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Jason Walsh: I, the jury

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Lots of things number 4 million, even without my involvement.

There are 4 million people living in Puerto Rico; I’m not among them. Thuggish President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte says there are 4 million drug addicts in his country; and I don’t have the monkey on my back in Manila.

According to a useless news report last week, there are 4 million songs on Spotify that have never been played – but I’m doing my best to knock ‘em off one by one (“Alexa, play Kevin Federline’s ‘Playing With Fire’ in its entirety!”)

But here’s the statistic most important this week: There are 4 million people who will be called for jury duty this year. And, with that, you can count me in.

I was prospective juror No. 116 last week in county Superior Court and, what clearly isn’t self-evident to the honorable local judiciary, I would make an awesome juror. Quickly studying up on a subject and then pronouncing a public judgment upon it as if I’m some kind of reliable authority on the matter is an editorial columnist’s bread and butter. It’s what I do.

I almost certainly wouldn’t be the worst juror of all time. That honor may go to the four members of a British jury which, when deliberating during a double homicide case in 1994, consulted a Ouija board in the hopes the murder victims may be consulted beyond the grave to assist in reaching a verdict (“guilty,” insisted the phantasms; a mistrial was soon declared). Or perhaps it was the five members of an Australian jury who, when tasked with deciding the fate of two men facing life, were secretly staging a Sudoku tournament during the proceedings and tallying their results during lunchtime.

Whether the case I was called for was Ouija- or Sudoku-worthy is debatable; it was definitely more intriguing than the Daily Jumble. The judge informed us on Day 1 of jury selection that the case was especially serious and could keep the 12 chosen jurors and their alternates in court for up to six weeks. Without giving too much away, the situation revolves around an alleged attempted murder, involving possibly a gun, strangulation, gardening tools and insanity. Simply based on that, this would have been the perfect fit for yours truly. I personally know people who own guns; I personally know people who own gardening tools. I personally think that most people are certifiably insane. Looking for the ideal juror for this case? Look no further, your honor.

Unfortunately, as it happens, I also personally know one of the “expert” witnesses listed for the defense – someone who used to write a sex and drugs column at my previous newspaper. When I let that slip during pre-trial questioning, the words, “Juror Walsh, you are excused,” reverberated through the halls of justice louder than all the “order in the courts!” from every “Perry Mason” episode combined.

I can’t say I was disappointed to not have to re-arrange my life for six weeks in order to sit on the jury. And I’d hasten to guess most of the other 200-plus prospective jurors felt the same. At least that much was clear based on some of the shameless responses the judge was hearing when querying the candidates for any preconceived biases. Several prospective jurors said they wouldn’t trust anything the police said; others said they would discredit any testimony from a paid expert witness. One man said he’d automatically vote guilty if there was a gun at the scene; another said he’d vote guilty if insanity was part of the defense.

One woman elicited guffaws throughout the room when she said no amount of evidence would prevent her from voting guilty and, not only that, was frightened the defendant would escape from custody and hunt her down in revenge.

It was impressive the amount of people entirely unwilling to give the defendant – with his freedom literally hanging in the balance – an honest day in court with an impartial jury, one of the purest symbols of American democracy as guaranteed by the 6th amendment to the Constitution.

Of course, in this case that “day in court” was sounding a lot more like a couple of months – and herein lies the problem. How many folks can put their lives on hold for more than a few days – let alone six weeks? Throwing work projects into disarray, eating into employee vacation time and upending hectic daily schedules is a tall order for the $15 a day jury pay.

Maybe the justice system should adopt the airline industry’s overbooking system – and keep upping the compensation offer until a few more people are willing to be “bumped” into the jury box.

It’s either that or continue to coerce typically honest people into shamelessly explaining to a judge and a room full of strangers how they’d be biased against the accused because his case was keeping them from caring for their dying cat, Mr. Whiskers. (Cat owner was excused.)

“Voir dire” is a Latin-derived French phrase, which roughly translates as “to tell the truth.” In the U.S. it’s more commonly associated with the process by which prospective jurors are questioned about their backgrounds and potential biases while the competing legal teams attempt to select a fair and impartial jury. But there’s not a lot of “voir dire” going on these days in county courtrooms across America.

A better Latin description of the jury selection process might be “de nihilo nihil” – nothing comes from nothing.

Which is what many people feel the court is offering them, and is largely what they’re giving the court in return.

“Nothing comes from nothing” is also a lyric from “The Sound of Music” soundtrack.

Which reminds me. “Alexa, play ‘Something Good’ by Julie Andrews.”

One down, 3,999,999 to go.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.