It’s only taken 23 years, but the law has caught up with me. After my third attempt to avoid jury duty, the sheriff put her foot down. The Justice Department rejected what I considered a rock solid excuse. I never get any mail so when the first summons arrived I felt a frisson of excitement. But, to paraphrase American comedian Flip Wilson, if you think nobody cares whether you’re alive or dead, try getting out of jury service.
My first shot at exemption worked a charm. I still reread the letter I wrote and marvel at the flawless logic of my counter-argument. “Dear Sheriff,” I began, “Thank you for inviting me to serve on the NSW jury. However, I fear my job as a journalist and former court reporter will curb my ability to remain impartial. Sincerely ...”
And sure enough a couple of days later another letter arrived to inform me I had indeed been excused — until the following month, that is. Soon followed another summons. Sheriffs are nothing if not tenacious. What’s more it seemed they were targeting our office, for no sooner had I mentioned it to my colleague than he replied: “I’ve been called in too! Eight-week trial!”
News of our potentially simultaneous absence soon reached our supervisor, who, panicstricken, scrambled to get proper exemption letters drafted. Out came the good stationery on which she strenuously underlined our indispensability to the company. However, this letter, like the first, only managed to win another month’s reprieve. When the next summons arrived my colleague flashed his upcoming holiday itinerary and was swiftly struck off. Lacking such powers of anticipation, I was left with the sheriff’s cold warning to show up or else.
As usual in such situations, people are quick to offer suggestions on how to sidestep life’s predicaments. And as usual such suggestions are seldom useful. “When you show up just say you think all homosexuals should be hanged,” offered one wit. “Preface every answer with the words ‘according to the prophecy’,” suggested another.
So I did what I always do when I’m in the soup: I consulted the internet. A brief search yielded a recent article from the New York Post. In it famed criminal barrister Ron Kuby revealed that the most compelling plea for exemption involved a prospective juror on a police brutality case. “We were claiming emotional damages as a result of false arrest,” Kuby recalled. “The prospective juror, working on his first novel, explained that he did not accept the idea of ‘causation’ for emotional damages. He explained, at some length, the nature of emo- tional life and its relationship to internal and external factors.” The dismissed juror was the now-acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen.
The Franzen defence seemed a little too tricky for me to pull off. For the most skilled jury escape artist relies not on complex legal oratory but on clear argument conveyed in few words. Better to follow the example of a woman from the Bronx who secured a quick exemption with the words: “I have a weak bladder.”
Faced with this watertight alibi, the opposing lawyer was powerless. “We didn’t want to stop the case every three minutes for her to say, ‘I told you, I have to go to the bathroom again.’ ”
On my arrival at court a news photographer stationed at the entrance “papped” me as I walked in. Not an ideal start, I thought as I took my place in the jury assembly room, which resembled an airport lounge. Over the next three hours we sat in silence, sipping coffee as an instructional video played. “I thought jury duty would be like you see in the American shows,” said the paid actor pretending to be a juror. “It’s not like that at all; it’s really rewarding.”
Suddenly my number was called and I and another dozen people were marshalled to an alcove to hear our fate. “We really appreciate you coming today,” said the official gravely. “You’re free to go.” We shuffled out, unsure of why we had been granted this automatic clemency. But then again, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “only lawyers and mental defectives are automatically exempt from jury duty”.
I looked around. It was clear none among us was a lawyer.