Around the time of the Greek poet Homer, the Athenians introduced the concept of jury duty. This means that people have been honing the craft of weaseling their way out of it for more than 2,000 years. “The trick is to say you’re prejudiced against all races,” another Homer recently told his son, Bart—a bit of wisdom I considered during my recent dip into the jury pool. I was in danger of landing on an eight-day medical malpractice case at the Daley Center that would have annihilated my vacation plans, and I had to find a way out. I wasn’t the only one. During the selection process, prospective jurors hurled excuses and bombastic personal statements around the courtroom like Molotov cocktails.
When it was over, I called my friend Nick, a trial lawyer, to ask what attorneys really look for in juries. He told me what we all suspected: they want uneducated people. “Their jobs and life circumstances allow them to be neutral,” Nick said. “Lawyers are looking for ignorance.” While my editor may think I meet that qualification, I was not, nor was I ever in danger of being, chosen. (“You’re liberal, you’re a college graduate, you’re a journalist, and you read the paper,” Nick told me.) Curious, I replayed some of the excuses that were uttered that day, and Nick judged their effectiveness at getting out of civic duty.
EXCUSE: “I’m the only one at my office this week. If I don’t show, everything will come to a halt.”
NICK’S ANALYSIS: “Not good enough. You’ve got to say something like, ‘If I don’t go to work this week, my company will go bankrupt, and federal investigators will come in and take my equipment.’”
EXCUSE: “I’m a deliveryman, and I have a lot of deliveries to make.”
NICK’S ANALYSIS: “Not good enough. So what, people won’t get their cakes? ‘I deliver hearts for transplants and I’m the only one who can fly the airplane’: now, that might work.”
EXCUSE: “Who will take care of my kids?”
NICK’S ANALYSIS: “That’s a little trickier. But it’s still got to be stronger, like, ‘My son is autistic, and only I can take care of him.’”
EXCUSE: “I was planning to go on vacation this week.”
NICK’S ANALYSIS: “You phrased it wrong. You made it sound like, ‘Eh, we might go; we might not.’ You should have said, ‘I’ve already bought plane tickets.’”
EXCUSE: “I am a Jehovah’s Witness. It’s against my religion to swear an oath.”
NICK’S ANALYSIS: “That never works. They’re jurors, not witnesses. They don’t have to swear an oath; they just have to promise to tell the truth.”
EXCUSE: “I am an emotional person. I can be unbiased, but I will cry a lot.”
NICK’S ANALYSIS: “That’s weak. Nobody cares about your personal problems. I would tell [the prospective juror], You might need to stop crying in order to hear the evidence.”
EXCUSE: “I don’t care if the plaintiff is Hispanic; this is America. People should speak English. I also hate nurses. They are dumb and lazy.”
NICK’S ANALYSIS: (Silence) “Wow, that’s pretty good. Either one of those excuses would probably get you thrown off.”
In the end, an old Vietnamese man, an unemployed high-school graduate, a quiet Hispanic woman, and a handful of other unlucky characters got picked that day. I was riding down to freedom in the Daley Center elevator with the others who had been spared when Mr. English-Only-Nurse-Hater gave me a sly smile and mentioned that his mother was a nurse. Then he told me to enjoy my vacation.
Illustration: Monika Melnychuk