July 2017

Line in the Sand: Jury Duty

Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Opinion 1: Barry Kaufman
This might be an unusual month for this column. As luck would have it, right smack dab in the period of time when Courtney and I are usually insulting each other via email in the hopes of provoking a topic, the wheel of fortune turned, and my counterpart there was selected to do her civic duty and serve on a jury.

You may already know this if you read about it in her half of this column last month. Generally, I don’t recommend reading her half, but in this case, I’ll allow it (as they say in every movie set in a courtroom ever).

Setting aside the truly troubling notion that someone has agreed to put any kind of legally binding decision in Courtney’s hands, it also threw somewhat of a monkey wrench into our regularly scheduled plans to disagree on something for your amusement. It turns out you can’t be legally dismissed from a jury because you have a magazine column to write, so after much deliberation we have decided to simply share our own tales of serving on a jury.

Which works out great for me, because a few years ago I served as one of 12 angry men (or, more accurately, mildly inconvenienced people) during one of the most insane trials ever not presided over by Judge Judy.

Let me set the stage for you: This was your run-of-the-mill landlord/tenant dispute, with the landlord suing for unpaid rent, and the tenant countersuing because she’d seen it in a movie once and it seemed like what you’re supposed to do. That last part is conjecture, but I don’t know that it is entirely unfounded.
You see, being delightfully bonkers, this tenant had chosen to serve as her own attorney. And furthermore, she had chosen to represent herself via the time-tested legal strategy of giant poster boards, which she carried into the courtroom in a haphazard stack.

Opening arguments started out fairly routinely, with the plaintiff’s lawyer making the case, without poster boards or anything, that the defendant had not paid rent, like, ever. He sat, and the defense began to literally and figuratively unfold her counterargument.

“There’s a saying written on each and every one of your license plates,” she announced, speaking in a perfect TV-lawyer cadence, “and it’s the saying that brought me here. It’s what I was looking for when I came to South Carolina.”

A brief pause for effect, a chance to look each member of the jury in the eye.

And with that, she unfolded the first poster board. In what can only be described as a grade-school caliber legal defense, she had written “Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places” in glitter glue—bright, shiny, pink and green, legal-grade glitter glue—the kind they teach you about at places like Harvard Law.

My fellow jurors and I were immediately moved to find out where the cameras were hidden. Finding none, we were forced to accept that this was actually happening.

Her counterargument continued, poster board by poster board, until at last it reached what legal journals still refer to as “the grossest moment in judicial history.”

Part of the tenant’s countersuit, you see, was that she had been given the old bait-and-switch and that the luxury condo was actually a cesspool of unsafe living conditions. Since that’s not the kind of thing you can properly convey without presenting it like a sixth-grade science fair, she unfolded her final poster board: photos and photos of an overflowing toilet. The toilet from the front. The toilet from the side. The toilet from outside the room, shot through the door like you were spying on the toilet.

And these photos pulled no punches in illustrating exactly what was overflowing from that toilet, and how much of it there was. Long story short, none of us jurors found use for our free lunch vouchers that day.

Of course, once she concluded her presentation, opposing council was allowed to cross-examine (or something. It’s been a few years and I’m not exactly a lawyer). It turns out the overflowing matter belonged to the tenant’s dog, who had previously been making his deposits everywhere in the house except for the toilet. When the landlord told the tenant that this sort of thing isn’t great for the carpets, the tenant began cleaning them up with paper towels and dropping them in the toilet.

Those of you who have small children and toilets know that paper towels don’t flush. This was obviously news to the tenant, who kept up the practice even after the landlord told her that’s not how toilets work. Obviously, the landlord didn’t use enough poster boards in telling the tenant how toilets work, because she kept doing it.

Hence, we, the jury, had to look at a bunch of photos of a toilet and its contents and deliberate on the legal blame for its overflowing state. It was not a long deliberation.

So yeah, ultimately, I did my civic duty (or doodie, in this case) and served my time as an upright citizen. Did I make the world a more just place? The jury’s out. But I know of one toilet whose life we changed for the better that day. And as long as I never have to look at it again, I’m okay with that.


Opinion 2: Courtney Hampson
I slid down the bench, shoulder-to-shoulder with two strangers, and surveyed the scene. It was easy to pick out my fellow potential jurors; we had badges. But outside of the jury “bullpen” that held more than 100 of us, it was difficult to tell who the other people were. Lawyers? Defendants? Witnesses?

The bailiff flexed his muscles a few times, calling order. Turns out a courtroom is like the library. You only speak in whispers. Eventually, we all rose as the judge took her seat on the bench. She announced that they would be selecting three juries today, and the first case was homicide by child abuse. Audible gasp. Oh, that was me gasping. I looked left and right as my cheeks grew red and admonished myself silently for being so naïve. I’d spent the morning, reading my book, thinking I was in traffic court and I’d be home by dinner and back to work tomorrow. That was not the case, so to speak.

Two murder cases later, and I was selected as a juror for the personal injury trial, the final case for the week. By now we’d been sitting on uncomfortable wooden benches for six solid hours, so the judge graciously said we would start opening arguments in the morning. My fellow jurors and I went back to the jury room to sign some paperwork, and we were dismissed until morning. As we filed out together, we talked about how lucky we were that we were not on one of the murder trial juries, and our expectation was that we’d be done with our service by Wednesday afternoon.

Boy, were we wrong. At 2 p.m. on Friday, we finally delivered our verdict to the judge—two full days after one of the murder trials ended in a hung jury, and a day after the other trial ended with an acquittal. Turns out our case would be the longest.

I mentioned jury duty in my column last month, but I barely scratched the surface. As I sat in the courthouse parking lot (my remote office for the week), I was catching up on e-mails with a colleague, and she said, “I bet this experience will make a great column.” Aha! This isn’t all for naught, I thought: $12.50 a day and fodder for my writing. So, I immediately messaged Barry who immediately responded back with how much he hated his jury duty experience.

And, here we are, debating jury duty, because you know what? I enjoyed it. Me. The person who checks work e-mails when she gets up to pee in the middle of the night. Me. The person who works 60-hour weeks and feels guilty when she leaves the office. I spent five days at the Beaufort County Courthouse, and I would do it again. Here is why:

People watching. Granted, our case didn’t draw a gallery, but watching the facial expressions of the plaintiff, defendant, their attorneys and witnesses was sitcom gold.

Expert witnesses. Eight hours of expert witnesses. Eight hours of the opposing counsel attempting to de-expert the witness the judge deemed expert that said counsel didn’t object to.

Information. If I ever suffer a spine injury, I will not need a doctor, because I now believe I know pretty much everything I need to know about the thoracic and lumbar spine.

Listening skills. People don’t listen to instructions. When the judge tells you on day one that you are not to talk about the case until he sends the jury to deliberate (which you’ll remember was five days after he gave the instructions), how about you don’t tell us your verdict before opening arguments. I sharpened my listening skills:

• I knew exactly how that opinionated juror would vote in the end. Clearly, she didn’t listen to one single word. And, her closed mind impacted the outcome.

• The plaintiff’s first language was not English, so even though she spoke and understood English just fine, there was an interpreter for her and her husband’s testimony. This meant two things: 1) the testimony took twice as long, and 2) we could only consider the interpreter’s answers as testimony even if we understood what was being said in Spanish. It was a like watching a tennis match. (Talk about a thoracic spine workout.)

• No matter the topic, courtrooms are emotionally charged. When the defendant talked about the death of her husband (which had nothing to do with the case), even I teared up and choked back a sob.

Maturity. We had a recent high school graduate on the jury whose thoughtful deliberation and smart opinions were spot on. Maturity can also be lacking at any age. When a 50-something-year-old juror disagrees with an 18-year old juror and tells her that her opinion is clearly based on lack of life experience, stuff gets awkward fast. Happy to report that the 18-year old won that debate and shut him up. (I cheered, silently.)
Critical thinking. I now believe lack of critical thinking skills is the number one reason for hung juries.
Impact. You are impacting the lives of other people. You’re deciding what happens next. That is a mighty weight to bear.

In the end, a judge put 10 people in a room (10 people with no medical experience) and asked them to determine how much money a 29-year old should get to cover her medical expenses and pain and suffering for the next 50 years of her life. And, I got to have an opinion on that.

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