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Jury Duty: Part I

Volume 66: Sun January 22, 2006

Where we learn of Ryan's adventures and mis-adventures while serving in the noblest of causes: jury duty


Multnomah County Courthouse—where I would report for jury duty

The most noblest of adventures begin with the smallest of envelopes. My jury summons arrived after a rather lengthy delay as it was forwarded from one address to another across the west coast: from Portland, to Seattle, to San Luis Obispo, and finally catching up with me once and for all back in Seattle. I knew what it was before I even opened that envelope since the return address was for Multnomah County Circuit Court. Unfortunately, it was already three days past the date I was supposed to appear.

I called the number provided to explain that I wasn't going to be able to make my jury summons date because the date in question had already passed, and they told me okay, send them a letter saying as much and a date when I could serve my civic duty.

I did, and wrote that I'd be available on October 1st, not having any plans scheduled for that time of year. I also failed to note that October 1st was a Saturday They having no interest in working on weekends, marked me down for the 4th instead.

October 4

I was running a bit later than intended. It was 12:30 in the morning, but I was still in Seattle and had to report in at the courthouse in downtown Portland by 8:00am. So I started driving south.

Happily, traffic on I-5 at 12:30 in the morning is almost non-existent and I made good time. After about two hours of driving, however, I was starting to get tired and finally pulled over at a rest area for some needed sleep. I didn't sleep well, however, and started driving again about an hour later. I also started driving much slower due to thickening fog that was severely cutting the visibility. After another half hour of this, I pulled over once again at another rest and went back to sleep.

I slept a bit sounder this time—probably because I was more tired than before. Figuring it would take about 1 1/2 hours to get to the courthouse from my current location, I got back on the road by 6:00 that morning figuring I'd arrive about a half hour before necessary. I wanted that extra half hour in case I underestimated the time it would take to get there.

Happily, all went well. I parked in the Lloyd district to avoid paying parking fees and rode the MAX into town and walked the rest of the way to the courthouse. I bet none of the other potential jurors had come so far to perform their civic duty!

At the courthouse, the security personnel took every single object—no matter how small or insignificant it might have been—from my backpack looking for a knife that wasn't there. I was a bit concerned about carrying a letterbox I was planning to plant later after I finished jury duty. I had glued magnets to it to hold it securely in place and wondered if their X-ray machines might make it look like a bomb of some sort. But no, that didn't get their attention. They were sure I had a knife in the backpack which they finally concluded wasn't the case and let me go.

The jury room hadn't opened yet, so I sat on a bench and waited with quite a number of other people. Must have been 80 people total, but I didn't really count. Oddly, despite having a 'get out of work free' card, many people continued to work. Cell phone conversations with co-workers unlucky enough to actually have to report for work seemed the norm. One man talked about databases and connection strings, sounding quite animated and distraught. And I couldn't help but wonder—what was so important that he had to have this conversation? Was he really that critical to that company that it could not survive a single day without him at the helm? Let his co-workers figure out the proper connection string. Heck, *I* could have figured out the proper connection string if you gave me the computer for ten minutes.

The doors to the jury assembly room finally opened, and two lines formed—one at each entrance. I continued to sit, but nearly everyone else got up and stood waiting in line. Were they really that excited to get in there? It's not like they're going to deny entry if you're at the end of the line. "Sorry, folks, I'm afraid that all the room we have. Maximum occupancy, you see. Fire codes and stuff. The rest of you can go home." But no, everyone wrangled working for a prime spot in line. I continued to sit and read my book.

I also noticed another interesting phenomena—the line closest to the entrance of the courthouse was twice the length of the line farther away from the courthouse entrance. When the smaller line diminished to about five people, I finally got up and stood in the shorter line, which was about the same time the court employees started suggesting people standing in the longer line to move on over to the shorter line. When all was said and done, I still got in faster than a dozen people who waited significantly longer than I did to get in! I really thought people were smarter than that.

There's a "jury eligibility form" that's sent with the jury summons which you're supposed to send to the court at least a week before the summons date. I, however, had neglected to do this. I got the jury summons in time, but I already knew I was supposed to appear on October 4th and never bothered to open the envelope until the night before the summons date. At which point it was too late to mail in the form as directed.

So when it was my turn to report for duty, I feebly waved the eligibility form asking what I should do with it. The woman behind the counter pointed behind me and said to go into "Room 132" with a rather sinister undertone, and "They'll take care of it."

While everyone else was making themselves comfortable in the assembly room, I marched past them to Room 132, where they scanned the barcode on the form and gave me an official juror badge. A badge!

I'd never gotten a juror badge before. The one other time I had been summoned to jury duty, it was in San Luis Obispo, California. Needless to say, it was a bit smaller and less formal than the multiple millions of people living in Multnomah County. A badge, though! A badge of honor. =)

I selected a seat near the middle of the room—the proper seat. Not the front row which would draw unnecessary attention to yourself, and not the back row where you would look like you're trying to skirt your civic duty by hiding. But the middle. The neutral zone.

Once everyone was settled, a grandfatherly-looking man appeared in front with a microphone. He was a judge at the court, and wanted to thank us for attending. He knew it was inconvenient, but without a person's right to a jury of their peers, the world would come to an end. Okay, maybe he didn't quite say it like that, but there would definitely be dire consequences to our country without that right.

Just the fact that we were seated there, ready to serve our civic duty, was doing wonders for working out last minute deals in the rest of the courthouse. There's a lot of people, defendants and prosecutors, that do not want their case to go in front of a jury and are desperately working to avoid it. All the while knowing that we were waiting in the jury assembly room, waiting to cast judgement.

The man finally finished his little speech then went off to whatever court case needed his attention and another guy took the microphone, this time it was one of the guys that ran the assembly room. He also thanked us for showing up, then explained the rules of the room and rules for jurors.

The jury assembly room was surprisingly nice. It had a large television set, a phone, a wi-fi connection for those who had laptops, board games, and even a little kitchenette in back where we could cook ourselves simple meals. The chairs were new, we were told, comfortable cushiony chairs they were. The previous ones were hard, molded plastic and, pardon the pun, a pain in the you-know-what.

They needed to know where we were at all times. Whenever we left that room, we had to check out. Whenever we returned, we had to check in. The badge must always be worn because there are lawyers running loose in the building and often have discussions that jurors should not be overhearing, so they need to be able to identify us. In fact, we were told, we should wear the juror badges even if we are a few blocks away outside of the buildings—attorneys also walk around outside having private conversations. Yeah, like I'd be caught wearing a geek badge outside.

Court rooms would call down to the jury assembly room throughout the day whenever they needed a certain number of jurors, and jurors would be selected at random to go to the court. If we weren't selected for the jury, we'd return to the assembly room juror pool. There would be a lunch for about an hour and half where we'd be free to leave the building if we were in the assembly room at the time. If we were in a courtroom, the judge determines when to break for lunch and how long.

Only during lunch could we enter the courthouse from the back door, we were told. The entrance was for employees only, and jurors should not be hanging around back there because that's where all of the dangerous criminals come and go. But during that little rush at the end of lunch when tons of people are trying to get into the courthouse, jurors would be permitted through that entrance.

The guy talked for what seemed like an hour, but I'm sure it only seemed that way. It was probably two hours. Just kidding. =) He probably only talked for a half hour or so, but I wasn't really keeping track.

It wasn't long before the first request for jurors came. They needed 17 people. The bad news for these unlucky 17—they were needed at the courthouse in Gresham. They'd have to travel to the eastern part of the county to do their civic duty.

I crossed my fingers. I so did not want to travel to Gresham. Don't get me wrong—I have nothing against Gresham. I just did not want to waste time having to travel there riding the MAX and pay money by going outside of the 'Fairless Square.' The random names were read aloud one at time.

I jumped a bit when the person next to me let out a big breath—their name had just been called. Happily, I avoided the unlucky fate of Gresham.

More time passed. I read a book and made myself comfortable.

Another request for jurors came in. Twenty-four jurors were requested for a civil case on the third floor. I didn't really have a problem with traveling to the third floor, but I still found myself holding my breath as the 24 names were called.

"Ryan Carpenter"

Crap! I mean, well, what the heck did they want me for? I don't know what I'm doing.

After all names were called, he checked us all out of the room and told us to proceed to the courtroom on the third floor. Everyone else kind of stood there shuffling their feet, so I took the initiative and left. Turned the corner and headed up the marble staircase.

Looking back, I was rather amused to see 23 other people following me. UP THE STAIRS! There's a perfectly good elevator right next to the staircase, and I could not believe that 23 out of 23 people decided that they'd rather walk up the stairs to the third floor. Lemmings! I swear, I was being followed by a bunch of lemmings!

We entered the courtroom and seated ourselves. The honorable Judge Marshall L. Amiton entered the room and we were directed to stand, so we stood. Then the judge told us to sit. So we sat. I hate ceremony.

The judge, defense, and prosecutor took turns speaking explaining the basis of the case. A guy who worked at Wicker's Furniture store slipped on a liquid substance, allegedly the result of a janitorial service that had failed to post signs warning of the slippery substance. So he was suing the janitorial service for medical bills and pain and suffering. In fact, we were told, he was suing for $200,000 in actual damages and another $300,000 for pain and suffering. Half a million dollars?! Holy sh*t!!!

I almost fainted. The thought that I, alone, could end up deciding what happens with half a million dollars. Mind boggling. Me, an unemployed shmuck, getting paid ten bucks for the day, could decide the fate of a half million dollars. Woah. Idiots.

The defendant, the janitorial service, agrees that there was a liquid substance on the floor but denies it was their doing, and they had proof—PROOF!—that their work could not have been the cause of that spill. No, it obviously had to be Wick's Furniture who was ultimately responsible, not them. The prosecutor, of course, tells us that's absurd, and it's all the fault of the janitorial service, and they'd show us that without a shadow of a doubt, they deserve a half million dollars.

The judge also wanted to make sure we understood that this was a civil case. Nobody was going to go to jail based on any decisions the jury made. Civil cases were also held to a different standard of proof than a criminal trail where 'beyond a reasonable doubt' reigns. In a civil trial, it's a matter of determining what probably happened. And a verdict did not have to be unanimous. Twelve jurors would be selected, but only ten needed to agree for a verdict.

The court reporter, I guess she was, read off a list of our names—randomly generated, of course— and we were to rearrange ourselves in that order. The first twelve were directed to the jury box, and the rest of us were lined up on the bench just in front of where the audience—if there was an audience—would be located. My name was the 19th called.

Clearly, the higher your number, the greater your chance of serving on this jury. I was seated on the bench in the back of the room rather than the jury box, which I figured gave me a pretty good chance of not getting onto the jury. They'd need to kick out seven people ahead of me before I wound up in the jury box.

An easel was directed to our attention. On it was a list of stuff: name, occupation, hobbies, have you ever been involved in a court proceeding, related to law enforcement officers, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Starting with potential juror number one, each of us would answer all of the questions on the board.

When it was my turn, I rattled off my answers. Or rather, I tried to. The easel was still pointing towards the jury box and the head of one of the lawyers was in my way to see the complete list. So I answered the first four questions, then had to ask the lawyer to move his head for me to see the rest of the board. Everyone in the courtroom laughed—apparently the thought that lawyers have big heads crossed everyone's mind simultaneously. The lawyer got up from where he was taking notes on our answers and moved the easel to face our direction and clear of his head.

For hobbies, I said I enjoyed reading, hiking, backpacking, and—with some amount of trepidation—letterboxing. In my own unique little way, I wanted to test them. I wanted to see if they were really paying attention to my answers. Because I was willing to bet that neither of the lawyers had a clue what letterboxing was, and I wanted to see if they'd follow up with it. I was also amused at the thought: Could this be the first time in history that the word letterboxing was used in the court of law? Could I possibly be breaking new ground—bringing letterboxing to a place where it had never been used before?

Whatever the answers, nobody bothered to call me on it. Neither lawyer asked any questions of me outside of those posted on the board that everyone was to answer.

And ultimately, it didn't matter. The lawyers and judge went into the judge's chambers to do their wheeling and dealing and figure out who would get the boot. After several long minutes, the lawyers and judge returned.

The judge told us the decisions have been made, and if we are excused, not to feel bad. It wasn't us, he assured us. It was nothing personal—and he was grateful to all of us for being there and helping out. Without every one of us, democracy as we know it would not exist.

Then he read names, one at a time, filling freshly emptied chairs in the juror box with a person from the bench. I started getting a bit antsy when the person just before me was called into the juror box. I was next.

But that was it. The rest of us, six in all, were thanked once again for our participation and directed to report back to the jury assembly room.

We got and up went back. I escaped jury duty. I wasn't sure if I should be happy or sad.

We were in the jury assembly room for all of a half hour before it was time for lunch. We were allowed to leave and report back within 1 1/2 hours.

I took the opportunity and left. I settled on eating at Big Town Hero, a sandwich shop I'd ever tried before but I always thought had a cute logo. It was also the closest food establishment I could find that looked appealing. =)

I finished lunch quickly, and wandered around downtown Portland and the Tom McCall Waterfront Park. I just love the waterfront there. My favorite time of year is April when all the cherry trees are in full bloom. The first time I ever visited Portland it was April with the cherry trees in full bloom, and I loved Portland since the minute I saw those trees on the waterfront. =)

I took this picture from Pioneer Courthouse Square, enjoying the clouds reflecting in the windows, mere minutes before I discovered distressing news from a nearby newspaper rack

After about an hour, I started heading back to the courthouse with a slight detour through Pioneer Courthouse Square. It's not really a courthouse—just an empty block, covered with bricks affectionately nicknamed Portland's Living Room since many community events take place there. But it seemed appropriate to visit Pioneer Courthouse Square given my civic duty that day.

I had no idea the horror I'd learn at the southeast corner of that square. On the front page of the Oregonian, in the biggest typeface I think I've ever seen on a newspaper, were three horrible, horrible words: Fort Clatsop Burns!!!

It was shocking, demoralizing news. I staggered and fell to my knees, fumbling in my pockets for quarters. Fort Clatsop, for you folks not in the know, is a national monument near the mouth of the Columbia River famous as the winter quarters of the Lewis and Clark expedition during the rainy, rainy winter of 1805-06. A replica of the original fort based on drawings and descriptions from the journals of Lewis and Clark—just a few months before the 200th anniversary of their famous winter quarters—burned to the ground. Gone.

I'd visited Fort Clatsop several times before, and it was just heartbreaking to learn that Fort Clatsop was no more. I found the necessary quarters to open the newspaper rack and grab myself a paper, then walked slowly back to the courthouse.

The line in front was literally going out the door, so I walked around the building to the employee only entrance that jurors could use at just this time of day. I looked for dangerous criminals being escorted into or out of the courthouse, but saw none. Which was rather disappointing, because I knew you people who would later read my account would be disappointed that I had no brush with a monster.

I checked myself into the jury assembly room, pulled out the Oregonian, and read about Fort Clatsop. The cause of the fire was unknown, though authorities were looking for a car seen in the vicinity at the time of the fire.

I consoled myself that perhaps it was for the best. The fort was a replica, after all, and being just a simple wooden structure, I figured could be replaced at relatively little cost. It's not like they'd have to rebuild a multi-million dollar building or anything. And over the last several decades, they've probably learned more about the original fort than when the replica was constructed, so now they could rebuild it and make it even more historically accurate than ever before. Maybe it would all turn out for the best.

But I still had a heavy heart. Telling someone from Portland that Fort Clatsop burned is like telling a kid that Disneyland burned down. Sure, it could be rebuilt better than ever, but it was still sad and a tragic loss.

I also noticed a small bit buried deep in the paper describing a murder case whose verdict was decided the day before. The creep got life in prison with the possibility of parole in 25 years. Nothing about case meant anything to me personally—I'd never even heard it before—but I was electrified when the article mentioned the room number in the courthouse where the verdict was read: The very room I had reported for jury duty to right there on the third floor! Wow! I had no idea that 24 hours before, a man was sentenced to life in prison in that very room. A convicted killer stalked that room. Just 24 hours before. A sobering thought.

I finished the paper and put it down and noticed a few people watching TV. I almost laughed out loud when I saw what they were watching: Matlock. Of all the stations on TV, they picked Matlock?! Well, it's certainly hard to argue that it's inappropriate given the conditions, but the irony! Gotta love it. =)

The jury guy got on the microphone to announce another request for jurors, this time a criminal case on the fourth floor. They needed 40 people.

My jaw must have dropped open. FORTY PEOPLE?! I crossed my fingers and hoped I wouldn't get selected. It would take two days just to get through deciding on a jury if every single person had to tell the court their name, occupation, and so on!

You could sense the tension in the entire room. A lot of people did not want to hear their name called. But names were called. I heard the person behind me suck in his breath when he heard his name. A girl next to me was next to go. I took a deep breath—my first one had run out of air—as names continued to get called.

I escaped once again. YES!

I congratulated the guy next to me on escaping, and he congratulated me. I asked him if there had been other jury requests when I was up on the third floor during that jury selection process, and learned that there had indeed been another call I missed out on. I didn't get the details about that one, though.

It was nearing 3:30 in the afternoon, and I was starting to feel pretty confident that I wouldn't be serving on a jury this time around. There wasn't much time left in the day to call many more juries, after all, and once I left that day, my tour of duty was done.

But they weren't done calling juries. One more request for jurors came in. This time for a civil case on the seventh floor. They needed 18 people.

I was feeling rather cocky. In theory, my chances of being called were significantly greater than at any point earlier in the day since 40 people just walked out less than an hour before. Added to the 17 that went to Gresham and the others who'd been called out for other courtrooms, the room was starting to get pretty empty. But I'd already gone through the jury selection process once, and 18 people wasn't that many. I wouldn't be called a second time. I just couldn't. Not at 3:30 in the afternoon.

"Ryan Carpenter."


This time, I took the elevator to the seventh floor. I didn't have a problem with taking the stairs, and truth be told, I would have preferred it. But seven flights of stairs is a pretty hefty hike, and I was worried the other potential jurors would beat me to the courtroom and I'd stumble in five minutes later than the rest, all by my lonesome, and everyone would stare at me and ask what took so long.

And I hate being on the spot like that. So I waited for the elevator and went up with everyone else.

We all found seats in the audience portion of the courtroom before the clerk reporter called, "All rise." And the honorable Judge Marilyn Litzenberger entered the room.

We she waved us to sit down and thanked us profusely for coming to help because jurors were the backbone of the American justice system and the world would end without us. Which by now was becoming annoying. I was kind of getting curious what would happen if the potential jurors of the world disappeared overnight.

Then she introduced us to the lawyers and their clients and explained the basics of the case to us. It was a civil case, and they would need six jurors. Which kind of surprised me since I didn't realize there were juries of six, but I was perfectly happy with that. It meant there was only a 1 in 3 chance I'd be on the jury instead of a 2 in 3 chance.

The case was an insurance case. The defendant was Farmers Insurance, and they were being sued by a black man originally from Africa for 'breech of contract' worth—and I wrote this down so I could report it accurately—$12,176. I loved the precision of the amount. I kind of felt cheated too, however. My last case was worth a half million bucks and now they want me to waste my time on a $12,176 case? Ha!

Once again the court reporter read out our names and we were to line up in that order. The first twelve were directed to the jury box, and the last six lined up where the audience sits. I was number five. Seeing as they needed six jurors, I was guaranteed to be on the jury unless they found some reason to dismiss me. I was really in the hot seat this time!

We went through the process of saying aloud our names, hobbies, relations to law enforcement officials, etc. And afterwards, the lawyers took turns asking additional questions such as if any of us had insurance with Farmer's Insurance (one person admitted to it). The prosecuting lawyer admitted that his client had a felony on his record for domestic violence, and if we thought that would be a problem for any of us. I kind of snickered—"Not really, but it might be a problem for you!" I thought. =)

He also asked if we had a problem with the fact that the man was black. I was stunned. Do people actually admit to that? Even if it were true, do many people actually raise their hand and say, "Yes, I am a bigot and will not give him a fair hearing"? Okay, perhaps someone who was really trying hard to get out of jury duty, but still, it seemed like a stupid question to me. Probably just a formality, though.

The defense attorney asked if any of us had already sat in a panel that day, and I raised my hand. Guilty as charged, as it were. I was one of two people who had sat on a panel earlier that day. A third guy raised his hand to ask what a panel was and the attorney explained that's what he was sitting on right then. A panel of potential jurors. "Oh, no, I haven't done that ealier today. This is my first."

I'm not sure what the purpose of that question was, but I felt a ray of hope. Maybe he felt if I didn't get selected on the other panel as a juror, maybe there was a reason for it and he would try to get me off this jury. Oddly, he didn't ask anything about the other panel I sat on except if it was for a civil or criminal case. I figured he'd want to know why I didn't end up on the jury, but no, that was that.

The lawyers and judge went into the judge's chambers, and I started chatting with some of the people around me. Especially those next to me there on the back row of the jury box who were really in the hot seat and guaranteed to be serving on the jury unless we were explicitly dismissed.

One guy next to me wondered about there being a jury of six, and I filled him in on what I learned from the last panel I sat on. Being another civil trial, I figured a verdict didn't have to be unanimous, and if the ratio of the yeas to nays was the same as the last trial, only five people would have to agree for a verdict. It was weird—it was like I was the expert on civil cases because I had already sat on a panel for a civil case earlier that day. Me, who didn't even bother to watch Matlock when it was on TV just after lunch.

The judge entered the room and thanked us for our time and not to feel rejected if we had not been selected for the jury. Then she started reading names of those who were dismissed.

My name was not called. I officially became juror number five on Teshome Gebrekidan v. Farmers Insurance Company.

Being almost 5:00 now, the judge told us six jurors that the trial was not expected to last past the next day, and ordered us back to the jury deliberation room behind us at 8:40 the next morning. Court dismissed.

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