Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s reign as Jury Queen comes to a confrontational end with the plaintiff
All rise for the Jury Queen—the verdict is in, which means my two weeks of service ended yesterday. For legal reasons, I have not been able to blog about the case about a woman alleging to have an accident on the subway in February 2004. Like many, you probably don’t love the MTA New York Subway system, and you are also probably suspicious of personal injury claims like this one. But as you might remember from Jury Queen posting, I am happy to do my civic duty and suspend any judgment until I have heard the facts. Plus, the setting was perfect for a dramatic turn in my sitcom—walking up the steps of the famous courthouse at 60 Centre Street featured on every episode of Law&Order.
By now, you can probably tell that I am able to find humor in most situations. After all, I’m the star of my sitcom. Trial was no exception. At times, the plaintiff’s attorney Miss Blank (actually her name) almost made me laugh out loud with her well-constructed distractions during her opposing counsel’s arguments: eye rolling, alternating with fake napping, alternating with loud paper shuffling. I also kept myself occupied wondering why the attorney for the MTA insisted on wearing the same red strappy sandal heels with black tights every single day for two weeks. And of course there were the jury room characters, including the all tweed-clad older man with unruly hair and baggy eyes who every day read a George Orwell book and the New York Review of Books. He looked like he stepped off the set of 12 Angry Men, so we immediately elected him foreman.
The details of the accident are murky and confusing. This was a messy case all around, with evidence on both sides lacking credibility. But the 6 of us on this petit (small, not petty) civil jury trial took our duties extremely seriously. The passion in the deliberations boiled over at one point—two men got into a screaming argument that almost came to fistacuffs. It’s pretty amazing to watch how 6 individuals see a situation in completely different ways. Far from it being frustrating, it gave me hope that our justice system works. That for just a few days, we were able to leave behind the frustrations of our daily lives and focus on the task at hand—judging the facts. Not once did anyone complain about being there, or inappropriately take a call or send a text. I didn’t log onto Grindr and cruise cute lawyers nearby. We were all in it—proudly doing our duty.
We considered every piece of evidence carefully. Asked to review some. Had testimony read back to us. Listened to the jury charge again. And mostly we reasoned to each other—sometimes patiently, sometimes not—but we fell into a rhythm of respect with each other I think is often uncommon in daily life. I didn’t always agree with another gentleman’s point of view, but I could appreciate that he stood by his opinions. Ultimately, it was our very different worldviews that affected our interpretation of the facts presented. Five of us decided that the plaintiff did not rise to the burden of evidence required in this case to prove that an accident happened that day. It was a gut-wrenching decision because while we believed that something probably did happen to her that day, she just didn’t marshal enough evidence to support her claim. One juror, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, saw things completely differently—that the plaintiff was up against a monolithic agency and deserved the benefit of the doubt. But in a civil case, only five votes are needed and so we rendered a verdict exonerating the MTA.
After the judge certified the results, he dismissed the jury and instructed us that we were free to discuss the case or not. The attorneys had indicated during closing arguments that whatever the outcome they would like to speak with the jury to find out about their thinking and process. I was delighted with the prospect—I had a lot of questions myself. But neither counsel seemed interested at the time, and so rather unceremoniously, the jury just left the box and dispersed.
We hung around in the back corridors not quite sure what to say to one another—six strangers forced into an odd proximity, passionately reasoning with each other, barely remembering each other’s first names. But we shared this important bond and it was now over. My mind was racing—I had so many questions about the trial, why was this evidence not allowed, and that objection overruled. I remember that my own father always took great pride in bringing the jury back to his chambers and answering any and all of their questions. That kind of learning experience helps to bring closure to such an important duty. But like many other things in New York, a moment to pause and reflect was pushed aside to make room for the next task.
After a brief stop to gather my things and make one last trip to the bathroom, I made my way down the public hallway, and passed the plaintiff and her attorney Miss Blank. I made eye contact and nodded my head. Miss Blank just grimaced at me and kept moving. But the plaintiff, Miss Frances Brown, continued to look at me, broke away from Miss Blank and came over to me. She looked so beaten down, and stood very near me, looking at me pleadingly in the eyes.
“May I ask, why didn’t the jury believe me?”
She didn’t ask me accusingly, but rather out of a true sense of sadness. I was proud of her for working up the courage to ask me.
“Miss Brown, it’s not that we didn’t believe something happened to you that day.”
And then I started to get angry—not at Miss Brown, but at her attorney Miss Blank. She needed to hear and learn from this next part. I looked over at the attorney.
“Maybe you’d like to hear what I’m about to say?”
Miss Blank just shook her head and stayed out of earshot. At that moment, I was furious at the attorney and felt bad for her future clients—they wouldn’t have a lawyer who cared to learn from her mistakes. I turned back to Miss Brown.
“As I said, it’s not that we didn’t believe you. But that unfortunately, and for whatever reason, you just weren’t able to rise to the level of proof required in this case. We just needed one more thing. That’s all.”
I stood there awkwardly, not sure how to end this moment. Do I wish her the best of luck? She looked down at her mangled arm—and then back at me one last time with excruciating sadness. Then I moved on down the hallway.
While there was so much of her story that seemed inconsistent, this was a woman who had been holding out hope for five years that she would be righted for a wrong that occurred to her. And now that hope had been extinguished by a decision of her peers. She seemed so broken, so desperately wanting the justice system to fix her. I just hope she knows that we took our duty seriously and made our decision carefully.
But I’ll admit, I’m having a hard time shaking that last look on Miss Brown’s face.