It’s All Material

….wherein I have to weigh my news addiction against my duty as a good citizen, and could I get a screenplay out of it?

A few months ago, I was called to jury duty. After an opening lecture about free parking (which was not, repeat, NOT, guaranteed to all prospective jurors, because there are not, repeat NOT, enough gratis spots in the garage) it was announced that our pool was for a criminal trial that would last eight weeks. After the audible gasp died down, a roll call was taken. It wasn’t to check attendance. It was to answer this question: Yes or no, could you devote eight weeks of your life to serve on a jury?

There were over one and fifty hundred people in the room. Less than twenty people said yes.

I was one of the yes-ers.

Think of the writing material! Short story vignettes, at least twelve of them. I could keep a journal, the bones for an epistolary novel.

Or….scenes from Twelve Angry Men began playing in my mind. I’ve never written a screenplay, but who doesn’t love a good courtroom drama?

A couple of hours later, I’d finished casting my international jury duty movie starring Gabriel Gael Garcia, Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, Hugh Grant, Olivier Martinez, Rodrigo Santoro, Jon Hamm and George Clooney. To avoid the title Twelve Handsome Men, I added Sandra Bullock as the Foreperson. (What?  She’s having a very hot year.)

The judge would be played by Meryl Streep, of course.

Suddenly, the yes-ers were called out –and instructed to go home. We were to report back tomorrow, to this particular floor, to this particular hallway. Then the bailiff handed out parking validations, no questions asked. I felt like I’d been handed a Golden Ticket by Willy Wonka.

That night, I thought about the type of trial that lasts eight weeks. There were no messy murders in recent memory, so I figured something complex and corporate. CEOs with hearts of stone. An evil computer geek trying to take over the world. Sure, that’s been done to death, but it’s still a thrill to witness computer geeks get their comeuppance for being so much smarter than the rest of us.

I added Jim Parsons to the cast, as the defendant/bad guy.

The next morning, a bigger bailiff, wearing a sidearm, sent us to a particular set of benches, in a small area beyond the elevators. When all the yes-ers had reported, the bailiff said we could use a particular restroom now, but we had to come straight back. No wandering around the courthouse. Then he stood in front of us like a human Jersey barrier.

Finally, we were led into a courtroom. Someone who had brought in a laptop was scolded. Someone who’d forgotten to leave his cell phone in his car sheepishly offered it up to be  confiscated. We turned over our parking stubs. When the bailiff gathered only 12 tickets for 20 people, he questioned the non-ticket holders. Some had taken the bus. For a second, I wondered if he was going to validate the bus driver.

People in suits began filing in. Some smiled, very pointedly, at us. Others very pointedly pointed their backs at us. Soon we were told to All Rise, and the judge came in, and it was explained why we were being treated so particularly.

We were in the jury pool for a capital murder trial.

I went into brain freeze. I gather this is a fairly typical reaction because the judge assured us that everything she was about to say would be given to us to read, in writing, a little later.

I learned later (through Google) that the crime had occurred several years ago, but it had taken almost four years to locate the victims, hone in on a suspect, and build the case.

The judge read the name of the defendant. She read the charges. She read the name of the victims. She read the names of attorneys attached to the case—the prosecutors (the smilers) and the defendant’s legal representation (the ignorers). She read a list of witnesses, experts and cops who would testify.

The list was very long. The part of me that was not in shock realized that my cast would have to be much bigger. Lots of extras and unknowns.

Then she started reading questions we would have to answer in voir dire, and I threw out thoughts of movie making.

Could we look at crime scene images? Did we know anyone addicted to drugs? Were there alcoholics in our families? Had we ever been a victim of domestic violence? Lost property to arson? Been kidnapped? Filed for a protection from abuse order? Smoked crack? Could we go to locations where the crimes had occurred? Could we look at autopsy photos of the abused corpses? Could we consider recommending the death penalty if a verdict of guilty was determined?

Could we refrain from reading a newspaper, searching the Internet or watching television news for the duration of the trial?


That brought me up short. Not the other, far more gruesome questions. I know my stance on those. As difficult as it could be, I knew that, if selected, I would give real and serious consideration. I would pay attention and try to do a good job.

But eight weeks of avoiding news?

I read the newspaper every morning. (My husband is an editor, true, but still, I am a newspaper reader.) I also Google everything. And everyone. If I’ve met you, chances are, I’ve Googled you.

This was cause for major personal introspection. And honesty.  Home at night, could I fight the temptation to cruise the ‘net and maybe meander across a story about my trial? Could I truly go eight weeks without…peeking?

The only way, for me, would be a total media blackout.

I had lots of time to consider. I pulled the second to highest number in the pool, meaning I’d be the second to last person interviewed. I was there for the duration.

Late in the afternoon, the remaining potentials were gathered in a room. We didn’t talk about the case, but several people talked about serving. One young woman said it would be great to spend eight weeks away from her jerk of a boss. Another man quietly said he’d been laid off for months, and the ten dollars a day jurors would be paid, for eight weeks, would add up to how much? Several older men were chomping at the bit to serve.

Me? I was still questioning my willpower.

And then I pictured Judge Meryl. If Judge Meryl said I couldn’t read the paper or Google, I wouldn’t do it.

In the end, to use some fancy legal jargon, it became moot. The person before me was chosen as the 4th alternate. We were thanked, presented a certificate that freed us from jury duty for two years, and sent home.

Part of me felt ripped off. I never got to say, in a court of law, that I’d be willing to sacrifice my news addition as my civic duty.

So, could you do it? Eight weeks without peeking?

And, if I wrote that into a screenplay, could media withdrawal work as a secondary storyline?


7 thoughts on “It’s All Material

  1. Could not do it. And not just the media black-out. If I thought someone was guilty of such a terrible crime, I’d be too tempted to take the law into my own hands. Which would be a bad thing all the way around.

    And you did get at least one story out of it!


  2. I’m with Kathy. I couldn’t do it either. I’ve been mugged, stalked, burglarized, peeping tommed, had my purse ripped off multiple times, credit card theft, my car broken into and had several bad haircuts. Nope, jury duty is not for me.

    You are a stronger woman than I.


  3. Good grief, Pam! You could write your own anthology from all of that.

    I was able, I think, to have a somewhat removed reaction because I’ve never been victimized in the ways you named.

    Also, because of the nature of the case I am sure, the atmosphere in court was very serious. Solemn duty and all that, with no room for shenanigans or disobedience.


  4. I haven’t responded to this blog because it’s taken me so long to decide if I could really give up Google. And the answer is: No. I’m pretty sure I’d peek.

    That said, I’m dying to try jury duty. Except that once you’re called, I hear you get called a lot. I’d prefer to have the experience just once but…..well, I gather your civic duty isn’t a one-shot deal.

    Great story, though, Ramona!


  5. Nancy, this was my first time–and I scored the two year pass. My husband gets called all the time, and he is never selected because he is a journalist.

    Until the details of the crime came out, I was enthusiastic about serving. I was a bit flip here, but the atmosphere in the courtroom was extremely solemn. I think a juror would sweat it big time about peeking.


  6. I’ve made it as far as voire dire but after cracking everyone up (including the judge) I was sent home. How did I crack them up? I was asked the question ‘do you think police officers are infallible?’ My response–I’m married to one. I guess it was HOW I said it?


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