Your RDA of Irony

In Case You Were Wondering….

Whatever happened to Eugene?  The more imaginative among you presumed that I had finally worked my way back to sixth century Constantinople and was the comedy hit at the Hippodrome.  (No one does Monophysite schtick like me.)  In fact, I was among the Byzantines, at least one of their modern manifestions:  the American judicial system.  I was on jury duty.

Now, in fairness, our judicial system is only Byzantine in its benumbing convolutions.  You may be asked to sift semantic nuances and calibrate technicalities; so you could end up feeling like a 1200 year old eunuch, too.  (And eunuchs would make excellent jurors, with their enforced disinterest.)  Otherwise, our system is shamelessly democratic: you can sue anyone for any reason.  For instance, if you are appalled by your medical bills, you are entitled to sue the families of General Burgoyne and Lord Cornwallis for losing the Revolutionary War, thus depriving our country of a national healthcare system.  Be warned, however, that under British libel laws, you can be sued for tactlessness–and the word “losing” does have a pejorative tone.

Yet, I wanted to be a juror.  First, who could resist the incentives of $17.20 a day and free lunch?  For a Chicago writer, that is good pay.  But I really wanted the adventure: to witness the dueling lawyers, to participate in the drama of the deliberations, to be the arbiter of justice.  Besides, I wanted to see, when under duress,  if I would become Henry Fonda or Ed Begley Sr.

Of course, the world does not always accommodate my wishes; otherwise, I would also have a few Pulitzers, too.  I have been summoned to jury duty several times but I never before survived the auditions.  In one past case, I was dismissed because I knew someone who had a traffic accident; I imagine that jury finally was composed of Amish 12 year-olds.  A prospective juror must meet the highly subjective criteria of vying lawyers;  if one side likes you, the other shouldn’t.  They object and you are excused.  In this particular case, one side particularly dreaded doctors, MBAs and other latent Republicans.

The judge’s personality will also determine the likelihood of you getting on the jury.  Some judges would not excuse a prospect even if he was scheduled for chemotherapy the next day:  “You know that you are going to die, so why not do something useful in the meantime.”  Their juries are quickly filled, although the judges often include alternates in the event of escapes and suicides.  But on this day, I faced a judge who decided not to force a bride to cancel her wedding.  She also excused a juror who faced impending bankruptcy as well as the person who denounced our  judicial system.  (Once that excuse proved effective, several other people realized they shared the very same sentiment; they had to be excused as well.  Of course, they now are also on the Homeland Security’s watchlist.)

Despite the attrition, 10 jurors somehow were selected.  Guess who was asked to be the 11th?  But I first had to answer a few questions.  It is customary in job interviews to pass oneself off as a soulless drone to satisfy the criteria of Human Resources.  That is just not my custom.  I remember telling a HR inquisitor that I wrote satires; the information actually left her speechless.  (And, yes, I never worked for that firm.)  So here is a partial transcript of the lawyers’ interrogation of this prospective juror.

Lawyer:  Are you related to or do you personally know any doctors?

Eugene:  It is a demographic inevitability.  For example, my father-in-law is a psychiatrist.

Lawyer:  Would that relationship influence your judgement in this case?

Eugene:  I have no problem ignoring him.

Lawyer:  As a writer, would you be bringing any literary perspective or predispositions to this case?

Eugene:  Well, I am not yet working on the script.  I did just write a magazine article on the Salem Witch Trials but I don’t think that there will be an overlap here.

Apparently, both the Plaintiff and the Defense found me equally entertaining.  So did the Court Reporter, who gave me the brightest smile.  Now there was an 11th juror and a class clown.  A twelfth juror soon completed the cast.  We formed an ecletic but very congenial group.  The jury certainly reflected the cosmopolitan character of Cook County:  every race, several accents (Tagalog and Polish), and an age span of three generations.  I was the only juror who could speak with ethnic certainty that our complimentary morning bagels were terrible.

As you likely have surmised, we were dealing with a medical malpractice case.  I will spare you the details primarily because I don’t want to be sued by the losing lawyer.  Besides, the case was rather technical;  the jurors were obliged to memorize a patient’s hypertension readings to determine his doctor’s diligence.  Each side presented “experts” to testify.  There is an interesting etiquette when introducing the expert.  Aside from reciting his deifying credentials, the expert must confess how much he is charging for his assistance.  The going rate seems to be $500 an hour, what the juror would make in a month.  The plaintiff’s lawyer will accuse the defendant’s experts of being greedy bastards; of course, the plaintiff’s experts are selfless saints even if they charge the same rate.  Then the defendant’s lawyers will make the same accusations against the plaintiff’s experts.  Remarkably, everyone kept a straight face.  I doubt that Yale or Juilliard produces better actors than our law schools do.

In fact, while taking notes of the evidence, I also found myself writing drama reviews of the lawyers and the witnesses.  Several times during the trial, lawyers would use the rhetorical gambit of forcing a witness to answer a simple yes or no to a complicated question.  The tactic is supposed to incriminate the witness; however, it really only incriminates the lawyer as a devious bully.  One of the $500 a hour witnesses had a real expertise in offending the jurors.  There is something unbearably smug about a man who repeatedly strokes his tie.  The jury would remember him, specifically as a punchline.

On the fifth day of the trial, the lawyers gave their closing summations.  The plaintiff’s lawyer asked us to award his client some $5 million in damages and compensation, including $1.5 million for the loss of a sex life.  Even if the plaintiffs had been Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, I wouldn’t appraise their sex life for that kind of money.  And these people were more on the esthetic level of Zasu Pitts and Sidney Greenstreet.  The jury retired to lunch and its deliberations.  The verdict took barely longer than the meal.

If you ever had any doubts about the jury system, our panel would reassure you of the efficiency and conscientiousness of your fellow citizens.  Everyone had taken their responsibilities quite seriously, keeping meticulous notes of the evidence and giving cogent summations of their findings.  Any questions were addressed and resolved amiably.  The conduct of the jurors was really quite inspiring; of course, that is also because they agreed with me.  (Sorry, but I can’t go an entire paragraph without a quip.)  What was our verdict?  Let’s just say that the plaintiff had a bad day.

The judge thanked the jury and dismissed us.  As we left the courtroom, the lawyers (both sides!) also formed their own reception line to thank us.  I told them that I was available if they ever needed an expert witness in a history or rhetoric case.  Furthermore, they already knew my rate:  $17.20 a day, free lunch and-most important–a captive audience.

And, yes, I would serve on a jury again.  I recommend it!

  1. SwanShadow says:

    As you probably recall, Eugene, I served as jury foreperson on a murder trial last year.

    I, too, went into the experience with cynicism, and emerged with a surprising respect for the process and my fellow participants. I was deeply impressed with the seriousness and care that the other jurors invested in their roles, and with the civility with which we were able to conduct deliberations over legally complex and emotionally challenging issues. I would gladly serve again if called.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  2. Eugene Finerman says:

    Thanks Michael. I do recall your service and expressed my envy.

    You must be more reputable than I am. My fellow jurors wouldn’t think of me being the foreman. Despite my matinee idol looks, I really am just the class clown: Wallace Shawn trapped in Mandy Patinkin’s body. (Even in my fantasies, I am not Gentile.)


  3. Patrick says:

    You are too much (and not in the Sidney Greenstreet sense) Eugene!

    Thank you for that, it really lifted my spirits. As Bob Kincaid is so fond of saying, you truly are “the internet’s most brilliant satirist.”.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Thank you, Patrick. And it turned out that, in one sense, I was the Henry Fonda of the jury. On the first day of the trial, I was the only juror to order the Southwestern chicken wrap for lunch. On the fourth day, four jurors ordered it, too. If the trial had lasted longer, we might have had an unanimous lunch order.


  4. Mike Field says:

    Funny, here in Baltimore City (where citizens without felony convictions get called to jury duty every year, once a year, like clockwork) the jury foreman is assigned by the judge, as in “Juror number one, you will serve as foreman.” It seems to work, however.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Are you serious? With that surfeit of jurors, Baltimore probably rents them to other states and countries. (When you are sent to Beijing for the trial of a dissident, do you keep the air miles or does Baltimore?)


  5. Steve says:

    I would have enjoyed being on the jury with you. I’ve never made it on one, so I envy your experience. Your voir dire would have been a hoot to watch.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Thank you, esquire.

      Another friend compared my comments to Oscar Wilde’s trial testimony. Of course, Wilde ended up with a sentence of two years of hard labor. I merely got five days.


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