At Jury Selection, Brooklyn Court House

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By Kim Chakanetsa

On the third floor of the Brooklyn Court House, the judge sits high and straight-backed, framed by two flags and a wooden plaque. She looks up. “Chris,” she says, “we’re ready.” With that a clerk dressed in two shades of olive leaves the room.  He returns with a troop of 24 men and woman, young and old.

“When I call you name line back there, “ he says pointing to the railing that separates the bench from the public seating. He calls the first name and a man with grey speckled hair saunters up. A pregnant woman in stripes follows. Then a man in a burnt orange sweater.

The clerk stumbles on some of the last names and so he chooses to spell them out. When he finishes a selection of people dressed in various states of winter combat – trench coats and padded jackets are standing outside the barricade. One by one the men and women are summoned into a side room where the judge and attorneys have moved to. They are there for two or so minutes. There is not much to do for those waiting in line expect fidget with their bags and stare at the ‘State of New York Unified Court System’ Calendar on the wall. A man in a blue shiny sports shirt sits with his head pined down on the back on his umbrella. Next to him a girl threads her hand through her hair – waiting.  A truck offloading downstairs beeps incessantly, temporarily disrupting the room’s quiet.

“When I call your name step outside,” the clerk announces loudly once everyone has emerged from the side room.  About a dozen people move towards the main door and are gone. The clerk then removes from the top of a side cupboard a brown revolving drum with a handle. He places into it several small pieces of paper and then pushes it hard. It begins to spin.  When it slows down he lifts the drum and gives it several vigorous shakes.  He places it on the desk, opens a little window, picks out a paper and calls a name. He tells those whose names he picks from the drum to sit at the side of the courtroom.

A shorthaired woman with a red top and beige trench takes her seat. She is followed a man with grey hair and glasses.  Once the lottery is over and the seats filled the judge speaks. “The court has provided you with a questionnaire,” she says. She asks each person a barrage of questions.

“What is your educational background?”

“Have you been a witness to a crime?”

“Is there any reason why you can’t sit on this jury?”

The responses come quickly.

“Four years”

“Live with my boyfriend.”

“Junior high”

A man in glasses at the far end of the row starts to respond but is unable to continue.  The courtroom is still. He tries again. After a few attempts he says that he has a stutter. The judge signals to the attorneys and they spring up and gather.

“We are going to excuse you,” the judge says.

She relays a battery of questions to the last few  — the cashier, the dental hygienist and the fashion designer from Greenpoint. The judge turns the floor over to the attorneys.  Both sides, she explains, have 15 minutes to ask questions.

The assistant district attorney, a dark-haired young woman in a severe black suit, goes first.“There is no wrong answer” she begins. She turns to a woman in the front row who had mentioned, during questioning, her boyfriend’s DUI conviction. Does she think that driving laws are too tough?

The district attorney moves on.

“Does anyone watch cop show?” she asks. “CSI?”

The group who had been sitting stiffly become slightly animated. There are nods. She asks if the people need to see videos to find someone guilty. “Probably,” says a young woman with dangly earrings. The assistant district attorney pushes the question further. The young woman perhaps sensing that it is not the right answer demurs saying, “I am not sure.”

Ping. A bell goes off. Her 15 minutes are up.

The defense attorney, a blonde young woman of similar age wearing grey pinstripe is next.

“Has anyone every driven a car after having a drink?” she asks. She holds a sheet of paper in one hand and gesticulates with the other.

“Is anyone involved in Mothers against Drunk Driving or Students Against Drunk Driving?”

She pauses for a moment then asks, “Does your computer ever shut down?  Has it ever had a virus in it?”

She explains that her client is challenging the reliability of Breathalyzer Test. She asks, “Does anyone think that police officers tend to be more accurate then regular people?” There are some headshakes but no one says anything. “So they can make mistakes,” she says softly. Another ping follows and her time is up.The judge announces that she will give the attorneys some time to confer and whittle down the jurors from 12 to eight.

“No challenge, “ the attorneys say after each name until they get to a certain name. The assistant district attorney challenges the choice. “He said he would not necessarily believe that a machine could be accurate,” she says, half rising from her chair. “I can’t remember him making such a blanket statement. Application denied, “ says the judge crisply. They continue.

Out is the shy woman with the dangly earrings. Out is the grey-haired man who doubted the absolute accuracy of Breathalyzers. Out is another girl who was mostly quiet.  The judge reads the lists once more.She stops, looks up and says: “We have a jury.”

One Response to “At Jury Selection, Brooklyn Court House”

  1. Elli Davis
    March 19, 2011 at 6:24 PM #

    Thanks for posting the article – it provides quite an insight to the usual procedure of jury selection in the US, since I, as native Canadian, got the information I had from the movies featuring law suites and trials :)Were you really participating in there?

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