WHEN JURY DUTY CALLS : Civic Obligation or Shameless Opportunism? The Verdict Is In

In my distant past, I'd immediately toss the officious-looking envelope into the trash, mistaking it for cheap advertising or a dun for a previously paid bill. But after an astute friend pointed out that the addressor was Superior Court, I began regarding the letter seriously, opening it carefully, reading it over slowly, working myself into a snit, worrying that I wouldn't get out of serving jury duty, resentfully answering the questions in capital letters and bold type.

When steadily employed, I'd smugly take the form into the office for my supervisor to fill out. By that time, I'd lost my fear of jury duty and was curious to learn what it was all about, but at the nominal rate the county was paying, usually less than half of what I was making per day, I couldn't afford the blessing. For a hard-toilin' mom of three, in a city where survival demands two adult incomes, answering the civic call seemed a liability. But thangs've changed.

A few weeks ago, yet another letter from Superior Court arrived. As I fished it from the mailbox, I immediately recognized the envelope. I felt the warm flush one feels at that precise moment when one suspects Destiny has tapped one on the shoulder. This time, I carefully cut the envelope along its perforated top, then studied the familiar form printed inside. I took a few days to think it over. Had it escaped anyone's attention that Los Angeles, home of Hollywood, has also become a hotbed of legal-eagle celebrity?

I recalled the controversy, the accolades and the threats that seemed to overwhelm Simi Valley jurors following the Rodney King beating trial. Several of them appeared in the tabloids, on radio and TV talk shows. I remembered a couple of jurors after the Menendez brothers' trial as they, too, made their rounds of public forums. The Heidi Fleiss trial also paid shooting-star dividends. Not to mention the enormous international brouhaha that surrounded Michael Jackson, who not only never went to trial, but was never officially accused of wrongdoing. Mere publicized allegation was trial enough and generated more than its share of media hustlers who occupied hour after hour of pandering to insatiable appetites for speculation.

But nothing has produced more notoriety the O.J. Simpson trial--a veritable factory of tinsel celebs. Anyone even vaguely connected to the slayings of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman or to the trial (even the most discredited witness) can boast limitless money potential-- speaking fees and book deals ad nauseum.

For the first time, I hesitated, studying the return address, "Office of the Jury Commission." Returning it took on ramifications as never before. This was no longer a simple summons to join the pool of citizens who were potential members of the grand jury. It was AN OPPORTUNITY! My imagination ran wild. "I Was a Juror in the (fill in name of celebrated defendant) Trial: A Day-to-Day Account" was the title I envisioned for my book, written and published instantly, of course. I imagined Mom happily clipping articles in which I'm prominently featured and tuning in to view my for-profit slots, doubling, of course, for book plugs, on "Larry King Live," "Oprah" and "Donahue."

Sure, I might make only $5 an hour, but movie rights and guest appearances would be more than adequate compensation. This was no longer an issue of civic duty. Sequestration aside, jury duty in the '90s is a money-making proposition--a chance for the ordinary citizen to score the megabucks that come with being a celebrity juror.

Grudgingly, I filled out my form, answering the questions in large, bold type. NO, I HAVE TO FEED THE KIDS AND THE LANDLORD AND HELP MAINTAIN THE HEAD-BARELY-ABOVE-WATER LIFESTYLE TO WHICH WE'VE BECOME ACCUSTOMED. Ruefully, I dropped it in the mail. Courtroom celebrity will have to wait.

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