Harris County Criminal Courthouse
“Here’s how you get out of Jury duty”, my friend said to me as she proceeded to give me statements to say if selected that would make me sound totally biased or crazy to either the Prosecutor, the Defense or to the Judge!
“But I want to go to Jury duty” I replied sheepishly, as if it was something to be ashamed of, saying, “It could be my little chance to get things right in the world or to at least stamp “DONE” on my civic duty bucket list.” A shaking of her head was all the reply I received. I guess I still believed in everyone doing their part and Leviticus 19:15- “Do not pervert Justice, do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly”.
Jury Pamphlet Jury Summons
I have been to Jury Duty a lot in my life and was even on a real-life, grizzly and sad murder trial once; it was just like one of those Dateline TV shows. I did reschedule this Jury summons due to calendar conflicts but last week the jury date arrived and I awakened way too early, excited to go to “downtown” Houston for my obligation in the Harris County Criminal Court System. The Harris County system is wonderfully organized with a new Jury building and charming Texas security workers and Deputies, so getting in and out of the Courts is seamless and helpful. And there’s nothing more geometrically beautiful than the downtown Houston skyline!
When sitting in the large Jury room for hours, it seemed like I would just fulfill my day and go home without being called. However, when the very last chosen numbers were put on the screen, mine was in the mix. We were told to quickly line up against a wall because the Judge wanted his Jury!
“Here we go”, I said to a lady lined up next to me but she just stared at me and immediately got on her phone telling someone she had been chosen. There were 30 of us lined up against a wall. When the Bailiff came into the room to take us through the underground tunnels to the Courthouse, it suddenly felt serious, especially when I saw how the Sheriff had to waddle and hold his arms away from his body due to an uncountable number of items hanging from him…of course one was a BIG gun, but everything else just looked like tools that could be used if you got out of line…so I didn’t!
I should have realized it was going to be an unusual day when we arrived at the Courtroom and all thirty of us were quickly put into a 12 person Jury deliberation room. So, was this going to be musical chairs or what? Twelve people sat at the table and the 18 rest of us stood around them in a circle. Now, I have always loved to watch how “group process” unfolds and evolves especially as thirty strangers are put in a different setting, with serious intent and potential unintended consequences. We were quiet for a few moments as the Deputy explained to us that there was a phone if the Judge needed to call us and there were two bathrooms also in the room. No one would dare enter those bathrooms, I thought, because people had to actually move away from standing in front of the bathroom door for someone to enter.
She also said that we “might” be allowed to go to lunch before being called into the courtroom for voir-dire, which is to speak the truth under questioning before being chosen. She explained that the Jury door could be opened from the inside, if we needed to get out (think escape) but would not open from the outside without her key, so she would have to let us back in, if that happened. Tight quarters!
As soon as the Deputy left the room, we all just stared at each other and as usual in a group the ‘talker” and the “comedian” emerged. Oh my, did the comedian emerge! He proceeded to describe his job, his life, his ability to not take anything seriously and also every aspect of how to fool the Judge and Lawyers and get out of Jury Duty. There was that topic again! He talked about how if you just said the classic statements “Everyone must be guilty or they wouldn’t be arrested” and/or “All cops are wrong”, that you would immediately get to go home. He then told us his name but that where he worked there were two guys with the same name so they had nicknames for them, which he loudly announced to all. The names were clearly inappropriate but they brought guffaws just as he planned and required from the group. So, we’ll just say his nickname was “skippy“. The “talker” was a very nice person so they proceeded to get into discussions about a variety of things, while others tried to talk quietly about the likelihood of being chosen according to our Jury numbers. Mr. Comedian had know-it-all answers to all their questions. Suddenly, the phone rang in the room and Mr. Comedian picked it up and it was the Judge saying it would be a little longer. He proceeded to joke with the Judge too. A few minutes later the door opened widely and there HE was in all his Robe and Glory, Judge Larry Standley himself, the Judge of Criminal Court #6. This man took the bench as a Judge in Harris County in 1999 and presided over various cases, such as driving while intoxicated, domestic violence, illegal possession of drugs, criminal pollution and theft. Just imagine…sixteen years of serious justice!
We all just stared at him, he smiled and the first thing he said was, “Sorry, but because we still pay homage to some dead Kings, I have to wear this robe, so it gets hot and I keep it real cold in my courtroom but I have a few blankets for you. You can go to lunch now but be back in 30 minutes and we will get started.” Mr. Comedian asked the Judge for a restaurant referral and the Judge wisely picked up on him quickly and refused but said “let me know where you go and give me a referral”.
They had met each others match!
As Groups do, people paired off or gathered up. After only one hour we already found our compadres.
When we returned we were waiting again and before we were led to the courtroom the Deputy shuffled our Juror numbers again, saying the Attorneys requested it…obviously a tactic! Finally we were led into the Courtroom where it was quiet. Sitting at the Defense table was a very young, slight, Caucasian male dressed in slacks and a dress shirt. He had two defense attorneys and there were two prosecutors across from him at the other table. They all stood as we entered. I couldn’t imagine what in the world this young ‘boy’ had done to end up in Criminal Court.
Mr. Comedian said something like “let the games begin” but no one seem to hear. We all took our respective places on the benches, holding onto our juror numbers as instructed and the Judge was right, it was really cold in there. As is the custom, the Prosecutor began to go first in voir-dire but this Court was clearly being run by Judge Justice. This was his domain and he rode it like a wave. He proceeded to describe the possibility of us being in a Trial that would be about ‘driving under the influence’ and that it wasn’t a Felony trial and no one was injured or we would be in another court. He also said he only needed 6 Jurors….wait? what? we are in a Criminal Court with a boy who is charged with DUI and no one is hurt? This seemed like overkill to me.
The Judge commanded the Courtroom and we all stood to take the Oath which was said with old-fashioned respect…even by Mr. Comedian.
The Judge talked and talked and talked about the court system, the problems of today, the issues of being truthful, fair and unbiased and then he described, almost verbatim what “some” people may have said to say in order to get out of Jury Duty. He then clearly asked us all. “Who is the joker in the group?” Quickly, everyone pointed to Mr. Comedian and the Judge said, “And do you have a nickname sir?”.
We all looked around at each other wondering if the phone had been open in the Jury room!! This Judge knew how to pick, point and prod at a group for sure. It was fascinating to watch him work. He quoted the Law and told us he wanted us to be honest with all of our responses to the Attorneys. He described how important it was for any witnesses we may hear in the trial to stay on task in their discussions when they testified and how sometimes he may have to bring them back on track. Then he would proceed to go off track himself telling us his stories. But then he would change course and seriously ask a question, “Juror # 6, what was I just talking about?” To which the response was, “Uh, staying on track, Your Honor”, which brought chuckles from the group!
So, we would just start talking to him, like we were in his living room. He told us we would be with him until the evening and would maybe get hungry and then after many more stories, he announced, “I have never done this in my years on the Bench but I have ordered Pizza for all of you and it has been delivered. Deputy, bring out the Pizza and soft drinks.” We were all a bit stunned.
So, we found ourselves sitting in his courtroom, wrapped in blankets and eating Pizza. We wondered what was next.
The Prosecutor finally started asking all of us the typical voire-dire questions only to be interrupted frequently by the Judge. The other Prosecutor just stared at us with a funny smile but he made notes as he watched our fidgeting body language and reactions to comments. Then it was the Defense attorney’s turn. Even the defendant sat up straighter, it was his time. The Attorney was nice and funny. He wanted us to get to know him so he moved the large TV screens around for us to see and started a power point show. The first slide was of himself taking a selfie in a Jury room two weeks ago…in other words, “I’m just like you”. Of course, as he noted, no Jury would ever pick him. Then his next slide was his history, schools, scouts, sports, etc. and the Judge stopped him: “You brought a slide show about your life??!” Quickly the Prosecutor stood and objected also, which brought an end to that whole show. But no one got offended, in fact the Defense attorney just smiled. He knew this Judge well. He then proceeded to ask very pointed questions of us. The first question out of the box to a juror was “What did you think when you first walked in the room and saw the defendant?”
I knew what I thought but couldn’t believe what the selected Juror said next, “Well, should I say honestly?'” And Judge Justice jumped in with a long story of the importance of telling your real feelings and not being afraid. So, she proceeded, “Well, I thought this young guy couldn’t be charged with DUI, I don’t believe it. Now, Murder, that I would believe, but not DUI.” Well, even the Defendant almost fell over to that remark!
So, the honesty remarks continued with people talking to the Judge about strong opinions, work issues, coming babies to be born and child care needs. There were people talking privately to the Judge at the Bench over their personal issues and/or pain with alcohol, drugs, drunk driving, family members and police experiences, and then people with potential bias started being dismissed…even Mr. Comedian. All were given a respectful “thank you” from the Judge.
I had decided I wasn’t going to say anything if asked but the Judge began to describe his own wife and how much he respected her and then he told us a story of his daughter who had fought and won a battle with Leukemia as a young child and how he was privileged to donate blood to her. He talked about how important children were to him and how he wished some of the young people who came into his Courtroom had the confidence of some of the women in our Jury pool and how he tried to help them turn their lives around. Even the Defendant listened intently. He talked about wanting to make people more comfortable in his court and how damaged some of the people were who showed up in Court. Then he stopped….and looked at us all and said, “I have one shot at them when they come in here. One shot.”
The enormity of his felt responsibility hit me between the eyes. He could be a community force of Justice but also be a scapegoat for those who failed in families, schools, communities and life. He would even be judged himself by his decisions. I looked at the Defendant and at all of us as we had finished off our Pizza and thought how we were just there for one day. We had come together for a moment in time, however, this was or could be a pivotal turning point in this young mans’ life and this Judge realized it. He was allowing the process to play out but more deeply he was allowing a Play of sorts for the Defendant to watch to possibly see how reasonable and just life could be or should be.
The Defense attorney saw the emotions on my face and my body language and asked me about my feelings about DUI, alcohol, drugs, police…Quickly the words just rolled off my tongue and they were hard to stop. “I have to say Your Honor, if it is okay…?” To which the Judge smiled and nodded “okay”.
“Well, I have to say I have never seen anything like this. I mean, I feel that I am on a Reality TV show and I’m waiting for the cameras to pop out. Here we are, in a Courtroom, all eating Pizza, but the Defendant isn’t. I feel we have already discussed the Trial and all of our feelings and you still don’t have a Jury”. And then I described how much I respected law enforcement but also had seen the damage from alcohol and drugs. I described how I believed in enforcing the law to protect others but in recovery and help for people too, so I didn’t see why we couldn’t just all discuss this young man’s issues and come to an agreement over this case?” I stopped short of providing too much information on forgiveness, mercy and amazing grace!
Uh-Oh…now why did all that come out of me?
I waited for the admonition but should have realized that this was what Judge Justice produced. He then smiled at me and asked me to talk more about why I felt that way…so I did. And then he asked me and the Courtroom “Have I been professional? Have I been fair?”
Of course, the only answer was a resounding Yes”.
It seemed very soon after that it was almost 6pm and the Judge announced that they had a Jury of Six. We waited. Quickly, the names of six people, who hadn’t seemed to talk much throughout the day were called. They moved to the real Jury box and stood. Our Judge had them sworn in as we all watched and then he had us stand respectfully as the six of them left the Courtroom. Almost as quickly, the Judge dismissed us with a smile, collected the blankets and said “Thank you” and that we would soon receive a check in the mail for $6.00 which was followed by smiling groans. Then the Jury band of strangers, who had come together for this time, disbanded to go our separate ways. Somehow we knew justice would be done.
As I walked out of the Courtroom I thought about the Judges’ comment, “I have one shot at them” and I realized he had one shot at us too. Among his rambling but deliberate stories and questions this man, and his Attorney players, had taken serious aim at us too. Judge Justice had delivered a shot that carried a constitutional message about our system, flawed that it may be at times, but one that can work so well when strangers, “a jury of our peers” are in a mix and become one with a system attempting to produce Justice.
Days after, I did receive that $6.00 check. And with a smile, I bought a slice of Pizza in honor of Judge Larry Standley.