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Adventures in Criminal Justice

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The dreaded letter, summoning me to jury duty, arrived last month. The dates conflicted with my vacation so I asked for a postponement, which was courteously given for the small inconvenience of having to go in person to do it.

Some pundit suggested that a jury of his peers was hard to find among a group of people who are not smart enough to get out of jury duty. Denizens of the courthouse say that the mayor couldn’t get out of jury duty now.

Criminal justice in New Orleans is headquartered at the “Israel M. Augustine, Jr. Criminal Justice Center,” but the locals generally still call it “Tulane and Broad” for the nearest major intersection. An entry in blogthings entitled “You Know you’re From New Orleans When…” offers as one of the sure signs is that “Being in a jam at Tulane and Broad isn’t the same as being stuck in traffic.”

The main building contains the criminal and traffic courts, and connects to the Orleans Parish Prison (“parish” is the Louisiana equivalent of county). Police headquarters is just around the corner. Fast food and worse are across the street, but at first glance the courthouse seems to be surrounded by nothing but bail bond offices.

It looks like art deco to me, but at the court’s web site I read that “The Criminal Courts Building located at 2700 Tulane Avenue was erected between 1929 and 1931 entirely by local New Orleanians. The sculpture work on the buildings exterior was executed by Angela Gregory, the plaster relief by John Lachin, and the only existing mural was painted by Ellsworth Woodward.”

Once inside, we go through the obligatory security checks and are directed to the jury lounge in the “basement.” That is in quotes because there are no real basements in New Orleans; the water table is about an inch below ground. We even have to bury our dead above the ground. Here a basement is the first floor where the entrance to the building is on the second.

Well, I am running over my target number of words without having gotten to the point. Well, if I had a point, it has gotten lost in all my side trips about the idiosyncrasies of “America’s most interesting city.” At least New Orleans was called that when I was growing up, but I think San Francisco has laid claim to the phrase. I’ll see how it happened and let you know in my next report.

Oh, I was going to tell you about jury duty. They made us wait incessantly, broken up by occasionally herding us like cattle into a courtroom. Once there, the judge gave us a high school civics lecture, and the lawyers dismissed us wholesale based on written questionnaires that we had filled out days before. I fail to see what purpose our presence served beyond satisfying the curiosity of those who wanted a visage to put with our written descriptions of ourselves.

Next time, only call me if there is a fighting chance that I might get chosen.

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About John Vinturella

Retired businessman and professor.
  • Nancy

    Jury duty is pretty much the same all over: hurry up & wait. Potential jurors in this area are urged to bring a book or two to pass the time. I used to be able to bring my knitting, but now knitting needles & crochet hooks are considered dire weapons, so they’re out. You wander around the court complex until you find the jurors holding pen, sign in, fill out a 15-page questionnaire, watch a video about civics, patriotism, & basic legal concepts that the older (or better educated) jurors learned in grade school, and then sit and wait to be called on. You need to sit & wait, because of those being charged and possibly needing an actual jury, it isn’t certain until they come into the court that they’re going to need a jury, so there has to be a pool of warm bodies on hand. If there’s a big case going down, you have to spend all day – sometimes several all days – while the lawyers winnow out those potentials who might not be sympathetic to their cause, which includes anyone who has ever been involved in or the victim of a crime, favors the death penalty, doesn’t favor the death penalty, in any way knows the victim, perp, or either lawyer, etc. etc. etc. Which means the remaining pool of qualified jurors is pretty small, even for a major urban county. The unethical claim they’re related to the victim to get dismissed. So that leaves the hard-core civically minded (or sometimes the hard-core law & order nut cases) to sit on the jury.

    Considering what I’ve seen of defendants thus far, I do think they’d have a better chance getting a jury of their peers if they’d just go to the jails to begin with. Qualifications: the juror must be stupid, illiterate, have no discernable attention span, and no clue as to moral, ethical, or legal behavior whatsoever. THAT would be a proper jury of peers. I always wonder what would happen if someone with intelligence objected and pointed out that those chosen as jurors were not her/his peers, being too dumb to move, and that s/he was entitled properly to a jury comprised entirely of college graduates, or physicists, or whatever. Would that be a sustainable objection?

    Anyway, it’s the same all over, New Orleans or New York. Bring a book. A BIG book.