Kate Flora here, with 500 bulbs to plant, a writing class to teach, a book proposal to finish that needs at least another five to ten hours, a panel about writers and marketing at the Concord Author Festival to prepare for, and there’s a headlamp out on my car that means a trip to the dealer before a cop who is not my friend pulls me over for having defective equipment. That’s a lot on my mind before I get to my “real” work–finishing a novel. But what is hanging over my head today is a Summons for Juror Service.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but my first reaction to this is: It makes me cranky. Not because I don’t believe in doing my civic duty. I do. My mother raised me to be a good citizen, and I try to be one for any community that I inhabit, whether it is the town, the writing world, or any other. What makes me cranky is that almost no one I know ever gets called for jury duty, and I get these summonses like clockwork the moment I’m eligible to be called again. It makes me cranky that it takes up a whole day and I’m going to have to drive twenty-five miles through awful traffic to get me to the court on time when there’s a courthouse in my own town. Last time I got called, I got called for federal and state jury duty at the same time and neither would tell me what to do about the other.
It’s not just the showing up, either. The first time I was called for jury duty, we were all told we could leave and come back in an hour to see if we were needed. I was a lawyer, in a courthouse, so I went into a courtroom to watch proceedings. The jury clerk hauled me out, saying seeing the lawyers or the judge might prejudice me against some case I might hear. I didn’t tell him that being in courtrooms for years had prejudiced me plenty already. I figured he didn’t care. And I knew that my summons declared that even “judges and lawyers” are called to serve.
One time I was empaneled on a case where a guy who ran a small store that took returnable cans and bottles was suing the guy who picked them up, claiming that he was being cheated on how much he was getting paid. That both plaintiff and defendant were sleazy liars was very clear to everyone on the jury, the question was really who was the bigger liar and cheat. I was curious how it would turn out, but the parties settled before we got that far. Last time I was called, we never got near a jury box, so we all sat around and talked about various kitchen devices for chopping vegetables, and the problem with getting children to eat their vegetables once chopped. I didn’t tell them my boys were grown and responsible for chopping their own vegetables. After several hours of cooling our heels, we were sent home and I had some thoughts about new kitchen equipment, because I love chopping vegetables.
Sometimes, going in, I think this all might be worth it if I got to sit on an interesting case. My friend Pete got to sit on a really interesting murder case, and I’ve sometimes thought that would be a valuable experience for a crime writer. I can’t imagine, though, that any defense lawyer would want a juror who has spent much of the last nine years working with public safety officers on real world crimes. I also know, as a writer who’s deeply interested in the ripple effects of crime, that listening to the horrible story, even if it unfolds in the frustratingly formal way of the courtroom dance, can have awful impacts on jurors. The people in those courtrooms–the judges, the prosecutors, and the defense attorneys, know this. They know that the pictures, the forensic evidence, the details of the crime scene, and the witnesses’ pain aren’t trivial, or “cut and dried” and can have a profound impact on the citizens who have to look and listen.
Okay. So I know that I don’t want to sit on a homicide. Or a violent assault. Perhaps, as a writer who was surprised to discover how much psychology comes into play in writing crime fiction, it could be interesting to sit on any other kind of case involving bad behavior. Because what led me into crime fiction in the first place was a deep curiosity, formed from watching so many people lie, about what shapes bad behavior, and what has happened in people’s lives that leads them to commit bad acts, hurt other people, cheat, steal, or otherwise deviate from the social compact we’ve all signed on to.
So yes. Okay. Maybe this jury summons will have a silver lining. Maybe being pried away from my desk will force me out to observe the world, as I’m always telling my students to do. Maybe driving through bad traffic and doing my civic duty won’t be all bad. Maybe sitting in the jury room surrounded by my fellow citizens will be an adventure. Maybe I’ll end up on a jury. Maybe I’ll get to do some good in this world. And maybe I’ll come home with stories to tell once the trial is over.