“Out of town?” the pleasant female voice repeated. “Oh, if you’re going to be out of town, just write that on the summons and mail it back to us.”
I followed that direction not knowing that my travel plans would change and that my conscience would require that I show up unexpected. The courthouse personnel were surprised — but pleasantly it seemed. I filled out the card reserved for those who had lost their summons and filed into the room.
This was a “special” panel of prospective jurors. We were called to be considered for only one case. And that only meant one thing. This was going to be a tough case. We were ushered into the jury room, given preliminary instructions and asked to return for jury selection in three days.
The next Thursday morning, the bailiff labored through the list of names and moved us into our assigned seats. I was to be known as Juror 77. The prosecutor went through his round of questions and nothing I responded to required that I be identified to the court reporter and further questioned.
That changed somewhat when the defense counsel took over. On three separate occasions he called on me. “Mr. Cope, number 77.”
First he was concerned because I was a lawyer. Wasn’t it true that I knew other lawyers who made their living as prosecutors? And wouldn’t that make it impossible for me to be fair and impartial to the defense? I answered “no.” He hesitated. “I’ve got to tell you,” he said flatly, “I’ve got a BIG question mark by your name. I’ll be watching you.”
My fellow rowmates seemed to lean away from me a little at that announcement. I wanted to tell them it was okay and I was not disturbed by that. But the judge was watching and I surfaced a feeling not felt since I was caught talking in class in fourth grade. I stayed quiet.
In the next round of questioning, he went row by row and asked each juror if they knew anyone else on the panel. By the time he got to the last row, I was the clear leader in terms of recognition. When he got to me, he asked, “Mr. Cope, juror number 77, is there anybody here whom you know who hasn’t already spoken up?” In fact there was one more. When I pointed that out, counselor for the defense turned to the whole group and announced, “Can you see the problems that can come up if you have a bunch of buddies on the same jury? How can anyone act independently? Mr. Cope, are you telling me that you don’t see a problem with that?”
My quick answer of “no, sir” wasn’t a comfort. He hesitated again. Then looked around the room at the rest of the jurors. I thought a heard my neighbor’s chair scrape slowly on the carpet as he moved sideward. The attorney looked at me and wagged his head from side to side. Big, exaggerated marks flowed from his pen to his pad.
He didn’t become any warmer to me later when I identified one of the expert witnesses as a friend from church. “Mr. Cope, number 77. Based on your earlier responses, let me guess. You wouldn’t give your friend the benefit of the doubt if he testified in this case?”
“My friend is a noted psychologist. He is obviously an expert witness in this case because he has earned that designation through his reputation. When I was in law school, I was taught that we were to hire expert witnesses because they should be given the benefit of the doubt. Isn’t that the point? And if your expert seems wiser or better prepared wouldn’t I transfer that benefit of the doubt to him?”
It was such a great response. But the words were still glued to those cartoon-thought-balloons that circled my head. I started to unleash them. But I could see Mr. Defense already sliding another question mark by my name.
“I would listen to all of the evidence and make a decision based on my best judgment as a juror in this case.”
A couple of hours later, I was released from the selection process. The question marks never mattered. Twelve suitable jurors were readily found from the rows ahead of me.
Walking out, another jury candidate slowed to exit with me. “Did it bother you when that lawyer kept putting question marks by your name?”
“No,” I asserted, “because I answered honestly and never questioned myself. Those question marks were his problems, not mine.”
As I drove home, I thought about that statement and I wondered . . .