C’est testicules.”  That we understood.  We didn’t care.

4. Favorite Thing To Do When No One Is Looking

Sing Bohemian Rhapsody in the car. Very loudly.

5. Favorite Opposite-Sex Guilty Pleasure Movie

Okay, guys have to tell their favorite girl flick. Ladies have to come up with a man-movie. I have a couple favorite guy movies, like The Guns of Navarone and all the Dirty Harry movies. But I never turn down a chance to watch The Dirty Dozen. I’ll stop channel-surfing and watch it. Can’t help it. It gets to me every time.

6. Favorite Book I Wish I Had Written

I like everything Joyce Carol Oates writes. Even when she’s off, she’s better than 99 percent of the writers out there. I discovered her with 1986’s Marya and followed her through her normal literary stuff, and her detours into crime fiction and erotica. But the book that always stayed with me is Because It Is Bitter And Because It Is My Heart. Set in the early 1950s, it tells the story of the friendship between a young white girl named Iris Courtney and black teenager Jinx Fairchild. They are united by a murder that they commit in self-defense. I wasn’t writing crime fiction when I read this, but I believe this book planted the seeds in my sub-conscious to want to explore the psychology of murder that colors my own work to this day. Here’s the opening.

“Little Red” Garlock, sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street, must not have sunk as he’d been intended to sink, or floated as far. As the morning mist begins to lift from the river a solitary fisherman sights him, or the body he has become, trapped and bobbing frantically in pilings about thirty feet offshore. It’s the buglelike cries of gulls that alert the fisherman—gulls with wide gunmetal-gray wings, dazzling snowy white heads and tail feathers, dangling pink legs like something incompletely hatched. The kind you think might be a beautiful bird until you get up close.

Every time I read it, it makes me want to be a better writer.

7. Favorite Weird TV Show

When I was a kid, my dad used to let me stay up late to watch One Step Beyond. It was an anthology about the paranormal and anything that defied logic. The phlegmatic John Newland (“Your guide to the supernatural”) would tee up every episode with the disclaimer that they were based on “the true human record” as this great creepy music played in the background (“Fear” composed by Harry Lubin and covered by the Ventures in 1964. Click here to listen.) This was unlike The Twilight Zone, which debuted nine months later and was fictional. This was REAL! Really cool stories with cool actors (one episode paired Warren Beatty and Joan Fontaine.) My dad loved this show. But then he also sat out in the yard with his binoculars looking for flying saucers.

8. Favorite Bucket List Thing I Probably Won’t Get Around To Doing

I really want to go to the moon. NASA estimates that a round-trip ticket to the ISS on the SpaceX Crew Dragon or the Boeing CST-100 Starliner would cost about $58 million. I don’t have enough Sky Miles for that.  So I will settle for parachuting out of a plane. If George H.W. Bush can do it at age 90, I still have hope. My husband tells me he will veto this, so I will just have to outlive him.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

19 thoughts on “Our Flawed But Fab Jury System
And a Few Other Favorite Things

  1. Seven out of nine? Wow. I’ve been called four times (maybe five) and only ever saw the inside of a courtroom once. That was for what would have been an entertaining gang and gun case. I was canned when I told them I’d contributed to the Brady anti-gun campaign.

    • Got out! The case was settled and they let us go. Yay.

      After one voir dire, I had a judge ask me, as a crime novelist, whether I would use anything I heard in court in my books. I had to honestly say I didn’t know. They still kept me!

  2. I get called, but I have only served on one jury.

    Defense attorneys hate me. They learn, either by hook or crook (see? that’s one reason they hate me: I don’t know how to talk to defense attorneys), they are schooled in relating at the psychological level to prospective and chosen jurors.

    I was called for duty some years ago–“some years ago is one way old men start their stories”–and the case involved a young, well-dressed man of minority descent. His attorney was of the same ethnic minority.

    The defendant was accused of stealing a car by using a drill to yank out the steering column ignition switch, wiring–okay, you’ve seen it in movies a million times.

    The problem for the attorney, and hence the young defendant, was I was the only ethnic minority face of any variety on the jury. A further complication for the attorney is, until a certain point in the opening statement, jurors are allowed to ask questions, in our system.

    So, with the Phoenix Philharmonic providing suitable dramatic music in the background, the attorney started his presentation, focusing one me, as I’m certain his $15,000 seminar instructor taught him to do: single out the minority jury folk with smiles, confident noddings of the head, nod more often at the Indian boy, and use that tone of voice begs for mercy for the guilty guy.

    Enough of this.

    Still within the time when we jurors could ask questions, I raised my hand. The judge, a little surprised I think–Indian boy, you know–looked at me. “Mr. Porter?” he said.

    “Yes, thank you, your honor. My car was stolen exactly that way two months ago.”

    The judge nodded. “Yes, I think you could have a problem with objectivity. You are excused.”

    The philharmonic changed from the dark brown music of drama to the music of a happy lark, floating out the court room door, bag of books, snacks (I’m diabetic), and Greek grammar book in hand.

    As I left, I could see the defense attorney’s frustration. Now what? The $15,000 seminar didn’t teach him what to do when his only sympathetic ears were happily on their way to catch the bus home with the pass the city court system provided.

  3. Regarding your Favorite Things list… Are you my secret sister?! I’ve always loved Bagdad Cafe and I’m currently re-reading Time and Again.

    Enjoy your vending machine coffee.

    • You, kind sir, are the first person I have met who has seen that movie! Might have to go find it on Netflix. I also love “Babette’s Feast” and have wanted to see it again for years but it is not available on Netflix. My husband got me a DVD for Christmas and we watched it recently. It was as good as I remembered.

  4. I’ve been called so many times I’ve forgotten the number. It reached a point where they were sending me jury summons letters the next year when the time lapse is seven years. All the cases I’ve been on have been serious crimes. Rape, breaking and entering, car theft, gun possession by someone on their last strike of the three strikes rule, etc. The rape case was years before the Internet and shows like CSI. As a mystery fan, I was the only one interested in the DNA evidence which had to be explained in great detail because it wasn’t common knowledge, and the CSI geek began to talk directly to me because I was interested and awake. Fun times.

    One major point I have realized is that a jury trial is a story. It has reached the point where I can tell where the trial is going just by the list of witnesses. The prosecutor’s pointed questions about whether or not the rape victim had dated the defendant told me that the victim didn’t drink, and I knew the defense’s story about the “date” would crumble long before the seasoned defense lawyer, a former judge, did. Writers would do well not to avoid jury duty.

    • I agree, Marilyn. I find the whole process sort of affirming and positive. But then again, as I said, I haven’t been seated on any cases that were tough to take. My husband got a first degree murder case and they convicted the guy. As he was leaving the courthouse via elevator, the doors open and there was the convicted guy being hauled out in handcuffs. You’d think they’d have a different elevator…

  5. Back when I worked for attorneys I was called a few times, but always dismissed. I guess my profession made them nervous. 🙂 Loved your favorites list!

  6. “12 Angry Men” (1957) with Henry Fonda shows the problems a jury can have in criminal cases on the “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, turning instead into a lynch mob.

    But I agree that juries use common sense and usually get it right.

    The founding fathers said something like: “Better that a thousand guilty men go free than that one innocent man be wrongly convicted.” I guess if you come from an autocratic monarchy seeking political and personal freedom in a new land, you might easily feel that way.

    • Funny you should mention 12 Angry Men. I had never seen it until recently. Powerful movie. On the case I mentioned about the kid and cop, we had one woman who was holding out for a guilty verdict. Her reasoning was that cops don’t lie. Now, this was two decades ago and maybe things were more simplistic then with regard to the relationships between law enforcement and minorities — or rather our attitudes were more simplistic. (Not sure that is even the right word). But the weight of the other jurists finally got her to change her mind in our case. I always wondered what she took away from the case personally, if anything.

      • When I read your account, I wondered pretty much the same thing: What would the (I assume but don’t know “white”) cop stand to gain from lying about the alleged assault, especially since it occurred during a routine traffic stop. (e.g., How many routine traffic stops has this cop performed? How many on minorities? How many times had the cop claimed he was assaulted as a result of or during those stops?) That would go directly to the cop’s credibility.

        I would also love to see whatever actual evidence was involved in that trial. Did the cop present with bruises, lacerations, etc. (or photos of those)?

        Finally, you mentioned the race of the defendant but not the race of the cop. Do you think (as a seated juror) the outcome would have been the same had the race of the cop and the race of the teenager been the same?

        It doesn’t matter, of course. It’s a couple of decades in the past, but interesting questions.

  7. Back when I lived in real cities, I was called numerous times. I’m perfect jury fodder, so if I was called into a pool, I was almost always selected. I enjoyed the process; it’s good to see that the democratic process works. It’s also writing fodder. Most of the cases, however, were settled, often as soon as we walked into the courtroom. I think the defendant’s got that, “Oh, this is really happening, and it might not be good” and settled. One case in Miami was Federal, and they left us in the jury room with a kilo of cocaine on the desk, the evidence in the case. I have no idea why, but we left it alone. In Orlando, we were trying a case as to whether or not the defendant knew he was pawning a stolen steroe. His attorney should never have let him take the stand. Until he opened his mouth, the case might have gone either way. We can back from lunch and figured it must be a slow day because a local newscaster was in the courtroom. We found the defendant guilty, and then when the judge set a date for sentencing, his attorney stood and said that date was unacceptable because he had to appear in court in another county for the murder of the man whose stereo was stolen.
    Glad we found him guilty.

  8. I’ve always wanted to serve on a jury but I’ve never been called. I did take courses in Paralegal classes and worked on a real case with a temp firm that was hiring students in the legal field. The work was interesting but the case was dry. I don’t even remember now what it was about. I have filled out local surveys from the courts on my opinion based on case details as well. Never in a courtroom, however. Maybe someday.

  9. I’ve seen Bagdad Cafe at the theater years ago and loved it!

    And yes to all the JCO books. I love her Rosamund Smith books. Mysteries of Winterthurn may be my favorite JCO. I even liked What I Lived For. Oh, and her Tales of the Grotesque…her short stories are amazing.

    Hello? You’ve seen Magic Mike, right?!

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