Static, by Dan Kois




Originally published in the American Journal of Print, Issue 2.

I am appreciated by the District of Columbia. I know I am appreciated: I have documentation.

The District appreciates me because I served as a juror for one day a few years back. While I responded to jury duty, I did not actually decide a case. I, in fact, never really had a chance to decide a case. A combination of bureaucracy, judicial confusion, and the utter annoyance of the other jurors saw to that. But in a way, my experience as a juror was emblematic of the resignedly apathetic way many DC residents view their government, and my day in court was representative of the frustrations many city employees have with their jobs, and with the numbskulls their jobs force them to deal with every single day.

But first, my certificate. It's very small, but is no less heartfelt for looking exactly like an ATM receipt -- because that's what it is, spit out of the courthouse juror cash machine at the end of your day. It reads, in full:

SUPERIOR COURT OF THE
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

CERTIFICATE OF APPRECIATION

THIS CERTIFIES THAT
KOIS DANIEL J
SERVED AS A JUROR ON
02/03/99

THE SUPERIOR COURT OF THE
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
IS APPRECIATIVE OF YOUR SERVICE
ON THE ABOVE DATE

DUANE B. DELANEY EUGENE N. HAMILTON
CLERK OF THE COURT CHIEF JUDGE

TERM  TIME   DATE   TRAN
000001 18:55 02/03/99 3439

AMOUNT DISPENSED 0004.00

The endless day which finally ended with this almost-illegible, assembly-line gesture was by turns boring, infuriating, bewildering, and hilarious. During this day, so little happened that I managed to read not only the complete Washington Post, New York Times, and the most recent New Yorker, but also an entire 200-page book. But I also watched a young man about my age, accused of selling drugs, spend an entire day in court to no end at all, no closer to resolution on the charge by the end of the day than he was at the beginning. And I watched as a roomful of people, about forty of us in all, moved progressively from genial indifference to annoyance to active ill will toward the government and justice system that we all shared.

I received my first jury summons in October. At the time, I was teaching freshman English at George Mason High School I Mean University, and I felt it wouldn't be fair to all my GMHSIMU students if I canned two weeks of classes just to serve on a jury. (When polled, my students did not agree.) Since I knew that by spring, I would be working full-time elsewhere, I figured I'd just screw over my new boss rather than all those poor kids, who were already getting shafted enough by having me as an English teacher.

So I tried to get a deferment until spring. But the phone lines were always busy over at the DC Superior Court Office of Juror Affairs, so I never could. Finally, three days before my jury service, I left a message on the Juror Affairs answering machine, expecting never to be called back, of course. I showed up at Superior Court the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, stood in line for an hour, and received my deferment to February. Also, I left my keys at the Superior Court metal detector and didn't realize until I was halfway home on the Metro.

They finally called me back, incidentally, two days later.

Once February rolled around I wasn't so incredibly anxious to be on a jury, but I knew that it was a big deal and that DC had trouble getting jurors to stick, so I decided I wouldn't lie and I wouldn't actively try to get out of it. I would just tell the truth, answer their questions, and if I got picked, I got picked.

I decided this despite my friend Amy's recommendation that I do everything physically possible to get out of it, up to and including going berserk in the courtroom. Amy served on a jury last summer, for a murder trial which lasted two and a half weeks. It was such a horrid experience that she never wants to be in a courtroom again, and so she is determined to avoid encountering any of her fellow jurors in the Safeway or something, as that would definitely result in courtroom time as either the victim or perpetrator of attempted murder. Amy suggested that I have the following conversation with the judge as soon as I stepped into the courtroom:

ME: You Honor, what is the charge in this case?
JUDGE: Contract fraud [or whatever].
ME: I am definitely in favor of the death penalty for that crime.

But I knew that jury duty was an important foundation of our legal system. I knew it was the rare county in this world that trusted its citizens enough to sit in judgment. I knew that if I were ever falsely charged with a crime, I'd want someone like me on the jury: sympathetic, fair, possibly a sucker. I was ready to Do My Duty.

My day was brilliantly sunny and warm for early February; stepping off the escalator at Judiciary Square, I felt it was sort of a shame that I would be spending the entire day in a courthouse. But who was I kidding? If I wasn't there, I wouldn't have been taking a long walk in a State Park or something -- I would be at work.

My boss hadn't been thrilled that I was missing work in my third week as a full-time employee, but he understood. I myself was also not thrilled, as a writer I really wanted to meet was scheduled to come in for a meeting that day. Maybe, I thought, I'll get ejected early and could still make it out to Bethesda for his visit.

I passed through the metal detector and set it off. Everyone sets it off; it must be the most finely tuned metal detector in America. The wand woman asked me to hold out my arms while she scanned me. Her wand really never stopped beeping the entire time it passed over me -- I thought either someone had slipped me several guns or that perhaps, in my sleep, I had been steel-plated -- but she waved me through. What would it take to get them to stop someone? A Patriot missile?

I checked in at the juror office on the third floor -- I was a little early for my 10:30 appointment time -- and sat in the waiting room. The waiting room is a long assembly chamber which, at the beginning of February, still sported Christmas garland. A few hundred prospective jurors sat in fairly comfortable chairs and watched TV. The room definitely was a microcosm of DC itself -- K Street professional types mingled with young guys in bulky Orlando Magic jackets, who mingled with young Advisory Board-type women, who mingled with large older ladies who gabbed like lifelong friends. Pretty much everyone had cell phones, which they used frequently and loudly. It seemed like a ride in the city's largest Metro car, which sits ten across a row but never goes anywhere at all.

Every half hour or so, a jury coordinator came to the front of the room, unlocked the AV room, turned off the TVs, locked the AV room, read a list of names and numbers for the next juror pool, unlocked the AV room, turned the TVs back on, locked the AV room, and left. These women were polite but firm: "I am now going to read the next jury pool. If you hear your name and number please answer 'here' or 'present.' Please excuse me if I mispronounce your name."

Most of the coordinators made game guesses at last names, though one woman spelled all but the most simple -- "Number four eight two, S, c, h, w, a, r, t, z." "Number six one oh, N, e, l, s, o, n." "Number nine nine four, Smith."

Another woman was not permissive of those who responded in error. "I have that number but that's not my name," a juror called out at one point.

"There are sometimes doubles," the coordinator said with withering matter-of-factness. "If that is not your name, please do not respond."

When they finished with the lists of the juror pools, the forty or so jurors they'd called would file out of the room to meet them in the lobby. The rest of us sat and watched the six TVs hanging from the ceiling. At first, they showed daytime TV -- Paula Jones was on the Roseanne show. I am here to tell you that Paula Jones has an irritating voice, sort of like if Fran Drescher was from Arkansas. When Roseanne took questions from the audience, one woman stood up and said, "Now, did you have any sexual affairs with Bill Clinton before that day?"

Paula Jones looked bewildered and said, "No, I didn't. I'd never met him before."

"Oh," said the woman. "Really?" It sort of seemed like she had never heard anything about the case before.

The best thing to do would obviously have been to move on to another questioner, one with a clue, but Roseanne asked, "Why did you ask that question?"

"I dunno," the woman said. "I just thought, you know, maybe she had sex with him before, and that's why he wanted to do it again."

"No," Paula Jones said. "That's not what happened."

The woman seemed disappointed that her intuition hadn't panned out. "Okay," she said.

Mercifully, one of the coordinators put in a video soon after that. It was a video produced by the District Court called "You, the Juror." In the video, the Chief Justice and many actors thanked us for taking our duties and responsibilities as citizens so seriously. They told us what to expect as we sat in the jury box, and reminded us that while we might be struck from a jury at any time during voir dire, we should not despair. "Please do not take it personally if an attorney asks that you be removed from the jury," an actor said. "It is not a slight to you personally. Report back to the jury room and you will have another chance to serve on another jury."

We had to report back even if we didn't make a jury? A guy in the back said, "What?"

After "You, the Juror," we watched a National Geographic video about grizzly bears. The highlight of that video was a scrawny guy sitting on a bed sporting a cast on his arm, a cast on his leg, vicious scratches on his chest and stomach, bloody bandages on his face, and an obviously violently scalped head, saying, "Well, I'd say the worst part was probably when she had my head in her mouth." Then we broke for lunch.

During lunch I called in to work, found an ATM, and ate at the counter of my favorite restaurant, Jaleo. The good thing about Jaleo, as I told my wife later when she quizzed me on that particular lunch choice, is that it has a tapas menu, so you can get lunch for like four dollars. While it's true that I myself spent eighteen dollars on three items, it is technically possible to get lunch for like four dollars.

Immediately after lunch, at 1:30, they called another juror pool. This time "Number three seven five, K, o, i, s" was the second on the list. "Here," I said. When they read the seventh name on the list, the guy replied, "God damn it, present."

I was kind of excited. All forty of us got up and walked to the lobby. The guy who said "God damn it, present" muttered to himself or possibly to all of us. A couple of people my age had definitely hit it off, and the girl was chattering happily to the guy while he nodded intently. A very, very, very old man was the last to make it to the lobby and once he arrived, the court clerk announced that we would all be heading to the courtroom of Judge Josie-Herring. We all nodded solemnly.

At the courtroom door, the clerk called out our numbers in the same order the coordinator had, and we lined up against the wall. When he called out "Five four one," the loud guy yelled, "Yeah, present, Dwayne Masters."

The clerk said, "I don't want to know your name, sir. Just get in line." As the man sauntered over, the clerk added, "You ain't going to give me any trouble, right, brother?"

"Naw," said Dwayne Masters.

We filed in. The first twelve of us, including me, sat in the jury box. Everyone else sat in the gallery. I felt grade-school cool for being at the front of the line. The courtroom was dark and orange. On the other side of the room were the defense and prosecution tables. At one sat a friendly-looking man with very short hair and a suit, and a twentyish woman with dark brown cornrows. At the other table sat a tall, thin woman with severe hair, who was whispering to a guy who looked about my age, wearing a red sweater and studiously avoiding the jurors' gazes. Oh, great, I thought. The defendant's black. Now when I write about this, it'll seem like one big racial stereotype. Then I immediately felt like an asshole.

There was a long silence. A few jurors cracked open books or magazines. The woman next to me was reading the exact same issue of the New Yorker that I was. After about three minutes, Dwayne said, "What time are we outta here?" No one answered. "Four o'clock, five o'clock?" he asked.

The attorneys, the defendant, and Dwayne rose as the judge entered. She was a surprisingly young-looking woman who smiled at us, greeted the prosecutor, and settled into her seat. I think she had recently gotten married, since she introduced herself as "Judge Anita Josie, Anita Josie-Herring."

The charge was possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Part of me was glad the charge was so minor, so I wouldn't end up debating someone's life, and part of me perversely wished I had something cooler. The defendant steadfastly continued not to look at us as the prosecution and defense attorneys introduced themselves. The attorney for the defense turned on the charm when she stood up and smiled warmly but seriously.

"Periodically," Judge Josie-Herring said, "I will call counsel or potential jurors to the bench to speak with me. That is because the conversation is not to be heard by the jurors. Please do not attempt to hear us or read our lips when this is happening. Pretend we are not speaking at all." Sure, I thought. Oh, I'll definitely pretend they're not speaking. "To ensure that you cannot hear me, I will turn on this noisemaking device," the judge said, and the room was suddenly filled with static. Several jurors laughed.

Judge Josie-Herring turned off the noisemaker and cleared her throat. "I will now ask the jury pool several questions, regarding specific... aspects of the case. After I ask a question, if the answer to the question is yes, to the question that I just posed, please stand up. I will ask you your juror number, that's the number on the badge you're wearing, the last three digits of that number on your badge. Please state your juror number clearly for me."

She shuffled some papers, then asked the first question. "This crime, these charges require that for the defendant to be found guilty, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty. Do you, do any jurors, do you have a problem with that standard of proof?"

No one stood up. How could you have a problem with a standard of proof? That would be like having a problem with the four-star rating system used by J.D. Power and Associates.

The judge moved on, asking us more specific questions about the crime. The sale, or alleged sale, took place on the 500 block of Hobart Place NW. When asked if anyone had familiarity with that area, three jurors, all black, stood up. No one had any familiarity with this particular crime, or with the attorneys or defendant. As Judge Josie-Herring asked questions, the flirting couple behind me, sitting two seats away from each other, shared giggling discussion of the other jurors -- who was in, who was out. "He is definitely going to be struck," he said when juror 944, a bulky man with a defiant glare, stood up in answer to the third question in a row. "Totally," she agreed.

Judge Josie-Herring called the attorneys to the bench and turned on the static. Dwayne raised his hand. "Your Honor," he said quietly, then, louder, repeated it. The judge turned off the noisemaker and he said, "I'm sorry, I have to go to the bathroom."

The judge was nonplussed. She began to say something, probably couldn't he hold it for a little bit, then thought better. She looked around until she found the clerk. "Show this man the bathroom, please," she said. "In my chambers, it's closer. We'll continue when he returns."

"Thank you, Your Honor," Dwayne said. "I apologize."

While he was gone we sat in silence. The judge said, "You can talk, you don't have to be quiet." We all chuckled, nodded, and remained silent. Dwayne returned, apologized again, and the judge continued.

"Do any of you have close relatives in law enforcement, whether local or state police, federal marshals, FBI, DEA, CIA, Military Police, the Coast Guard, employees of the Department of Justice, the Secret Service, or any other law enforcement body?" Twelve people stood up.

"All right," the judge said, after getting their juror numbers. "Do any of you have close relatives who are lawyers or who have studied law?" Nineteen of us stood up and we all laughed. "Washington," the judge said.

Eleven of us had been charged with a crime or were close with someone who had. Seven of us would assign more or less value to police testimony simply because it came from a police officer. Two of us had experience with any of the six witnesses for the prosecution, all cops. None of us had experience with the possible witnesses for the defense.

"I anticipate this trial will take about five days to try completely," Judge Josie-Herring said. "Does anyone have any very pressing reason why they could not serve that long?" Eighteen jurors stood up. I did not and immediately thought, Wow, I've got this one locked up. I think that, deep in my heart, I just wanted to win, to be picked. The eighteen jurors all found ways to say their juror numbers peevishly, including number 944, which cracked the flirters behind me up. "He's gone for sure," she said.

After getting all the numbers and shaking her head, the judge asked the next question. "Do you have any experience with illegal drugs, whether yourself, your family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, or coworkers" -- here the judge was cut off by hysterical laughter from everyone in the courtroom, including the defendant. "I know, I know," she said, waving her hand, "it's very broad. Hold on, there's more to the question to narrow it down." The laughter died down. She calmly repeated, "Do any of you have any experience with illegal drugs, whether with yourself, family, your friends, acquaintances, neighbors, or coworkers, which might cause you to have strong feelings about the outcome of this case?"

As one the jury said, "Ohhhh." Two people stood up. I was disappointed that the question had been narrowed; I wanted to see if everyone in the room would stand up or if there might be one complete and utter loser who stayed seated, either through actual, remarkable innocence, or because he thought it dangerous or dishonorable to admit it to a judge. Perhaps, he would think, it was a trick question, and the bailiff would slap the cuffs on us all for not reporting a crime.

"All right," the judge said. "Has anyone in the jury pool ever witnessed a drug transaction?" Twenty people stood up to laughter. The judge looked bewildered and a little disappointed, perhaps wondering how they'd given her a jury full of reprobates. I mean, what did she think, that we had never walked around Adams Morgan? Or, for that matter, bought drugs ourselves?

"Last question," she said, and I knew this would be the one that would get me disqualified. Once she asked whether any of us favored legalization of marijuana, the prosecution would have me out of there in ten seconds. I was debating whether to lie in the interests of higher justice and a better story when the judge said, "Do any of you feel for any reason, religious, cultural, personal conviction, or any other reason, that you cannot stand in judgment of another?"

The room was silent. For me, and I'm sure for many of the other jurors, this was the first time the question had ever been posed. At first everyone looked around, then a woman in the front row of the gallery stood up, then two guys in the back, then the woman to my left, then Dwayne and juror number 944. Then a few more. In the end, eight jurors answered Yes to that question. I had no idea whether they truly believed it or simply had realized this question was most likely to get them removed from the jury, but I was impressed nonetheless. As I always am when faced by strong belief, with faith in anything, I blanched a little, laughed a little to myself, and was very, very sad that I don't believe in anything so strongly as this.

"All right," the judge said to the silent courtroom. She called up the attorneys and the first juror, the woman to my left who had stood up for that last question, and turned on the noisemaker. Static filled my head as I leaned forward and kind of wanted to cry. It was 3:30 in the afternoon.

They called me up next. They asked me about each question I'd answered yes to. I told them about a relative's plea-bargain, about my wife in law school. When they asked whether my wife studying at GW Law would affect my ability to pass judgment on this case, I, desperate to make a good impression on the smiling attorneys and judge, said, "I mean, I think it'll make it better."

The judge furrowed her eyebrows and nodded. The prosecutor said, "In what way, um, how do you mean it would make it better?"

"I just think it, that I understand the law better, and how courts work," I said. Damn, I thought. Once you stick out in their minds, I assumed, you were gone.

When Judge Josie-Herring asked me about witnessing a drug transaction, I said, "I was in college, you know?" The defense attorney laughed, seemingly more than that lame joke deserved. "I lived with a dealer for a while during college," I said.

"What happened?" the judge asked.

"We eventually asked him to move because we didn't want to get arrested." Rob had been pretty pissed off but had agreed. He was in design school now, ever since dealing funded his undergrad in addition to a hot car.

The defense attorney touched my arm and looked into my eyes. "Thank you," she said, and smiled prettily. Was she flirting with me?

"Uh, you're welcome," I said. The static ceased for a moment as I walked back to my seat and the judge called the woman with my New Yorker to the bench. Then the static started again.

It continued, pretty much ceaselessly, for almost three hours. By the end it felt less like I was in a courtroom at six p.m. than that I was inside a television at three in the morning. After they called the twelve of us who were sitting in the actual jury box up for individual questioning, the flirtatious guy said, "I went through this once. Now they'll kick some of us out and move people up here to replace them."

But they didn't. Instead, they moved on to the first juror in the gallery, who happened to be juror 944. "I thought you said they were going to excuse some of us," the girl who had been flirting back said. She sounded betrayed. "Jesus, when are they going to send some of us home?"

Juror 944 was up there irritably answering questions for half an hour. That's when it started to get ugly.

It started with stories. The woman next to me with the New Yorker told us about a murder trial she'd tried six years ago. "It should have taken maybe five days," she said. "We were there for three weeks." We all gasped. "The judge would leave us in the jury room for hours and then call us in for fifteen minutes. He kept taking care of other business instead of the trial."

"Damn, that is terrible," said Dwayne.

"I know," the woman said. "I swore I would never, ever serve on a jury again."

"Look at him!" the flirter said. "Nine forty-four! Still there!"

"Uh huh," the girl replied, sounding bored. "He sure is."

"Well, I cannot be here forever," said an older gentleman in seat five.

"Who can?" I asked.

Then I thought he said, curiously, "I have patience," but events later showed he was actually saying, "I have patients."

The woman in seat one called in to work on her cell phone. "Yeah, clear out today," she said. "I don't think I can come in. This is taking forever." We all groaned; it was as if by making the call she was admitting defeat for all of us.

The very, very, very old man in seat twelve asked, "Is there an age requirement? I think I'm too old." None of us knew but agreed that if there was one, he definitely qualified.

"I can't believe they're doing everyone," the flirter said. The flirtee had snapped open the Post and didn't answer.

Time was moving slower. It didn't move in seconds now; units of time were measured in the gaps in the static as the judge called up another juror, by the passing of Post sections around the jury box, by the catalogue of aggressively friendly questioning techniques employed by the attorney for the defense to every male juror. (Of course she was flirting with us; that was practically her job.) During my bathroom break, I noticed that two young guys with expensive-looking coats were sitting outside our courtroom, one twirling an umbrella, the other staring at his pager. I asked them if I could take their USA Today, as I had nothing left to read. Only later did I realize that I probably illicitly talked to friends of the defendant.

When I returned, the New Yorker lady was musing on civil disobedience. "Could we just say we're leaving?" she asked. "This is ludicrous. What could they do?"

"Cite you for contempt," the guy in seat five said. The woman snorted.

"There's gonna be a revolution," said Dwayne.

Of course, there wasn't a revolution. Pretty soon, we didn't even want to talk to each other anymore, and even the flirter gave it up. We all read whatever we could scrounge -- my neighbor borrowed my book and I read, I kid you not, the "Money" section of USA Today. In fact, I was entranced with the Super Bowl AdMeter. I might have been delirious from the static. By now I could distinguish tones in the sound, steady hums, whirrs, a bass note, the subharmonics. Wow, did I need to get out of there. It was a slippery slope from that to hearing voices in my head.

At 6:15 Judge Josie-Herring turned off the static for the last time. They had questioned all but four of us. She explained that normally, we would finish by 5:45 or so, but that they had hoped to get through everybody and so had continued past the normal time. "Unfortunately, we did not," she said. "We didn't expect that so many of you would answer Yes to so many questions." She exhaled heavily. "So we have a few options. One is to have everybody come back tomorrow morning and we can finish it up then." There was audible grumbling in the courtroom but I thought that certainly made the most sense. The attorneys nodded and the defense lawyer whispered to her client.

"But you have all been here a long time," the judge continued, "so I think it would be best to send you all home and start again tomorrow with a bigger jury pool."

"What?" asked Dwayne. I silently agreed. All that, for this? Five hours, to start over tomorrow? The defense attorney dropped the pleasant smile she'd maintained for hours like someone had passed a curtain in front of her face. The defendant stared at the judge and shook his head. He made eye contact with me for the first time, still shaking his head, and smiled resignedly. Maybe his trial would never happen, the smile seemed to say. Wouldn't that be hilarious.

Judge Josie-Herring thanked us all again and sent us on our way. As jurors filtered, muttering, from the room, I approached the bench. "Too bad," I said.

The judge looked over her desk at me. "It is too bad." I wanted to ask her if this happened a lot, this supreme waste of time and resources, but suddenly there was a commotion behind me. The judge's eyes widened. "My goodness," she said.

I turned to see the very, very, very old man sprawled where he had fallen on his way out of the jury box. He rolled a little from side to side. The man from chair five, the one who had patience, knelt next to him. "I'm a doctor," he said.

"You're a doctor?" said Judge Anita Josie-Herring. "Is he okay?"

As I left the bathroom, wiping my hands on my pants, I saw the very old man being helped through the hallway by the flirter and the doctor. The flirtee breezed past them. "Nice to meet you," the flirter offered.

I looked through the window in the courtroom door. I wanted to ask the judge more, to find out whether this was unprecedented, whether this happens all the time, why she never expected people to answer Yes to hilariously general questions. Had she never done this before? It was early in the year after an election -- was she new? Were DC judges even elected? For someone ostensibly writing an essay about this experience, I knew pathetically little, and I now sought, a little late, to do some actual reporting.

Through the window, I saw the judge resting her chin in her hand as she talked to the attorneys. The two guys were still sitting in the hall, listening to CDs on their Walkmen. I realized I was not going to talk to the judge again, so I headed up the escalator to the juror office.

I could have donated my $4 transportation reimbursement to the District, but I thought, Screw that, they just wasted my day. The line at the ATM was really long, so I guess other people felt the same way. The guy behind me cracked jokes to the woman behind him. I had a headache. I couldn't believe that in the end, even though I had tried to be on the jury, I never had a chance -- they'd wasted our time.

All around me were people telling further stories of past jury duty. "I have some friends in New York who got out of jury duty because they read the newspaper in the last month." "I was on a jury for the most boring contract case. I fell asleep so many times." "Once they took three days to get the jury narrowed down and I was the last one they removed." Conspicuously absent from any of these stories was a sense of pride, of responsibility, of basic duty. And I can't say I blamed them. I just wanted a big damn cheeseburger and "The Practice."

After the guy in front of me stalked away, cursing, because the machine told him he was not eligible for the four dollars, I stepped up to the ATM. I typed in my Juror Identification Number. After a whirr, a click, some thumps and some static, out shot four crisp dollar bills and the appreciation of the District of Columbia.