Behind the Lines with DR: Jury Duty & the Screenwriter

You might think me strange when I say this. But I kind of dig jury duty. I don’t know what it’s like in your zip code, but in California, it’s advertised as a single-day commitment to appear. So I mark my calendar, saddle up on the date, and exercise my civic duty to show up. Sure, there’s an ever-so-slight chance I might actually get chosen for a twelve man/woman panel. But based on prior experience, odds are between damned remote and fat bloody chance. Follow and I’ll tell you why.

Ginger Rogers in ‘Roxie Hart’

First. As an observer (okay, thief) of characters, jury duty is flippin’ fantastic. Primarily when it comes to voir dire, otherwise known as jury selection. This is when the judge and attorneys question the pool of prospective jurists to determine their worthiness to serve on each particular case. It’s a grand duel between due process and spectator sport as jury candidates try to impress the court with their character, attempt to wriggle from the grasp of the system in hope of getting an early hall pass home, or grandstand because after a lifetime as anonymous nobodies, flexing for a judge in a black robe gives them an ego pop bigger than the average Facebook boast. It’s great theater that lasts until it’s my turn. I needn’t try to employ a strategy to either stay or go. The result is always the same. The juror is excused. Collect your fifteen dollars, and don’t let the courthouse doors hit you in the ass.

Like this one time. About ten months back, I reported to the downtown courthouse for duty. After spending most of the day draining the battery on my iPad, I was finally called to a courtroom where a jury was sought for a custody case that had somehow morphed into a criminal complaint.  When the lawyers finally got around to me, and after I had traipsed through the basics of name, married, children, job, and have you ever sat on a jury before, I was asked this:

“As a screenwriter, have you ever been involved in a custody case?” the prosecuting attorney asked me.

“I have,” I answered on the record. “In fact, a few years back I wrote a screenplay about the subject.”

“Really?” asked the lawyer. “What was it about?”

“It was a thriller about a very contentious custody case.”

“Did you do much research?”

“I did. Yes. I had lots of very entertaining dinners with a variety of high-test divorce attorneys along with some of their famous clients.”

“Is that so?” he asked. “And what would you discuss at these meetings?”

“Pretty much the specifics of every nasty case they’d ever tried.”

About this time I could see the other attorneys, not to mention the defendant, furiously scribbling notes.

“One last question,” the prosecutor asked. “How did your fictional custody case end?”

“It was a thriller,” I answered.

“Which means what? It ended…”

“Very violently.”

While other prospective jurors laughed along with the judge, the next step was as predictable as Kim Kardashian’s divorce. I was excused. The show was over. All that was left for me to do was fight the traffic back to my casa in the valley.

Most of my courtroom moments have had similar outcomes.  I’m a writer. As part of the job I’ve done oceans of research. I’ve met loads of lawyers on both sides of the aisle. Defense lawyers don’t want me because I’ve done everything from ride-alongs to stake-outs to eating at mobile taco stands with way too many cops. Prosecutors don’t want me because, as a writer, I must have a liberalistic nature and an automatic squishy spot for the poor, the unfortunate, and the accused.

My profile is so bloody it’s obviously splattered onto my wife, aka the War Department. Six months ago, when she appeared for her tour of jury duty, she was corralled to potentially sit in judgment on a murder case. She would’ve been perfect. She’s female, intelligent, with no obvious biases. But not long after being asked about her husband’s occupation? She was the first juror excused. Case closed.

But there was this one time…

It was a case the Long Beach courts had kicked up north to the San Fernando Valley’s Superior Court. A garden variety drug dealer case, the defendant was accused of selling a few rocks of crack cocaine to a pair of LAPD undercovers. A pool of about thirty possible jurors was herded upstairs to a windowless courtroom where we were greeted by a middle-aged judge with big hair, bifocals, and Ferrari red lipstick. Yes. The Lady Justice in the black satin robe had personality plus tax. She engaged each juror with her own brassy style.

And she was a bulldog interviewer. Burrowing into each candidate’s history, potential prejudices or conflicts of interest. Seemingly fair to fault. It was as if she’d been cast by David E. Kelly himself for one of his legal dramas.

I was so entertained.

When Lady Justice got around to looking under the skirt of a woman who worked as an employment attorney for Warner Brothers Pictures, her queries turned even more pointed.

“Your business — and I mean show business — has a history of lax attitudes toward drugs,” she asked. “Do you know anyone who takes drugs…? Sells drugs…? Family members who partake of drugs?”

The corporate attorney took the grilling in good humor considering she’d been put in the uncomfortable position of defending her employment in “showbiz.” I could only sit and wait for my turn, imagining the examination I’d be receiving once the spotlight was on me. Not only did I know current and former drug abusers who worked in my industry, I had two cousins and a best friend who were recovering addicts. Add that to my associations with so many police officers, I pretty much felt I could calculate my courtroom exit down to the microsecond.

At last, it was the Hollywood screenwriter’s turn on the hot seat. I sat up straight up in my jury chair and did my damnedest to answer clearly and with precision. Name, rank, and…

“And what is your occupation?” asked the judge.

“I’m a writer,” I answered.

“And what do you write?”

“Movies mostly,” I said.

“Really?” she said, her voice shifting upward a half-octave. “I love movies. Can I ask what movies you’ve written, or are you one of those screenwriters I see working in coffee shops, still waiting for their big break?”

“No, your honor. I’ve already had a break or two.”

“So?”

So this wasn’t precisely the type of questioning I’d expected, considering the WWE piledrivers she’d subjected the Warner Brothers attorney to.

“Well. I’ve written pictures like Die Hard 2 and Bad Boys —”

“Love that you call them ‘pictures,’” she said. “Nobody calls them that anymore.”

Yes. She was a movie fan.

“You wrote Bad Boys?” she went on to say. “I love that movie.”

“Thanks very much, your Honor.”

I noticed the court reporter’s fingers blazing with every word. My conversation with Lady Justice was on the official court record. I glanced to the attorneys representing both the defendant and the state. Neither seemed thrilled that Her Honor had strayed from the script.

“So are those the only kind of movies you write?”

“No. Just the kind that have been hits.”

Lady Justice laughed girlishly. She was flirting… on the record.

“Not often we meet a real working writer,” the judge said to her bailiff.

All right, I said to myself. We’d gotten through the small talk. It was time for her to bring on the rectal probe. I’d been properly buttered. Now it was time to slay me and send me packing. I was in the Valley. At least the drive home would be short.

“The court finds this juror to its approval,” said Lady Justice. “Does the state have a challenge?”

“The state, your honor, has exhausted is peremptory challenges,” said the assistant district attorney.

“As has defense counsel,” added the defense attorney.

“In that case,” said the judge, “this juror is seated. Next?”

So there it was. I’d been selected as an alternate on a criminal jury. If a sitting juror fell ill or was booted from the original twelve for some incredibly remote reason, I’d take their place. Until then, I was ordered to sit in the jury box for the entire trial then, while my fellow jurists deliberated the crack dealer’s fate, I was required to politely sit on my thumbs in the courthouse law library.

I know some writer’s who’d welcome the chance to spend hours writing in a quiet, courthouse law library. Suffice it to say, I’m not one of ’em. So after four hours of more silence than I could stand, I approached the bailiff with a wild concept.

“Listen,” I reasoned, “it’s a Long Beach case. The lawyers and defendant are more than an hour’s drive away. While I live only ten minutes down the boulevard. How about I give you my cell number and, when the jury reaches a verdict or has a question for the court, you ring me and I’ll be here like that?” I snapped my fingers for effect.

“No way,” said the bailiff. “Nothin’ I can do.”

“Can we ask the judge?” I begged.

“You can ask,” the bailiff said, “but ain’t no way she’s gonna give you a pass. You saw her. When court’s in session, she barely lets anybody take a leak.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “But I think she’s gonna make an exception for me.”

“You think? Why’s that?”

“She’s a fan ”

In fact, I think she would’ve given me a lap dance if I’d asked. Twenty minutes later, I was back in the courtroom with the bailiff, the court reporter, and Lady Justice. I asked for my special dispensation and, lo and behold, was granted a temporary release until my official presence was next required. I did though, have to stick around for thirty or so more minutes of “on the record” questions. The usual sort of fan queries.

I wound up my civic duty by sending her a couple of signed movie posters.

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2 thoughts on “Behind the Lines with DR: Jury Duty & the Screenwriter

  1. Steve

    Well, aside from the early advice to look at jury duty as a chance to get character ideas, this piece really isn’t relevant to the craft of writing. Amusing, certainly, but “value-added”? I’d have to vote not guilty.

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