The woman sitting next to me in the courtroom had the reddest feet I had ever seen.
It was nearly impossible not to stare. Her peddles were the bright, blistering color of a pack of red hots and she was wearing these thin little sandals that couldn’t have had more than 30 cents worth of materials in them but probably cost $80. The hair-strand wisp of a strap that held each shoe to its respective foot seemed to be hovering over a pit of fire. She also wreaked of the barely-masked musk of old smoke, so I’m fairly certain she was some sort of demon.
And there I was, stuck sitting next to her at the Federal Courthouse in Aberdeen, Mississippi, one of 40-odd victims of a jury summons. I had arrived early — there really is a first time for everything — so I was privy to the parade of freak-show oddities that came strolling into the courtroom one after another.
You know, despite living in a country that prides itself in being a “melting pot” of different cultures, I’ve found that we Americans are often completely appalled by our differences. I suppose it’s not really that strange a phenomenon; after all, other people — say, for example, hot-dog-foot-lady — are weird. They dress like morons, smell bad, speak with goofy accents and all have questionable backgrounds, likely involving drug abuse and perversion. Best to try and avoid them. No, don’t make eye contact; that’ll just spur conversation. You don’t want to get stuck talking to these weirdos.
But I take some small measure of comfort from the fact that despite these differences — in race, religion, socio-economic backgrounds, tastes in music, personal hygiene practices — we Americans can all come together in our unified loathing of fulfilling our civic duty. Nobody, save the perpetually bored and gossipmongers among us, wants to be selected for jury duty. None of us has time to completely halt our lives — jobs, families, hobbies — to sit for hours on end listening to two groups argue back and forth about whether or not some other weirdo did something wrong.
The feeling of dread inside the courtroom was entirely palpable. If I had stuck my tongue out, it would have been coated in the stuff. Together, we sat either silent or engaged in nervous, pointless chatter with our neighbors, awaiting the beginning of the process. It was like the calm before the funeral.
This particular case was to be presided over by Judge Glen Davidson, who upon entering the room and commanding us all to sit, began to explain the process of justice. Or, rather, correct the process of justice as we understood it to be. Having previously covered trials for the paper, I had already come to understand the disparaging differences between the legal system we’ve seen on TV for generations and the plodding, clinical process that actually occurs in courtrooms every day. Objections are never screamed; opposing attorneys never engage in frightful bouts of yelling; suspects never break down into fits of sobbing confessions; and Perry Mason isn’t even a real person at all. Suffice it to say, the actual legal process is pretty disappointing to a kid raised in front of the picture box.
First, the judge told us some of the broad details of the case at hand. The person on trial, a woman nestled among a small army of lawyers, was accused of, among other things, embezzlement and obstruction of justice. Neat. We all sat up a little higher.
The case, he continued, was expected to last until the middle of the next week. It was currently a Wednesday. We all sank back down into our seats, deflating like old balloons.
One of the main points the judge stressed repeatedly is that we would be sitting in judgment of one of our fellow Americans. This was something he mistakenly thought some of us might find morally objectionable.
“Do any of you, for religious or moral reasons, feel you can’t sit in judgment of another person,” he asked the crowd. And I kid you not, we all looked around at one-another as if silently confirming that no…no we do not have a problem judging a fellow human being. After all, if the person on trial didn’t deserve to be judged, well, she wouldn’t have been on trial, right? That makes sense.
We shook our heads in unison.
The judge also took the time to ask who among us had either been convicted or had family members convicted of any crimes. At least 15 among us raised their hands. Yikes. Included were people whose family or friends had been convicted of theft, embezzlement, selling drugs, using drugs and manslaughter. I was in a room full of…well, not criminals. People who associate with criminals, though, and that’s nearly as bad. I’m telling you: Weirdos.
Thankfully, I was among those people not selected to serve. I was one of two on my row of potential jurors not selected. It was like awaiting your turn in front of the firing squad only to have the gunner’s rifle jam when it was your turn to be shot. Never had losing a lottery been so exhilarating. As the 29 of us fled the building together, we took time to look at one another and smile, nodding in silent approval, unified in our narrow escape. High fives wouldn’t have been out of place.
And there, walking among the rest of those rejected — Fatso, Skinny, Butter Teeth, Squirrel Face, Baldo, Vein Nose, Rancid Breath, Rancid B.O., Rancid Breath II, Boogers, Godzilla Schnoz, Lizard Skin, Pasty, One-Eye, Fat Lip, Cowlick, Super Ugly, Really Super Ugly and all the rest — was the red-footed woman. She had made it.
Our eyes met, and we both smiled simultaneously.
[This story was originally published in the March 28, 2012 edition of The Itawamba County Times]