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MJ's WalkAbout Nonfiction

By Em Jay

The first reaction to that colored postcard comes from the pit of the belly. You know that place where the wretched sensation of dread begins. It gains impetus throughout the body to make one change color and diet. Yep, that's right, you've been called up for Jury Duty. (These words have been capitalized for your protection.)

Jury Duty is considered a civic duty that is also deemed a privilege in this judicial system, though it's difficult to find a person who thinks so. However, it truly is an out-of-the-ordinary experience. The key to making it a pleasant 'out-of-the-ordinary' experience is being prepared and knowing what to expect.

There was a time when the only people who qualified for this service were those registered to vote. Now, the authorities are tapping the DMV records. If you are 18 years or older, have a driver's license or an ID, you could be called to appear.

Unlike other branches of government, (the IRS, for example) the system does make allowances for those who would be presented with legitimate hardships. These are mentioned on the back of the colored card. People who feel that they should be exempted from the summons can notify the proper authorities by mail or when they appear.

The notice is sent in plenty of time for you to insert this little glitch into your schedule. The average is two weeks. Zero hour comes up on you fast, so there are a few things you can do to physic yourself up for this trip to the courthouse.

Set plenty of reminder messages, put the event on your calendar, have your family and co-workers mention it to you a number of times. Also, be sure to make that call referred to on the card to make sure that your group is still being called up. Reasons come up when they won't need you, and you will not be required to appear.

After a night of tossing like an ice cube in a tumbler, you'd want to dress with a respect that would fit the dignity of the occasion. You'd also want to be at the courthouse about 15 minutes early so you can find the right room, and get familiar with your surroundings.

Depending on where you live and the city's population, you may arrive at a time when other potential jurors will be lining the walls. The murmur of voices will stop as you walk the gauntlet to find an empty bench, but just as quickly it will start up again.

There're a number of things you can do at this point.

1). Look for people you know and tell them your story.

2). Look for complete strangers and tell them your story. (Be prepared to hear theirs.)

3). Sit quietly and observe and listen to people who found those to whom they can tell their story. (This is the most entertaining of the three.)

Soon your name will be read off a list. Show your card to that person, and enter the courtroom. You will be seated as you wait for the rest of the judicial ensemble to assemble When everyone is settled, the bailiff will introduce you to the system. He will tell you if you are in a criminal or civil court.

Exemption opportunities come up at this time. You write your reason on the card, and he collects them to give to the judge. It will be the bailiff who will inform you whether you are exempted or not.

The baliff will then give general instructions on how not to talk to anyone about the case (including your spouse and other potential jurors). If you are selected, you still can't talk about it, or you risk a mistrial.

You will be asked to fill out a questionnaire, and the lawyers on both sides will ask you questions about any prejudices you may have.

For example: In one civil case, the defendant had blasted the plaintiff with a fair string of four-letter words. So his lawyer asked: Is anyone here offended at the use of 'dirty' words?

The goal of each lawyer's questioning is to weed out those who could hurt his/her case. (Lawyers tend to appreciate the quiet ones who agree to everything.) So, you can count on sitting there a good part of the morning, with one break.

After the lawyers have exhausted their supply of questions, they will deliberate in private. If you've been chosen, your experience is just beginning. If not, you can call it a day.

Still, any number of things can happen to make this a two-minute or a two-day, out-of-the-ordinary experience, even if you are not chosen. Here are a few examples:

1) At the last minute, the defendant made a plea bargain with the prosecuting attorney; there was no need for a jury. The crowd was sent home.

2) Too many people were called and the rest were dismissed.

3) One defendant had injured himself. The questioning had to be postponed.

4) Amid questioning, one judge received a bomb scare from a radical source in Texas. The group was dismissed. Upon coming back the next day, the judge informed the patient assemblage of privileged information not revealed in the newspaper.

Soon the process is over. You'll have one more out-of-the-ordinary experience under your belt. You'll be better equipped the next time you're called to come face-to-face with the justice system. And when someone complains to you about being called up for Jury Duty, you can smile, and tell him your story.

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