Stuck in early morning LA freeway traffic as he inched his way toward downtown, Adler relinquished his attempt to find refuge thanks to a "Slim Harpo's Greatest Hits" album and instead inventoried all he hoped to accomplish before the close of business. Above and beyond the usual calls, texts, and emails, there were appointments to be scheduled with actresses wanting head shots... a lunch with an agent that would have to be postponed... photos of a beach volleyball tournament that need color-correction and cropping... plus some hustling and cajoling if he was to get to shoot an upcoming MMA fight. Yet he was stuck with jury duty. Even while lamenting the fact that unlike salaried employees who by law are paid for their time, he, as a free-lance photographer, would be forfeiting revenue, Adler tried to take solace in the knowledge that this was part of a social contract. In other words, it was a chance to do his civic duty. Previous experiences with the criminal justice system had ranged from exciting (an extortion case in which it was revealed that the alleged victim had been sleeping with the defendant's wife), to interesting (a paternity suit involving a retired boxer who lied about a vasectomy), to so-so (two Echo Park neighbors who got into a fistfight after one, claiming a nonexistent prescriptive easement, planted a row of camellias). The sense that Adler might once more gain insight into worlds that were customarily not his further mollified, at least to some degree, both his irritation and indignation.
After far too much circling of the designated parking lot in search of a space, Adler was again feeling his blood pressure rise while forced to wait on line in order to go through the metal detector at the Court House. Then, after sitting in what he termed a "holding pen" for close to a half-hour, he and the others who were summoned found themselves subjected to a video presentation capable of inducing squirming even among the dead. Next came another round of the waiting game. Having downed far too much green tea in the hope of being alert following a much too late night, Adler stood and started gathering his laptop, his newspapers, and his water bottle so as to head toward the bathroom. "I'll watch everything for you," an elderly black guy seated nearby said. "That's really nice," Adler answered softly. "I beg your pardon –" the man replied softly, pointing toward the hearing aid he wore. "I said it's really nice of you." "We're all in this together," the man said, extending a hand. "The name's Harold." "Phil," Adler stated as they shook.
It was Harold whose name was called twenty minutes, along with thirty-two other souls. Adler watched his new acquaintance head toward the designated courtroom with the aid of a cane, then returned to the task of dealing with emails. That task was interrupted, however, when he heard his own name announced. Gathering up his possessions, he and the others who were called took elevators to the fourth floor, then entered a courtroom where they were divided into three groups of eleven people each. Placed in what was designated as Group 2, Adler watched as Group 1 was seated in the front row, then asked a series of questions regarding previous involvement with the criminal justice system. A quick back-and-forth ensued between the potential jurors, the two attorneys, and the judge, then the details of the case were explained. A young Latina, who appeared to be totally intimidated by the system – and even more so by the overly aggressive female prosecutor – was accused of having robbed a convenience store. The people in Group 1 were then given an opportunity to ask questions, with the presumption being that all such questions should pertain to the technical side of the proceedings rather than to the specifics of the case itself. Though far from enamored of the defense attorney, who appeared to be dull and disinterested; or of the judge, who seemed to be going through the motions, it was the prosecutor who continually irritated Adler. Persistently pugnacious, and clearly full of herself, she was rude and impatient when dealing with potential jurors, and haughtily condescending when referring to the defendant. Worse still, in Adler's eyes, her uncommon last name made it likely that either by marriage or by blood she was related to a singularly hawkish ex-California governor. One by one more than half of the members of Group 1 were dismissed, often peremptorily, then Group 2 was moved to the front row. As questions were asked by the two attorneys, Adler, who had chosen not to respond when inquiries were again made about previous involvements with the criminal justice system, found himself more and more bothered by what he took to be the prosecutor's belligerence. As a result, when the judge asked if the second group of prospective jurors had any questions, Adler immediately raised his hand. To his consternation, he found himself pegged by the prosecutor as someone from what in LA is known as the left-leaning Westside, and thus bypassed once, twice, then a third time. That, not surprisingly, did not do wonders for Adler's ever-growing displeasure. "It seems we're done with questions from this group," the prosecutor proceeded to tell the judge. "No, were not," Adler stated loudly. "I'd rather we move on to the elimination process," countered the prosecutor. "But, Your Honor, aren't I allowed to ask a question?" Adler asked the judge. "Yes, you are." "Then what exactly did the defendant supposedly steal?" "That's neither appropriate nor relevant," responded the prosecutor, taking a moment to stare daggers at Adler. He, however, was undaunted. "Okay, then what was the value?" "If it's all right with you, Your Honor," said the prosecutor to the judge, "I'd much prefer that we move on." "And I'd much prefer that my question be answered," Adler asserted before turning to the judge. "Your Honor, is there anything wrong with that?" "Please state the value," the Judge ordered. When the prosecutor failed to speak up, the defense attorney happily did so. "$93." "May I say something?" Adler then inquired, and not only because of his innate competitiveness. "Haven't you said enough already?" demanded the prosecutor, who felt her case slipping away. "Obviously you don't know me," Adler asserted with a disarming grin. "May I?" he asked the judge. "Yes." "Then isn't it fair to say that whether or not this young lady – if it's okay to refer to the defendant that way – did what she's accused of doing, hasn't she been punished enough already? I mean, being charged, then forced to appear in court... Having to deal with the embarrassment... And worst of all, being willfully and relentlessly intimidated? It seems to me that if by any chance she needed a lesson, she's already gotten a whopper. And I mean one she'll never, ever forget!" The look of gratitude from the accused, coupled with the rumbles from the other potential jurors, made it quite clear to everyone present in the courtroom that thanks to Adler's assertiveness, neither a guilty verdict nor a serious sentence was the least bit likely.
Dismissed from that case, Adler figured he could easily get away with dawdling before returning to the holding pen. So he strolled around the Court House for a while, then returned only when his peers were being dismissed for lunch. Spotting Harold, Adler flagged him down. "Want to walk to Little Tokyo and grab a bite?" "Walking's a little hard for me," Harold explained. "So I brought my own, which you're more than welcome to share." "Thanks, but I think I'll amble a bit." "Beg your pardon?" Harold stated, again pointing to his hearing aid. "Some fresh air will do me good," Adler said, making sure to raise his voice and enunciate as clearly as possible.
Thanks to a daily special of miso soup and a rice and fish bowl called chirashi at a Little Tokyo sushi bar, then a pastry from a Japanese sweet shop, Adler was in somewhat better spirits when he returned to the Court House. After again passing through the metal detector, he entered the holding pen, where he found Harold saving a seat for him. The two chatted briefly, then girded themselves for an indefinite wait, Adler with his laptop, Harold with a dog-eared paperback by Chester Himes. Forty minutes later, thirty-three names were called, among them Harold's and Adler's. Together the two of them made their way toward the elevators, then continued to the courtroom in question. There, Adler found himself in Group 2 once again, while Harold was placed with Group 1. Surprisingly, this time instead of a bullying prosecutor, it was the judge himself – a youngish and clearly vain guy whose name was Hashimoto – who did the bulk of the questioning. One at a time, the judge asked each of the jurors first one question, then, if he wasn't entirely pleased with the answer, a second. That went fairly well until he came to Harold. "How many times have you served?" the judge inquired. "I served in the U.S. Marines," "Please answer my question about jury duty." "I-I was a gunnery sergeant." "Why are you not answering my questions?" the judge demanded. "He's hard of hearing," Adler interjected. "Did I ask you?" the judge snarled. "No, but you seem to be getting nowhere." "You'll speak when you're spoken to. Is that clear?" "Whatever." "What did you say?" "Fine." The judge glared at Adler, who refused to flinch. Time seemed to stop in the courtroom until at last the next potential juror began to be questioned.
Watching Harold relocate with difficulty after the questioning of Group 1 was finally over, Adler's found his pique toward the judge continuing to mount. As a result, once his group was seated in the first row, he raised his hand when the question about previous involvement with the criminal justice system was asked. "Let's hear about your experience," the judge said in a none too friendly manner after first dealing with two other potential jurors. "I was – and actually still am – involved with the LA County Teen Court." "Does that include anyone in particular?" "Mike Storm." "Judge Storm to you." "Says who?" "You're talking about the Presiding Judge for all of Los Angeles County." "Who may be Judge Storm to you, but is Mike to me." Judge Hashimoto could not keep himself from sneering. "I rather doubt that." "Then you know what? Let's go down the hall and ask him." "Do you realize that I can hold you in contempt?" "For referring to someone I know by his first name?" "You are trying my patience." "Which doesn't seem that hard to do." "What in hell is that supposed to mean?" "You weren't actually Zen-like with a nice old guy who happens to be hard of hearing." That said, Adler deliberately antagonized the Judge even more by turning and waving to Harold. "I hope you know I could have you removed from the courtroom," the judge seemed to hiss. "Why not just ask me to leave?" Clearly restraining himself, Judge Hashimoto took a deep breath, then pursed his lips. "Please leave."
With Group 3 still waiting for its turn, Adler saw no reason to behave like an Eagle Scout. As before, he wandered the halls, killing time until he saw people emerge from Hashimoto's lair. Limping along, Harold beamed at the sight of his friend. "I appreciate what you did for me," he said. "And know what? More than that, I enjoyed it." "Well I've got news for you," Adler replied. "So did I."
Fighting traffic as he headed westbound once he, Harold, and others were finally dismissed, Adler found himself reflecting upon the day's events. He certainly hadn't brought about peace on earth or goodwill toward men. Nor had had he ended poverty, eliminated bigotry, or found cured cancer. But in his own small, unheralded way, he felt that he had nonetheless done his civic duty.
Bio: Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice, diabetes, and boxing. His novel "The Beard" was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.