Day in the Life of a Bronx Jury

I just came across this interesting story posted on the website of Inner City Press, in which the reporter describes his own experience. According him, those eligible for jury duty have it more often, and for more days, unless they can get selected for the jury in one of the new one-day trials. The report has lots of fine-grained observations about dynamics of a Bronx jury.

The word now in the jurors' waiting room in The Bronx is that things are getting worse: the duty more frequent and each time for more days. There are at least two reasons, those who work there say. First, more and more cases are filed in The Bronx, because the county perceived as having poor and angry residents who award big damages. So for example when McDonald's was sued for making people obese -- and there are obese people all over -- The Bronx was chosen as the venue. Second, you have to be citizen and speak English to serve on a jury. These two characteristics have become less prevalent in The Bronx, as a clerk diplomatically puts it, even as the population has grown in the last decade.

Click here to read the full article.

[July 21, 2008 A Bronx Juror's Eye View: Gypsy Cab Whip Lash Crash 9 Years Ago Gets 1-Day Trial, by Matthew R. Lee of Inner City Press]

Put these two together, and those eligible for it have jury duty more often, and for more days. Unless you luck out, and can get selected for the jury in one of the new one-day trials.

On a recent morning, this option was offered to early arrivals, and a long line quickly formed. Twenty two people were selected, and shuttled into a side room to fill out questionnaires. Have you ever sued anyone? Have you or a family member ever worked in a law office? Then the 22 took elevators upstairs to Justice Yvonne Gonzalez' courtroom on the fourth floor. They sat on one side of the courtroom, reading, lounging, complaining about the too-strong air conditioning even on this hot day. Ms. Gonzalez came in and smiled, went into the back. Five minutes later she re-emerged as a Justice, in black robe wearing glasses. "All rise!" the court officer said.

"You don't have too," Justice Gonzalez said. "We're going to pick 12 of you and ask you some questions. The rest of you can wait."

The first 12 were selected. Your witness was not, and cursed his luck. The questions got personal. What do you do, for work? What does your wife do? What exactly is a nutritional consultant? You choose patients' menus? Have the patients filed lawsuits? Do they talk to you about them?

Two of the twelve admit they want to go to law school. They will not be chosen. An Asian woman tells a long story about a customer in the nail salon where she works, who hurt her shoulder in a car accident and constantly complains about it. She too will be asked to leave, as this case is about a car crash, which injured a Ms. Filartiga -- not her real name.

Now the two lawyers are getting to ask the questions. Really, they are trying to put ideas in potential jurors' minds, things they couldn't say once the trial begins. If a person doesn't look injured, can you accept that they are still in a lot of pain? I guess so. Good, because that's Ms. Filartiga over there, and she's in pain. It's a sad looking old woman on the far side of the courtroom. "She's doesn't speak English," we're told. They why do we have to? Even if you speak Spanish, you have to focus on what the interpreter says. And in this one-day trial, to save money no court recorder is present. There will only be your memory, and that should be focused on the interpreter.

As jurors are stricken, your witness is called into the jury box. Questions are asked, to catch up with the others. Potential grounds for being stricken are disclosed. But the witness makes it, as Juror Number Seven, the alternate. The others are thanked for their service, and return to the jurors' waiting room for four more days of limbo. Those lucky seven of the 22 who remain are told to order lunch, to be paid for by the court system. The alternate may or may not get fed, therefore the dollar tip does not have to be paid at this time.

Triple decked roast beef and a diet Coke. Pickles? Why not. But how was the diner that gets all these court house orders selected? Was this to low bidder? The case begins, with opening statements. A taxi has been hit from behind, at University Avenue and McCombs Dam Road. The plaintiff was wearing a seat belt, but still be whipped back and forth. She has lost work since then, she has gone to many doctors. She will never be the same. She needs money.

That's the plaintiff's lawyer's story. The defense lawyer, for two New Jerseyites who are not here, tells a counter tale. The plaintiff knew the cab driver, that's why he hasn't been sued. The cabby stopped short and with no notice, causing the crash. The plaintiff's own doctors reports, which will be distributed at the end, will show that her injuries are not serious. Okay, let's get it on.

There is only one witness, Ms. Filartiga the plaintiff. It looks like she hasn't been prepared. She keeps interrupting her lawyer, staring off into space. Unprompted, she says she wasn't in fact wearing seat belt. Does that make her negligent? Let's at least quantify and get some damages, her lawyers seems to decide. When did she work, after the accident? There was the perfume factory... But only in the summers... She's not sure. But after March 1999, when did she work?

That's how it emerges, that this terrible important fender-bender took place more than nine years ago, and is only getting its one-day trial now. Why? How can it take nine years to hear this meager evidence? Did the defendants delay things hope Filartiga would die or move back to Santo Domingo? Did the plaintiffs' lawyer put the case to the back of the line as a small damages dog? The jury is never told. But no wonder no one can remember what happened that day, or afterwards.

The lunch has arrived, and the case is still not over. Juror Seven will have roast beef after all. The seven are led up a staircase to a room with peeling paint. "Don't talk about the case," they're told. "Sports or fashion is okay." Out the window is Yankee Stadium, where the All-Star Game's Home Run Derby is to be held that night. The youngest juror, now wildly thumbing his Sidekick, says even the tickets to Home Run Derby are expensive. The sandwich, though free, is not good. Perhaps they really were the low bidders. A Hispanic woman, maybe in her 50s, calls her boss and says she'll be back at work tomorrow, she lucked into the one-day trial. After that the silence is deafening. The one African-American on the jury, a large woman, gets up to go to the bathroom.

Juror Seven, to pass the time and drown out the sound of flushing, says Major League Baseball is screwing The Bronx by having the parade in Manhattan, and the memorabilia show too. There's no response. Oh really. He tries again, saying how in his jury pool, everyone one wanted to get on the jury. In most cases, people are trying to get off, saying, "I can't be fair" or "I hate the police." There are a few nods. Okay then, read the newspaper. In the corner of the room there's a stack of police accident reports, with drawings of automobiles and arrows for direction of impact. Could Filartiga's be in there?

Okay it must be time to go back down. No, says a large woman who used to be a school principal. "They come up and get us, I know this, I've done it before." She is white, and almost everyone else is Hispanic. She is ignored. Six of the seven creep down the stairs, where have metal mesh because criminal defendants are led this way too. They peer into the empty courtroom. Hey, the security officer says. "Go back upstairs." The principal was right, looks vindicated. Are they settling the case? Ten more minutes pass.

Finally they are led back into the courtroom, Juror Seven told to pick a spot in the second row. This is easy, this is fun. It will end today, they've said. The jury is told the Ms. Filartiga was 53 when the crash happened. She's 62 now and it is estimated that she will live to 84. "That's an average, of course," the plaintiff's lawyer said, adding the word "actuarial." She says, "You can decided how much each of her years will be worth." But can we? How?

The plaintiff's lawyer has forgotten to make photocopies of her exhibits. There will be only one copy in the deliberations room. The defense has copies, which are passed out to each juror including Number Seven. The exhibits are pretty damning. A doctor says the pain is fake. The police report on the accident says the taxi stopped too fast. Then again, that was only what the Jerseyites said. But only they spoke with the police. Why hasn't the cabby come to the trial to testify? Why didn't the plaintiff's lawyer try to address this hole in her case? Is the hope simply that six Bronx jurors, told a tale of a possible-hurt factory worker, will award millions of dollars?

Why didn't someone -- say for example, the Jerseyites' insurance company -- simply give Ms. Filartiga 40 or 50 thousand dollars, back nine years ago, and leave it at that? Did Filartiga ask for more? Did the insurers refuse to pay, then made her wait nine years? This is the background we need, to weight the equities. But none of the jurors get that information, much less the Alternate, your witness, who is now told to go. There is no closure, as in real life. Good luck Ms. Filartiga, hope you make it to 84 or more.