Last week, while all of you patriots were performing your civic duty, I was watching a 55 year-old rerun of Make Room for Daddy, a show I don't particularly like. But, given the choice, I was glad to have endured a half hour of the insufferable Danny Thomas – hamming it up and mugging for the camera – than to flick a little lever in a voting booth and pretend that my vote makes a difference.
I have not voted since Barack Obama became president the first time. Actually, after the embarrassing debacle that was the 2000 presidential election, with its lengthy recounts, ballot tampering and infamous "hanging chads," I swore I would never vote again. But, I gave in to some heart-stirring "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave" sentiment and voted in several more elections over the next eight years.
Until that one day.
It was early in 2008. I came home from work, slung my jacket on the back of a living room chair (much to the on-going dismay of Mrs. Pincus) and began to leisurely rifle through a stack of the day's mail. Among the catalogs and utility bills, was an ominous yet important-looking envelope. It was addressed to me and featured a governmental return address in the top left-hand corner. I frowned. I slipped my index finger under the sealed flap, carefully sliding it along and tearing a neat opening along the fold. I removed the machine-folded single sheet of paper and began to read. I scanned the first few sentences following the cold salutation. When I hit the fearful gist of the communique, I involuntarily reacted.
"Dammit!," I uttered aloud, "Jury duty!"
But this was no ordinary jury duty. No sir. This was not of the "One Day. One Trial" variety. This was a call from the federal government. I was to report as part of a pool of prospects for service on a Federal Grand Jury.
On my designated day, I assembled, along with 74 others selected from the registered voters representing seven counties in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. A low murmur filled the cavernous marshaling room of the federal courthouse, as numbers were called and the potential jurors were chosen. A grand jury is comprised of 22 jurors and two alternates. The alternates do not have to report for jury duty until one of the actual jurors is excused for valid reason. As the selections were made and my chances of being chosen slimmed, several of those already picked conferred with a court officer. Obviously they pleaded a convincing case of family hardship and were instantly excused. Replacement alternates had to be chosen. My number was the last one called. In the immortal words of Maxwell Smart: "Missed it by that much."
I was told by an official that, as an alternate, it was very unlikely that I would ever have to report.
Six weeks later, another ominous-looking envelope was delivered to my house. When I read the contents, I, once again, involuntarily reacted. Only this time, I yelled instead of uttered.
"FUCK!," I screamed with enough vocal power to rattle some dishes in the kitchen.
A Federal Grand Jury convenes once a week to hear testimony (or parts of on-going testimony) from witnesses questioned by a federal district attorney. There are no attorneys and no judge. There is a District Attorney, the members of the jury and a court reporter. After enough evidence is presented to satisfy the D.A., the jury discusses and rehashes until a decision to indict (or not to indict) is reached. Sure it sounds interesting, like something right out of Perry Mason or Law & Order, but, believe me, it isn't. It's boring. Witnesses are boring. Testimony is tedious. People are inarticulate and downright stupid. Some District Attorneys think they are auditioning for a role in Inherit the Wind. But mostly, it's monotonous. And I sat through that bullshit for the initial term of eighteen months — plus a six-month extension — for a grand fucking total of two fucking years. Every Thursday, I was excused from work to sit in a federal courthouse and listen to a parade of morons get schooled in the ways of the law. And that applied to both sides of the witness box.
Some of my jury mates had never been to the "big city" of Philadelphia in their lives and were bewildered by buildings taller than three stories and the fact that people wore shoes all the time. One guy sat in the first row of seats and read the newspaper during testimony. One guy rattled and crinkled a cellophane bag of candy as witnesses spoke. Another guy slammed his head against a rear wall as he dozed off to sleep. These are the people who are deciding your fate, Mr. Criminal, so you best keep to the straight and narrow.
The jury on which I served heard predominately cases of fraud (identity theft, credit card scams, bad counterfeiting), although, due to overflow and crowding, we sometimes heard cases of another nature. One of those non-fraud cases involved an online child-pornography distribution ring. During some of the most disgusting, stomach-churning testimony, the DA asked if we would like to see examples of images that were seized. The jury collectively cringed. One guy — the bag rattler, as a matter of fact — cleared his throat and suggested that we should view the photos to help us decide on an indictment. The assistant foreperson — an outspoken young lady — shot up out of her seat and pointed an accusing finger at her fellow juror.
"We don't need to see any of that!," she spit, "I don't need to see every bad check that was passed in a fraud case!"
I did, however, learn a few valuable lessons from serving on a Grand Jury:
- Never ever ever ever buy a used car. There is an excellent chance that the odometer was turned back. More than excellent.
- Don't trust anyone who works in a bank. For the price of a few bouquets of flowers and a dinner or two, tellers are giving out your bank account information like it's Halloween candy.
- Criminals get caught because they are greedy. If everyone who ever perpetrated a crime would have quit after one time, satisfied with whatever they got, they would have gotten away with it. It's when they want more and want it faster — that's when they get caught.
And the most important lesson I learned? If you don't want to be subjected to the insipid task of jury duty (federal or otherwise), keep your name off of the voter list from which potential jurors are culled. And how does one stay off of voter lists? By not voting, of course.
Believe me, this nifty little certificate ain't worth it. Neither is voting.