I had jury duty today.

I’ll bitch and moan about a jury summons–I have to get up at least an hour earlier than usual and drive into the maze of one-way streets in downtown Houston–but I take my civic duty seriously.  I’ve lived in Harris County for about thirty-five years, and I’ve been summoned for jury duty maybe ten times.  Twice I claimed the caregiver exemption, once when my mother was terminally ill and once when I was caring for my late husband, who had Alzheimer’s, but I’ve never even thought of ignoring the summons.  Today a judge told us that only eighteen percent of the people called for jury duty show up.  The missing eighty-two percent probably include a good many who reschedule, along with all the genuine disqualifications and exemptions, but that still leaves a lot of people who just don’t bother to go.

Few people actually want to serve on a jury.  It’s time consuming.  It certainly doesn’t pay very well.  I’ve been appointed to jury panels three times over the years, but I’ve never actually heard a trial.  Once one of the attorneys didn’t show up (seriously irritating the judge), and twice the defendant and/or defense attorney decided to take a plea rather than face twelve citizens.

Today I was juror #49 on a 65-person panel headed for a criminal court, so I didn’t expect to be chosen, and I wasn’t.  The opposing attorneys would have to eliminate at least thirty-seven potential jurors to get to me, and that didn’t happen.  We filed into the courtroom in numerical order, so I was on the back row, with a good view of all the participants, and it was an interesting session of people watching.

The judge gave us a pretty thorough (and often amusing) introduction to the general principles of a jury trial before he read us the indictment, all we would know about the case we might be hearing.  That was enough: the charge was Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child under Fourteen.  Details were minimal, and unpleasant.

The prosecuting attorney, a specialist in child abuse cases, began the voir dire process of questioning the prospective jurors.  (Cultural side note:  anywhere else in the U.S., this is pronounced “vwah deer,” at least vaguely as it would be in the original French.  In Texas, for reasons no one even tries to explain, it is known as “vore dyer.”)  When she  finished, we had a short break, and the defense attorney took his turn.

Given the nature of the case, it was no surprise that several people expressed what seemed to me to be sincere qualms about their ability to be fair and unbiased jurors.  There were also a few who appeared to be trying to get out of jury duty, plain and simple.  Maybe if they’d known that eighteen percent statistic they’d have gone to work instead.

One man in particular spoke up at every opportunity.  He couldn’t sit in judgment on another person.  He couldn’t consider the full range of possible punishment, in this case anything from probation to life in the pen.  When he said he couldn’t be fair and impartial in this case because of something that had happened to him or someone close to him, but refused to say what that was, even the patient and even-tempered judge was annoyed.  “This person is clearly not going to be on the jury,” he said to the defense attorney.  “Move along.”  I thought the man was an obvious weasel, but I also thought I wouldn’t want him on my jury.

And that is the heart of the matter, and the reason I answer that summons when it comes.  If I ever found myself in the sort of impossible situation we writers love to invent for our poor long-suffering characters, if I ever had to defend myself in a court of law, I would hope and pray for twelve honest and open-minded people who were responsible enough to show up for jury duty.