Had jury duty on Thursday.
If it sounds to you as if I wasn’t exactly thrilled by receiving my summons to participate, then you have a mind “like a steel trap.”
Like far too many people, my first reaction to being “invited” to serve on a jury was “Why me?” Then, I moved, immediately, to: “What did I do wrong, now?” That was followed by: “Have they already gone through all the other 1.1 million Philadelphians over the age of 18, and gotten back to my name already?”
That’s what I was thinking, if you want to know the truth.
At the end of the day, though, I actually wound up in an entirely different place.
One of the things I took to read while I waited to be assigned to a jury panel and to an actual case, was the book “Tasting Freedom,” a biography of Octavius Catto by Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin. It’s a stark reminder of all the things that Black folks have gone through with the legal system and the struggles we’ve had to endure, just to have an opportunity to serve as a member of a “jury of our peers,” in a criminal or civil case.
But, I’m getting way ahead of myself.
I arrived at the Criminal Justice Center, in Center City, at 8:01 a.m.
The summons had “suggested” that I arrive at 8:15.
There was the obligatory security checkpoint at the entrance to the Jury Assembly Room. If you closed your eyes and went through the motions, you might think, for just a minute, that you were actually at the airport, about to catch a plane. No such luck. Same drill, nonetheless: Empty your pockets, take off your belt. My suspenders, they said, were okay and didn’t have to be removed.
When I told the very pleasant lady at the reception desk on the first floor that I hadn’t actually been smart enough to bring along a copy of the summons, she directed me up to Room 204 where, she said, they would be delighted to give me a replacement form.
I picked up a copy of the “Juror Information Questionnaire” on the way back down to the Jury Assembly Room, and grabbed a seat in the back of the room where more than 200 other summons-holders had been gathered.
Very few of them looked pleased to be there.
Not wanting any trouble, I put my head down, resigned myself to my fate, and started checking off little boxes on the questionnaire:
“... anyone close to you ever been a victim of a crime?” ... Yes.
“... Have you or anyone close to you ever been an eyewitness to a crime”... Yes, and so on.
I made a mental note that, if I had been an Asian juror, I would have been “hot.” In the “race” box, the form asks potential jurors to check whether they are “white,” “Hispanic,” “black” or “other.” There are now more than 80,000 Asian residents in Philadelphia. Isn’t that enough to get an “Asian” racial designation on the City’s official juror questionnaire?
In any event, as I was working my way through the form, and arguing with myself over the contents, I looked up, and in walked Albert “Sonny Boy” Ricketts, who also went by the name “Frenchie,” when we were growing up in North Philadelphia.
It was already starting to feel like “old home week” in the Jury Assembly Room, as Ricketts and I got caught up on what was going on “down the way.”
Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted another face from the past — Tyrone Sistrunk, a classmate of mine, back in the first grade, at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament School, at Broad and Parrish Streets. The school closed years ago, but the building is still deserted and impromptu car wash hustles are known to pop up, from time to time at the site.
Trying to “kill time,” Ty, Frenchie and I began to make wagers about which of us might get called to a jury panel first, and who might be lucky enough to actually be dismissed, without serving any jury time at all.
Eventually, we sat through the orientation video, got assigned our all-important “juror numbers,” and were given our little, yellow, stick-on, “juror” badges. They, then, formed us into panels of 50 persons each, and gave us the names of the judges who would preside in our cases. We were ready to go.
By 11:00 a.m., however, we were still waiting for our panels to be called up. People had begun to doze off around the room. Frenchie was actually snoring out loud, but I didn’t bother him. Maybe he had had a rough evening. Who knows?
It was then, however, that I started to dig deeply into my O.V. Catto book, and it began to remind me, unexpectedly, why it was important for me, and others, to be in that Jury Assembly Room, in the first place.
In fact, the book pointed out that Charleston, South Carolina, where Catto’s grandparents lived, had “become the only colony in North America with more Blacks than whites” and that “The Assembly passed curfews for Blacks and empowered town constables to arrest any Black ‘who had no good reason’ to be out at night, and lock him up until morning...”
Sounded painfully familiar to me, living in Philadelphia in 2011.
That made me recall a 2007 report by the Sentencing Project, by Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, which had disclosed that, nationwide, there had been a significant disparity in incarceration rates between Blacks and whites, even for the same, non-violent crimes.
For example, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, African Americans constituted 14 percent of drug users, “only slightly higher than their percentage in the general population.”
Yet, the report went on to say, that African Americans represented 36 percent of those arrested during that year for drug offenses. Blacks also constituted 53 percent of drug convictions, and 45 percent of drug offenders in prison, in 2004.
Even more blatantly unfair, there’s evidence that even when whites are incarcerated, they are far more likely to be assigned to local jails, rather than prisons, experiencing less separation from their families, a reduced impact on employment opportunities, all in a less-severe incarceration environment.
Not surprisingly, therefore, according to the ABA Journal, “A judge’s race or gender makes for a dramatic difference in the outcome of the cases they hear ...”
Of course, when most Black folks are called for jury duty, we’re not thinking about all of that. We’re thinking, instead, about how much we dislike having to take a day off from our normal lives, in exchange for a paltry $9 jury fee. In fact, once a Black friend returns from a stint in the jury pool, the single most commonly asked question, usually posed in jest, probably is, “Did you get your $9?”
Reflecting on so many wrongly arrested Black men and women, whose futures are routinely snatched away from them, in the courts, I began to think that maybe we should be taking all of this a lot more seriously.
Nevertheless, when Frenchie’s panel was called up to Judge Hill’s court room to hear its case, and Sistrunk and I were informed that our panel would be “freed” at noon, because Judge Ervos had decided, at the last minute, not to take any cases that day, I couldn’t resist calling Ricketts on his cell phone, and laughing at my good luck — and his misfortune — as I walked briskly away from the Criminal Justice Center.
We’re getting there, but we’re not serious enough about it, yet.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.