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Bess Shapiro Gets Called and BouncedThe Journalist in the Jury Pool

Award Winning Story


I got called for jury duty in Sacramento County, but I was not selected. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that jury duty is a hassle, especially if you have a job and deadlines. I also believe that jury duty is an important civic duty, not just for other people but for me, too.

My associates told me that pleading journalist was my ticket out of it. The court commissioner would not rubber-stamp my exit. Tell it to the judge, I was told. The mere fact that I was a journalist did not excuse me from duty, but my insistence on hearing both sides may very well have.

Bess ShapiroI write mostly about workers’ comp and occupational safety and health. I cover the Capitol and am familiar with the sausage factory that is lawmaking. This did not seem to trouble the judge or the attorneys, all of whom queried me in private on my vocation. I also was asked about (and I answered) having at least one family member who has ran afoul of the law. After several more questions on this subject, the court didn’t seem concerned that this might interfere with my ability to issue a fair verdict in this case.

They were right. The more I thought about it, it occurred to me that I would have the restraint to not talk about a case until a verdict had been rendered. I’m also a very fair-minded person. I don’t see a victim. I see a defendant innocent until proven guilty. I don’t see a tyrant. I see a district attorney. Only the facts can prove otherwise.

I took my seat along with 19 other jurors, one of whom was a workers’ comp claims adjuster for a third-party administrator. “A story source,” I thought. As the judge began his questioning, it was astounding to me how many jurors had had brushes with the law, had been the victims of crime, or had family members who had been convicted of crimes. These same people also had friends and relatives who were law enforcement officers. I was probably going to be the only juror left standing.

How did we feel about district attorneys? How did we feel about lawyers? Did we work with lawyers? The claims adjuster said she talked to lawyers all the time. I thought, “So do I,” albeit in a different capacity. When it comes to lawyers, I think Shakespeare said it best, and his thoughts would certainly apply in workers’ comp. (Apologies to all my exemplary legal friends.)

The judge went through our questionnaires asking for responses, looking for “body language.”

“Mrs. Shapiro, we spoke with you earlier. What does your husband do?”

“He’s a stay-at-home dad. He also carves pipes and pistol grips.”

“Did you see that story in the Bee about stay-at-home dads? They feel like outcasts sometimes because they’re doing all the shopping and they’re all these moms.”

I said I hadn’t read the article, but added, “My husband is more tolerant of the children than I am.”

This got a laugh from the jury box.

The defense attorney weighed in, following up with specific questions. I started playing a game with myself and picking the people who would be kicked off the jury. Then the attorney asked a question and my journalistic instincts kicked in. A defendant does not have to bear witness against himself or herself. It’s a constitutional right, but it’s entirely possible that the defense could be almost completely silent. It’s the prosecution that has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Does anyone have a problem with that?

My hand went up.

My training as a journalist compels me to get both sides. Silence is tantamount to no comment. This would leave me in a position where I would have to conclude that the other side wins the argument. Does that mean the defendant is guilty? Yes, it very well could, but it could also mean he or she is being railroaded by an aggressive DA and is saddled with an incompetent defense attorney.

Would this be difficult for me? Yes, it would, I answered.

We broke for lunch. It had been almost three hours, and we hadn’t even selected a jury.

After a nosh, I tracked down the claims adjuster. I will withhold her name and company. She adjusts claims for a county. She rolled her eyes when I mentioned Almaraz, and sighed when I said voc rehab. Indemnity cases are the worst, she said, because the lawyers keep finding new reasons to drag things out.

Inmates collecting temporary disability? It’s not a big problem, she said, but similar issues have come up with community service. And the problems are avoidable. You have a guy who’s had three back surgeries and you have him doing heavy lifting? What were you thinking?

Predesignation? Not a big cost driver. There aren’t a lot of doctors to choose from in the small county her TPA adjusts for. There aren’t too many lawyers either, so injured workers get them from other counties.

She acknowledged the existence of malingerers and the importance of facts and standards of treatment, but she also sympathized with injured workers, especially county employees. No wonder they get attorneys. The system is so complicated, and it’s supposed to be there to help them.

I asked her if having jury duty was going to cause her claims load to pile up. She said no, not as long as she could keep checking in. She was flipping through the messages on her BlackBerry and getting updates.

We trooped back into the courtroom. The district attorney took his turn going back and forth between general and specific questions. He asked the same question. Would the silence of the defense make it difficult for anyone to render a verdict?

My hand went up again, and I gave the same answer. But there would be cross-examination of witnesses. Doesn’t that cover it? Even if the defense cross-examines the state’s witnesses vigorously but presents none of its own, does that give us the other side?

Workers’ Comp Executive has been accused of being unsympathetic to injured workers. We are certainly outspoken and sympathetic on a number of issues important to the payor community, but that’s our audience. We need to see it and to speak with the voice of our constituency. That doesn’t mean they’re always right. Applicant attorneys and doctors sometimes make very strong arguments. Insurance companies or employers, while perhaps having a valid point, will make very weak arguments.

It’s my job to hear both arguments and then balance the story. The readers can decide. I bristle when I hear no comment. It means something. A loaded statement. I’m forced to write the story accordingly, and one side is going to look bad. The side that speaks to me, on the record, could be dead wrong.

I asked the DA a question.

“What is the probability that there will be no cross-examination by the defense?”

He was flummoxed. He told me he was almost positive that wouldn’t happen. The judge said he’d never seen anything like that.

The judge and the attorneys went into chambers. They came out no more than two minutes later.

“Okay, we’re back. Thank you, Mrs. Shapiro, but you’re excused from this case.”

I retired to the jury pool in the mezzanine. A few other jurors came down, including two whom I had predicted would be booted. Forty minutes later, I was off the hook for 18 months.

I had not perjured myself, nor did I make a spectacle. I was perfectly honest. I think both attorneys saw me as the juror who would cause a mistrial. The process to that point was fascinating. I do not regret being called. Being a journalist did not help me avoid jury duty. It kept me honest—and perhaps to some extent, it did the same for them.

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