SHE, THE JURY : Walking the Thin Line Between Stage and Docket
As an arts writer who tries to stay current, I have become an experienced audience person. Yet, no prior audience participation ever seemed so arduous or so important as several days I recently spent as a juror. The show was a long one, although there were plenty of intermissions. And both the show and the post-performance discussions will be rambling around in my memory for years to come.
Television, film and theater frequently take us into the courtroom, and many times I found myself recalling scenes from “Perry Mason” and “The Verdict.” During our deliberations, when we split seven to five again and again, I was reminded of Reginald Rose’s play, “Twelve Angry Men.”
Yet, whether based on fact or fiction, theatrical courtroom dramas are quite different from live ones. The unedited real thing includes considerable dull, repetitious and conflicting testimony, for instance. Similarly, one generally leaves the theater or turns off the TV with a sense of conclusion--something that is less common when no playwright or editor exists. On this particular case, as I assume is the situation on many civil cases, nobody was clearly the bad guy.
Permit me to set the stage. The case I was assigned to involved a traffic accident in which a car and a truck collided. The automobile driver, who claimed severe back and other injuries, was suing the trucking company. We had to decide who was responsible for the accident. Then we had to decide whether the accident was a cause of the plaintiff’s medical problems.
Doctor after doctor marched to the witness stand. There were blow-ups of X-rays and of more intricate myelograms. We all came to know the plaintiff’s back intimately. One doctor brought in diagrams and charts showing how the spine ages and deteriorates, and all of us in the jury box began to sit straighter.
The prosecuting and defense lawyers each read to us from depositions (prior written testimony) and they obviously chose the most dramatic sections. They examined and cross-examined the witnesses. Whichever attorney was talking seemed convincing, yet we knew only one of them--at most--could be correct.
After four days in the jury box, we began Act II. The setting: the jury room. There we elected the astrologer among us as our foreman, something I felt could happen only in Southern California, and under her guidance set about trying to reconstruct the accident. Since none of us knew or will ever know what really happened that day six years ago--it took the case five years to get to trial--we wrote on a blackboard all of the assorted, conflicting versions, then a composite version of how we all imagined it. Some people were very sure of how it happened, but others of us weren’t so sure at all.
Following four days of deliberations--which I feel should remain private--we returned to the courtroom. Much like the deadlock of our colleagues on the far more complex and well-covered Richard Miller spy trial, which was winding down around the same time, our vote also resulted in a hung jury.
No longer sequestered, we finally were able to discuss the case. We were encouraged by the judge to talk with the lawyers involved. Our enticement was the possibility of unraveling some of the mysteries which had plagued us through the four days of deliberations.
Several of us did go backstage to talk with the lawyers, and our experience reminded me yet again of the theater. I have long felt that on-stage figures are best left on-stage; actors, dancers and other performers without their props and stage personas are simply too much like the rest of us.
As the courtroom emptied, I once again learned that real-life illusions are as fragile as theatrical ones. Now chatting informally with us out in the hall, the prosecuting attorney who on-stage self-righteously attacked a medical witness for the defense as living off court consultant fees, was saying offstage that his business needed witnesses like that to survive.
One juror said he hadn’t been able to sleep during the case because he worried so much about making the fair decision. Yet within minutes after the judge called a mistrial, the prosecuting attorney was talking with relish about a soccer game he planned to play later that afternoon. He may have seemed a committed idealist at the podium, but after the performance, without his makeup, he was too clearly a warrior for hire.
I left before the others. I couldn’t go back to my seat out in the audience, but I could, finally, go home. The show was over.