I, The Jury; Diverse City

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    Yeah, you guessed it?the jury duty guys finally caught up with me. After dodging summonses for two years, I presented myself at the New York Criminal Court for what, mercifully, turned out to be a mere two days of service.

    For me at least, the presumption of innocence was an early casualty of the jury selection process. I was a prospective juror in the trial of a young man who was charged with assault and kidnapping. He and one or more accomplices had allegedly robbed a limousine driver at knifepoint, stabbed him and stuffed him in the trunk of his vehicle. The defendant looked sharp in a buttondown shirt and necktie; I began imagining his lawyer coaching him on how to dress for court. His effort to appear respectable served only to make him look guilty.

    The judge began by instructing us, quite rightly, on the paramountcy of the presumption of innocence: "It should go into deliberations with you like a 13th juror." But when he questioned me individually, he assured me that the trial would be wrapped up by the following Wednesday, whereupon the jury would deliberate for a day at most. How could the judge be so sure the jury would decide the case quickly? If the defendant's guilt or innocence really were in doubt, I reasoned, the judge would have been prepared for Twelve Angry Men.

    Still, I tried to keep an open mind. But when the defense lawyer started questioning prospective jurors, my presumption of innocence went by the board. His client had been charged with "acting in concert." If the prosecutors proved this element of their case beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant would share the guilt for his accomplices' actions.

    The defense lawyer seemed to foreshadow his strategy, asking: Haven't we all been in a situation in which we were with other people and things happened that were beyond our control? To me this meant: The crime happened, my client was involved, but he somehow wasn't responsible. I didn't buy it. To be sure, we all do things we regret, but at the end of the day we're responsible for our actions. If this was the defense, I'd vote to convict. And the trial hadn't even started yet. I was hopelessly prejudiced.

    Fortunately for the defendant, I was kicked off the jury. I must take partial credit for this triumph of justice, for I had entered the courtroom eager not to serve. To that end, I answered the jury questionnaire as truthfully?and as completely?as possible. I had plenty of baggage, and I was all too happy to unpack it in open court: I have twice been the victim of street crime?a robbery at gunpoint, an attempted pickpocketing. I count among my friends judges, lawyers, prosecutors, an FBI agent. I told the lawyers all this and more.

    My life was an open book, and I wore my heart on my sleeve. When the defense lawyer presaged his argument, I used body language to let him know what I thought of it. I smirked; I rolled my eyes. I got excused. Success! I spent the next day in agonizing boredom, sitting in the jury room waiting to be called again. I wasn't, and at the end of the day all the remaining jurors were discharged. I'm free until 2003. Though I arrived at the courthouse with a cynical attitude and left no more idealistic, I must admit that the system worked. I was obviously not qualified to sit in judgment of this defendant, and I didn't.

    It's harder than it used to be to avoid jury service in New York. Thanks to reforms instituted a few years ago, the jury pool has been expanded and most exemptions have been eliminated. The good news is that with more potential jurors available, no one gets called more than once every four years.

    Here's a suggestion for further reform. Although no one can be required to serve more than once every four years, a citizen may volunteer to serve as often as every two years. Why not allow someone whose four years are up to escape service by paying someone who served two years ago to take his place? Those who serve twice could charge whatever the market will bear, and employers could offer to pay replacement jurors so as not to lose the service of key employees.

    The obvious objection to this scheme is that by allowing those who can afford it to shirk their duty, it would undermine the ideal of equal citizenship. About this ideal, though, is it possible not to be cynical? Put it this way: Next time O.J. Simpson is charged with murder, let him take his chances with a lawyer from the public defender's office. If he does, next time I'm called, I'll provide jury service with a smile.

    James Taranto is deputy features editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

    Diverse City by Virtual Murrell On Tuesday, Dec. 14, voters in San Francisco go to the polls to decide a runoff between their incumbent mayor and an upstart challenger. Why should New Yorkers be concerned about a mayoral race taking place some 3000 miles away? Perhaps because this particular race focuses so clearly on issues of tolerance, diversity and access that all cities face today. The incumbent, Willie L. Brown Jr., was elected mayor in December 1995. Formerly a powerful speaker of the California Assembly, he happens to be the first black mayor in San Francisco history. He is considered a powerful liberal Democrat, his politics reflecting traditional liberal Democratic issues and values.

    His opponent Tom Ammiano is an openly gay candidate. A former stand-up comedian from New Jersey, he is currently the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Ammiano is a formidable opponent. He forced this runoff with his startling showing in the Nov. 2 general election: though he's a write-in candidate who only entered the race in the last three weeks, he earned an incredible 25 percent of the vote, to Brown's 39 percent. Ammiano spent less than $20,000 and received more votes than either of the two other established candidates: Clint Reilly, a well-known political consultant who spent more than three million dollars of his own money, and former Mayor Frank Jordan, whom Brown unseated in '95. Since no candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two now face each other in a runoff.

    By any standards, Ammiano is a throwback to what liberalism meant in the 1960s and 70s. He fashions himself a neighborhood activist and antidevelopment populist, but after his election to the Board presidency he's often seemed not to recognize that the role of a political leader is to bring divergent views to the table and try to negotiate among disparate interests. He champions the city's antigentrification sentiments, when he might better try to bring together older and newer constituencies. Though I believe he's a decent guy with a sense of honor, I don't think he has a clear understanding of the issues of today. Even in San Francisco, the 60s are over.

    Brown is a centrist. A black mayor in a city that is only 7.5 percent black, he sees himself as the ultimate insider, someone who knows how to get things done. He has the backing of the city's business community and labor, and, though he's a Democrat, he's been endorsed by local Republicans. He is the quintessential practitioner of politics as the art of the possible.

    Ammiano, running well to the left of Brown, has attacked the Mayor where he seems most vulnerable, with charges of cronyism on city contracts. The FBI is conducting ongoing investigations into the city's minority contracting procedures; there are charges that Brown's administration has been allowing developers to come into the city and basically have their way with it.

    Ammiano has suggested that Brown is too cozy with these developers to support rent control. Brown replies that he'll take a more studious look at what role rents play in the city's acute housing shortage. The two candidates agree, in principle, on ensuring a "living wage" (as opposed to mere minimum wage), though they disagree on how to go about it. Ammiano's proposal would cost the city some $80 million a year. Brown favors an incremental approach, which includes offering incentives to businesses that voluntarily institute living-wage programs.

    To govern the American city today requires a clear vision for all its constituent groups. San Francisco's gay community is politically well-organized. The question for Ammiano is whether he can attract other groups. There is some sentiment for him in the black community?he was endorsed by The Bay View, the city's leading black newspaper, which broke with Brown over those allegations of cronyism and corruption. But to beat Brown he'll need to poll 20 to 25 percent of the black vote.

    The voter group that may make all the difference is the Asian community. There are 44,000 registered voters with Chinese surnames in the city?that's about 17 percent of the total population. (Asians make up about 35 percent of San Francisco's population.) Both candidates?one black, the other gay?are actively wooing this bloc. Both can claim the support of influential Asian-Americans, but an exit poll taken by the Chinese-American Voters Education Committee during the November election showed 77 percent of Chinese voters saying they'd vote for Brown on Dec. 14, versus only 8 percent for Ammiano. Like any incumbent, Brown has earned some of his support through shrewd appointments to positions of power on the city's various boards and commissions. It may turn out that none is more crucial than his appointment of Fred Lau as police chief. Lau's the first Chinese-American to hold that job in a major city.

    In their classic Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan described the various prejudices all ethnic and religious minorities faced in coming to America. They observed that religion and race define the "next stage in the evolution of the American peoples," but that the American national character is "still forming."

    Today, that evolving character has expanded to include gender (and the politics of gender) and sexuality (and the politics of sexuality). Successful urban politicians need to develop politics of inclusion and collaboration. Or, as LBJ put it in his crude way, it's better to be inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.

    Virtual Murrell is president of Pegasus Group, a Washington, DC, consulting firm.