Saturday, February 12, 2011

Jury Duty, part two

Mister Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.

The above line was spoken by John Houseman, playing a law professor in The Paper Chase. He was addressing a student. I think that student was the plaintiff's attorney in the case I was on.

By late afternoon on the jury selection day, the defense attorney was done questioning prospective jurors because he was satisfied with the jury. Mr. Hart was done because he had run out of turns to cast off prospective jurors. The 14 of us were told to show up at 8:45 the next morning. All I could think about was how this goddamn thing better be worth it because every day I was stuck here would cost me a day's pay, save for the daily $15 the city so magnanimously offers jurors.

The next morning, we were treated to the story of the case: A woman tripped in a restaurant in Koreatown and was suing the restaurant owner for medical bills, pain, suffering, misery, anguish, humiliation, croup, colic, bad hair days, a burning sensation during urination, the war in Iraq, and anything else she and her ambulance chaser could think of. She claimed it was due to unsafe conditions in the restaurant. We all knew it wasn't. We all knew it wasn't because there was surveillance video of the event, which they played in court. It showed that a corner of a rubber mat accidentally got turned over, she didn't look where she was going, she stuck her foot under it, and took a header onto a wooden chair. While we felt bad for the woman, we would have felt worse if her own adult daughter hadn't been the one who accidentally flipped the mat over just a few seconds earlier.

We also would have felt worse for the woman if she weren't such a pain in the ass. Right after the opening statements, she took the stand, and her lawyer asked her how she was doing. She pointed to the defense attorney and said, "I'm still shaking over those rotten things he just said about me." She admitted she'd been to the restaurant about 50 times in the past, but on the night in question, it was the first time she'd sat at that particular table, as if that made a difference. When the video was played in court for all of us to see, she said that the fact that the mat wasn't perfectly aligned like the others contributed to her fall, clumsily tacking on that bit of keen analysis as if it had just occurred to her. Her version also included spilled liquid on the floor and maybe poor lighting conditions. But it had nothing to do with her not looking where the hell she was going.

Mr. Hart wasted a hell of a lot of time asking about all the pain she was in. This was compounded by the fact that she was Korean and needed an interpreter, making every question and answer take twice as long. They took even longer because she wouldn't answer questions directly, which the judge had no way of realizing because her ramblings were in Korean. (The judge did cut her ramblings off more promptly, however, when she'd been asked a yes-or-no question.) They took even longer still because her lawyer didn't know how to phrase a question. The defense attorney objected literally every other time Mr. Hart tried to formulate a question: "calls for speculation," "hearsay," "hypothetical," and so on. The judge sustained almost all of the objections. Then Mr. Hart would rephrase and make the same mistake. Objection. Sustained. Sometimes, it'd take him three or four tries to get a question right.

Mr. Hart didn't even know when he could object. At one point, after the defense attorney asked a witness an objectionable question, there was a pause, and the judge looked at Mr. Hart and asked, "You gonna let that go?"

Sometime after lunch, the plaintiff's daughter took the stand. All she succeeded in doing was admitting to the defense attorney that her mother could have looked where she was going.

At about 3:00, Mr. Hart's last witness wasn't available, so in the interest of time, all parties agreed to let the defense begin its case. He called a rep from the company that rented the rubber mats to the restaurant owner. "Yes." "No." "Yes." "No." The best witness I've ever seen in my life. He was in and out in 15 minutes, cross-examination and everything. I speak for the entire jury when I say that we wanted to run up and kiss the guy.


Our city's downtown is textured and layered and rich, and I talk about exploring it like most people talk about exercise: We don't do it enough. Being forced to show up downtown indefinitely under threat of arrest by the sheriff's department, I figured I'd make the best of it. During lunch, I used my free court-issued-in-lieu-of-mileage-allowance rail pass to go one stop northeast to Union Station, whose architecture rivals that of any in the country. It's the 1930s all over again in there. The chairs are these capacious, wood-and-leather affairs, reeking of old money's den. The interior design remains uncorrupted except for a few modern food stands and rail timetables. It's the kind of place that you'd want to arrive in when arriving in Los Angeles for the first time. In fact, if you've never been to L.A. before, might I recommend flying to Ontario or San Diego, then taking the train the rest of the way. Union Station makes our international airport seem like Ellis Island, minus the hope.

I wandered two blocks up Alameda Street to Philippe, the Original French Dip sandwich place, which has been in business since 1908, which is the Pleistocene as far as Angelenos are concerned. The portions aren't as I remember them, and the prices aren't what they used to be, except for coffee, which has been nine cents a cup since 1977. (Decaf is 60 cents. Go figure.) Even though I was only making $15 a day, I splurged on a seven-dollar lunch: beef sandwich with sweet dill pickle and pickled egg. Then I scarfed it on one of the benches in one of the doorless chambers upstairs, walls and flooring reminiscent of a school cafeteria. Couldn't eat here every day, but I'd take it over a chain restaurant any day.

The walk between Union Station and Philippe is not a throwback to anything. It is hot and dirty, clogged with cars, victims of signals that are impossible to synchronize in these parts. A DASH bus stopped by. I considered improvising my way back to the courthouse by jumping on the bus and figuring out where to get off later. But a flock of tourists jumped on and filled it. I took the train back and arrived outside the locked courtroom door with half an hour to spare, the afternoon of aforementioned thrills still to come.

The halls of superior court are clean but undecorated since at least the 1960s, an interactive museum of hard-boiled civics. The benches are hard, featureless, simple things. Half the drinking fountains don't work. Still mid-lunch, few people were walking around. It took me a while to realize what I found so strange about it all: It's the first place I've been in a long time where I've had to wait that didn't have a television. Maybe it's an elementary observation, but the exclusion of TV and all other things unrelated to the business of justice gave me a sense of peace. All trial business happened behind thick doors, never in the hallways, and any potential tension my role entailed hadn't manifested. This made the antiseptic hallways of superior court relaxing -- and comforting, knowing that my city's court was uncorrupted, at least outwardly, by commerce and its related postmodern crassness. For all its distasteful elements, court appears to be working.

My thoughts were not placed, however, on how swiftly justice's engine could turn.

Next: the verdict.

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