Until last week, I had managed all of my adult life to avoid jury duty. As a young adult in Topeka, Kan., I was never summoned. For my two decades living in Las Vegas, I was able to call in a couple times declaring economic hardship. Most of the time, I seemed to be off their radar screen. I always suspected it was because I hadn’t registered to vote.
But finally in my new home in this small Southern town, the state got me. There seemed to be no reasonable way out. Alabama finds its victims to serve by choosing from driver’s license records.
My plan was to show up, be asked a couple questions that reveal my hatred of the state, and especially the criminal justice system, be judged as unreliable for the jury box, and be sent on my way.
Unfortunately that’s not how the system works. I’m to serve a two-week hitch. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be picked as a juror, but I’m on call with my local county court system, all for $10 a day and a nickel a mile. The jury coordinator was quick to inform us that we could sign a form and waive payment. “After all,” she said, “the state of Alabama requires that your employers pay you your normal wage for these two weeks.”
She pleaded her case by saying that the county had paid out a couple million dollars in expenses for jurors the previous year and it would be great if we could help them with their budget. Many staff members at the court had been laid off, and even the bailiffs worked on a volunteer basis.
I provided no such waiver.
I was part of a group that seemed to be around 80-90 people. The group was a normal cross section of occupations. I was struck by the half dozen or so self-employed truck drivers that were stuck working for the state for two weeks rather than hauling loads. They had no employer paying them their normal wage.
The largest employer in the city, the local university, was well represented, with various professors, maintenance people, and even the head track coach. They were working for the court, but still getting paid by the taxpayers — a double hit, if you will.
A young, blond woman eyed us impassively as we filed into the courtroom, chewing her gum at a slow, rhythmic pace. She turned out to be the head assistant district attorney. The judge administered the oath and asked some questions. Only in the South would a judge address a jury pool as “all y’all.”
Soon the assistant DA started asking questions to weed out inappropriate juror prospects, and I began to think that I was the perfect candidate. I didn’t know anyone involved in the case, anyone who worked for the DA or the defense attorney’s firm. I hadn’t heard about the attempted murder or the discharge of weapon in an occupied building. I was thinking I might just get selected. I was a blank slate.
Then the question was asked, “Do any of you believe marijuana should be legalized?” As I raised my card with my juror number, I’m wondering what does this have to do with an attempted murder? Shockingly, I was one of only five or six out of 80-90 who believed (or at least would admit it) marijuana use should be legalized. The follow-up question was then, “Those that answered yes just believe marijuana should be legalized, not other drugs, right?”
I quickly interjected, “No, everything should be legalized.”
“What was your number again, sir?”
Remember, 17 states have legalized marijuana for medical use. In a couple weeks, voters in Washington and Colorado will decide if recreational use of marijuana will be legal in their states. In the city of Denver, there are over 200 stores that sell medical marijuana, more than three times the number of Starbucks and McDonald’s combined.
I wasn’t selected for the attempted murder trial and was allowed to leave about 2:30 in the afternoon. “But make sure you call in after 5:00 to see if you have to report tomorrow,” the unselected were told.
The next day, I didn’t have to report, but the following day, I was to be at the jury waiting room at 9:00 a.m. About 9:30 (the court is always running late, it seems), they herded us into the courtroom for voir dire.
This case was a DUI charge along with assault. The questions were similar to cull through the pool to select 13 people (a jury of 12 plus an alternate) to decide guilt or innocence. For those not wanting to answer the questions in front of the other jurors, you are allowed to tell the court your answers without the other jurors present. Also, the judge can ask you to remain for follow-up questioning to clarify the answers provided during voir dire.
Again, I didn’t make the cut. “Please return at 2:00,” was the command.
About 2:20, we filed into the courtroom. The defendant, a small man in his 40s, calmly looked us over as we filed in, as did his attorney, who was nattily dressed in a brown suit accented with an orange tie and pocket scarf.
The assistant DA was again a young woman wearing what seemed to be the standard DA uniform, dark pantsuit with white blouse.
The defendant was charged with trafficking more than 2.2 pounds of marijuana.
The typical questions ensued, and then the big one came from the assistant DA: “Is there anyone here who thinks marijuana is no big deal and should be legalized?” I again held up my card with a half dozen others.
But the DA pressed on. “Of those of you who answered yes, will you be able to put your feelings aside and rule on the facts of the case, recognizing that trafficking marijuana is against the law in the state of Alabama?”
“No,” I said.
“If the facts show that the defendant did indeed traffic more than 2.2 pounds of marijuana, will you be able to rule on the basis of Alabama law, complying with the judge’s order, recognizing that trafficking marijuana is against Alabama statute?”
“No, I believe in jury nullification.”
“OK,” said the DA as she jotted something in her notes.
I figured that would be it. I was wrong again. The questioning was completed and the respective counsels conferred with the judge, who then rattled off a series of numbers: jurors who needed to stay behind for further questioning. My number was among those called, and we were ushered into the hallway.
Waiting in the hallway, I heard one of the jury veterans say to someone, “They’ve got us for two weeks. You might as well find a case you like and shut up, ’cause eventually you’re gonna get picked. You might as well serve on a case you like.”
One at a time, each of us was called into the courtroom for follow-up questions.
When called in, I walked to a designated spot that faced the judge, from which I was to answer questions.
The judge began. “Mr. French, you answered that you couldn’t serve as an impartial juror in this case, is that correct?”
“Yes, your honor. I don’t believe the defendant did anything wrong, even if he did what the state alleges.”
The defense attorney quickly said, “I want this guy.”
“You understand that it is against the law in the state of Alabama to traffic marijuana. Are you saying you cannot uphold the law?”
“I would say, using a famous quote, the law is an ass.”
Once those words left my lips and no rebuke came from the judge, I kept going.
“I would remind this court that if it weren’t for jury nullification, we would still have slavery in this country,” I said while spinning around directing the comments to the defendant and his attorney, both African-Americans, and the district attorney’s team. “I will not be the juror, and this will not be the case, but one of these days a jury must nullify these crazy drug laws.”
This comment produced a wide smile from one of the court’s staff.
The judge was unmoved by my outburst.
“Have you ever served on a jury?” the defense attorney asked.
“No, of course not,” I said. “I’ve never made it this far before. There is nothing she can say,” I said, pointing at the assistant DA, “that will change my mind.”
“I dunno, I’m pretty good,” she replied.
“I’m sure you are, as are your colleagues,” I said. “But the defendant did nothing wrong.”
The judge interjected again, “Are you sure you cannot listen to the evidence and judge the innocence or guilt of the defendant applying the law of the state of Alabama.”
“No, your honor. That man,” I said while pointing to the defendant, “did not do anything wrong. I assume if he did what the charges allege, he was only carrying out a commercial transaction with a willing buyer or seller. It is no different than if he were selling popsicles on a street corner.”
The defense attorney winced and asked, “What do you mean commercial transaction?”
Before I could explain, the judge directed me out of the courtroom.
I waited patiently in the jury room to be excused for the day. After half an hour, the jury coordinator rattled off 13 numbers. None was mine.
“Please call after 5 and see if you must report tomorrow.”
A couple days later, it was front-page news that the defendant in this case was found guilty. He had never laid eyes on or touched the reported 154 pounds of marijuana seized during the police investigation. He accepted delivery of packages delivered via UPS. The packages would remain on his porch and be picked up by a friend. He said he thought the packages contained auto parts. He was merely doing his friend a favor.
“Y’all ever hear of partners in crime? That’s what we got there,” the assistant DA told the jury, according to the local paper.
A police narcotics officer posed as a UPS driver, and when the defendant signed for the delivery of 70 pounds of what turned out to be marijuana, he was arrested and charged with trafficking.
“We’re here because UPS got suspicious,” the assistant DA said. “This is because normal, everyday people smelled something funny.”
The state never proved the defendant wasn’t ignorant of the boxes’ contents or that he had opened a box. They didn’t need to. The state found a dozen normal, everyday people ready and willing to do the state’s drug war bidding.
In his book For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard questions the legitimacy of compulsory jury duty. “What is this but prison and involuntary servitude for noncriminals?” Rothbard asked. Plenty of people believe jury duty to be a vital civic function. After all, judges are part of the same justice system that the prosecutors are and thus will tend to be biased. Therefore, a fair system depends upon being judged by one’s peers.
But Rothbard points out that slave labor is not efficient labor. Compulsory juries stand the division of labor on its head. Since when would you pick people randomly to do something as important as weighing evidence and determining guilt and innocence? This is a job someone should be trained in. To pick people randomly gives the appearance of being unbiased, but in fact, it accentuates the state’s advantage in the courtroom.