Immigrant Bengalis

In the summer of 2003, I received a letter from the Southern District of New York, US District Court, Department of Jury Selection. They sent me aquestionnaire to answer and asked me to return it to them within a specified time. At first I did not pay attention because, over the years, I had received such letters many times. All I had to do was to call them and mention that I am a health care professional, and my services as a potential Juror was always excused. With the same hope, I called the Jury Manager of Southern District one day and the voice on the other side wanted to know who was calling.

I mentioned my name in reply to her query and said, “Madam, I am a pharmacist. Please excuse me from this jury duty. I am self-employed and it will be impossible for me to close the pharmacy to sit on a jury. I have been excused in the past.” She replied, “Yes, you are right, we have excused you before because of your profession. But now the law has changed and every profession has been included. So, it does not matter anymore whether someone is in medical profession or any emergency profession. Everybody has to render this service if selected. If you do not comply with it, you can go to jail according to the present law. So, my advice to you is: fill out the questionnaire and return it within the specified time frame. Otherwise you could be in legal trouble.” She explained the whole situation very nicely and politely.

After the conversation, I realized that I was on the hook. This time there was no escape in sight. I would have to arrange for a substitute employee to work for me when I would be out for jury duty. In those days, it was not easy to find a pharmacist for temporary work. Demand was very high, supply was low, and it was quite a tough situation for me. So, I stopped thinking about it. I put my mind to filling out the questionnaire. I had to return it within the next seven days.

Eventually I mailed the information to the Jury Manager and started to concentrate on finding a pharmacist who would work in my absence at the pharmacy. In this country, nobody can open a pharmacy business without the presence of a licensed pharmacist. A pharmacist is the soul of the pharmacy business. I decided to wait until I was called for the jury duty. 

A few days later I got a letter from the Jury Manager.  She asked me to be in her office on a specific date and time. Her office was located in White Plains in Westchester County. It was not far from my home, may be 12 miles away. I thought it should not take me more than 25 minutes to go to her office. Since I did not have a GPS, I wrote down the direction to the place. I reached there about 10 minutes late because I had a hard time finding a parking space. The young lady in the office told me, “Please sign this paper and give me your parking ticket. I will stamp on the back of it; then you wouldn’t have to pay for it.”

I signed the paper and told her, “I parked on the street. I do not have a parking ticket, so you don’t have to stamp.”

She looked at me and said, “Next time when you come here, park in any of the parking garages nearby; we will pay for your parking. You don’t have to waste your time trying to find a parking spot on the street.” She smiled at me. Then she said, “Please have a seat. If you wish, please take some tea or coffee; also donuts are there and you may take them as well. Please be patient. In the next half hour, the Jury Manager will come and guide you for today’s activity.” I thanked her and took a seat in a nearby chair. I decided not to drink any coffee.

I was looking around the room. It was a big room. It could accommodate about a hundred and fifty people. It had a small stage at one end and a small lectern on the stage. Many people were there. Some of them were talking to the next person, some were reading books, some were doing nothing but had a vacant look on their faces.  I sat quietly in a corner, thinking about how I could avoid this duty. Suddenly I heard, “Is this your first time?” The question came from a middle-aged woman. I should say, she was a pretty woman. She smiled at me.

I looked at her and said, “Yes, this is my first time.” I tried to keep the exchange short. But she was the type of a person who likes to mingle and talk with others. She said, “I was selected two times before, I hope this time they do not select me. I have things to do this week, besides which I am self-employed. If they select me, probably I will have to keep my store closed. I have to put up a notice saying – On vacation: Do not know when will be back. I have to lie to my customers.” Then she asked me, “How about you? What you do for a living?” Before I could answer her, I heard someone saying, “Here comes the Jury Manager.” I could not reply to her.

A very young woman appeared on the podium. She looked very pretty in her dark navy blue suit. Her appearance perfectly matched with her personality. Her face was bright with a pleasing smile. She took the microphone and began “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for coming here this morning. We appreciate that you have responded to our request to help our judicial system. As citizens of this great country, we all have our duties and obligations to the country. As we all enjoy the rights and privileges as citizens, it is also our duty to serve the country when the country needs us. Army protects the country from outside enemies; the same way you will be protecting our justice system from injustice by sitting on the jury bench. Some of you may think that you have to become a legal expert to sit on the jury bench, but it is not so. I am going to explain to you how the judicial system works. If you are selected for jury duty, all you have to do is to hear the arguments of the lawyers attentively, and use your common sense to determine whether the defense attorney or prosecuting attorney is making any sense to you. Believe me, you will know when it makes sense and when it does not. You do not need special training for it; we are engaged in this Jury duty in our daily activities. If you notice, every day we make many decisions   using our judgments, and this is exactly what you will be doing as a juror.” Then she smiled and said, “Don’t be nervous. You have no reason to be nervous. Believe me, you will be fine! Just use your common sense. Please fill in this form correctly and truthfully.” She showed us a form in her hand and said, “You will get this form in a few moments. Before I give you the form, I have to explain two more things. As a prospective juror, we will divide you all in a few groups Each group will consist of twenty persons. You will be interviewed by the judge, defense attorney and prosecutor of the case. If they do not select you, do not feel bad; it does not mean that you are bad or unfit as a person for becoming a juror; it only means that you did not fit the criteria of the case. The judge and attorneys of both sides want to make sure that the persons whom they select should be able to serve their purpose of the related case. If you are selected, you will have to come every day to hear the case until you give the verdict at the end of the trial. We understand that your time is very valuable; that is why after today’s attendance, you will not be required to serve as a juror for the next three years. We shall give you a certificate; please keep it for the next three years. If you are called by mistake or by other courts, just let them know that you have attended today’s session. Now if you have any question, I shall try to answer them.” She explained the whole thing so well that nobody had any question. She announced, “Since you do not have any question, I am going to distribute this form. Please fill it out carefully and truthfully because the judge and attorneys of both sides will ask you questions on the basis of the information you  provide in this form.” At the end she gave a big smile and said, “Thank you very much and we wish you all the best in your jury duty.” Then she left.

The form was not difficult. Basically it wanted to know if you have ever been convicted of any crime, if there was a criminal case pending against you or if anyone of your family or you were  a part of any civil litigation or if there was any judgment pending against you. The form did not pose any threat to me. However, I felt somewhat intimidated thinking that I was going to determine someone’s fate just by being on the jury bench. In my heart and mind, I felt that it was a huge burden on my honesty, integrity, truthfulness and judgment.  I started to pray that God give me the strength to render my duties truthfully and honestly. I was deeply absorbed in my thoughts; I completely forgot that I was sitting in a room where everybody was talking, laughing, creating a hue and cry. It seemed to me that these people did not understand the gravity and burden of sitting on a jury bench. My stomach started grumbling; I felt that I should go to the bathroom. I got up to go to the bathroom.

When I came back, I found that our group had been called by a judge. All of us got up and started to go towards his court room. One assistant from Jury Office was guiding us to the Judge’s Court. Finally, he took us to the court room and said, “Please go inside and be seated. Someone from the court will advise you what to do.” The judge’s court was a big room. There was a medium size stage at the end of the room, a big desk and a chair were on the stage, clearly understandable that they were for the judge. In the back of the chair there was a national flag with the eagle. I noticed a computer screen on the desk. Below the stage I saw a shorthand machine and a chair. When I entered the room, I noticed there were four rows of benches for the spectators who would watch the trial. Beyond that the room was divided into two equal portions. Each portion had a small podium with a small microphone, then a big table with four chairs. I realized that these must be the tables for the defense and prosecution attorneys. The room looked very neat and attractive. It was rather unique to see the judge seated in front of the flag. I already started to feel the presence of truth and justice in the environment of the room. My nervousness started to fade away; I started to feel confident that I would be able to carry out my duty truthfully and honestly to provide justice to someone who sought it.

After a few minutes, the bailiff announced, “All rise! The Honorable Judge Render is here.” The judge entered the room and took his seat and said, “Please be seated.” Then he opened his computer. He took the file which was on the table, looked for something in it and then put it down. At that time the bailiff whispered in his ear and then said, “Ladies and gentlemen of the prospective jury, the judge and attorneys of prosecution and defense will call you and ask you a few questions on the basis of information which you have provided in the forms and then the judge will let you know if you are selected for this case.” Then he said, “This is a civil case where the plaintiff is Ms. Jane Doe and the defendants are Valeria Mall, Police Officer John Smith, and the city of Bargain, New York.”

The bailiff called my name and I got up and went to the judge. I sat on a chair designated for the juror. In front of me were two attorneys; we sat in front of the judge, making a half circle. The judge looked at my answer sheet and asked, “Mr. Chakrabarti, what is your profession?”

“I am a pharmacist,” I replied. Hearing my answer the judge said, “I see you are involved in a litigation, please tell me about it.” Before I could explain, the defense attorney said, “Your Honor, I do not want him; he is involved in a litigation.” The judge looked at the defense attorney and said, “Let us hear him. Please tell me what happened.” The Judge looked at me.

I said, “Your Honor, I own a drug store. A wrong medicine was dispensed by our pharmacist to a patient and she was hospitalized by the unwanted action of the medicine. So, the patient has sued the pharmacy for her mental and physical sufferings and mental pains. I have given the notice to our insurance company. It happened about three months ago. The insurance company has taken the prescription, but since then I  have not heard from them. Once I called and asked the insurance company about it. The insurance company told me that they would take care of it; I do not have to worry about it. After that I do not know anything about this case.”

The judge asked me, “How do you feel about this woman? Do you think she did the right thing by suing the pharmacy?”

“Sir, the lady suffered for the wrongful action of the pharmacy. In my opinion she should get some kind of compensation for her pain and suffering. I think she has taken the correct decision against the pharmacy,” was my reply.

The Judge said, “She sued your pharmacy and you still think she is right. You are not angry with her?”

“Sir, no, I am not angry; the fact is she suffered. Does not matter whose pharmacy it is, the pharmacy should be punished for its negligence.” I replied to the judge.

After hearing my reply, the judge looked at the defense attorney who had objected to me and said, “Now what do you think about him?” But he did not wait for the defense attorney’s opinion; he looked at me and said, “Even though someone has sued your pharmacy, do you think that you can be neutral and consider the importance of evidence of the case? Can you be devoid of personal bias about the accused in this case? Can you be sure that your decision about the case will be solely on the basis of evidence and evidence only?” He looked straight into my eyes; it seemed that he was trying to read my mind. 

I replied, “Sir, I promise I shall consider only the evidence to reach my decision. Nothing else is going to influence me to reach my decision; only the evidence will.” The judge told the defense attorney that he should include me in the jury panel. The defense attorney nodded his head to show that he agreed with the Judge. After speaking to all of us, they selected ten of us to sit on the jury panel. The judge instructed us to come to his court at 2 pm. The court would be in session at that time. All of us took leave from the judge. I looked at the watch and decided to go for lunch.

After lunch, all of us went to the court of Judge Render. The bailiff asked us to follow him and he took us to a room. This room was big. In one corner, there was a coffee machine. There was a big oval shaped table which had twenty chairs around it. The Bailiff asked us to sit on the designated chairs by each name. He also said – From now on until the verdict of the case is rendered, you must sit on your designated chair. You cannot change your seat, no matter what. In case you want to change your position of the seat, you have to take the judge’s permission. He gave us some time to be seated in our respective spots. Then he said, “This case is about a woman who went through an ordeal and has lodged a complaint to the judge for her pain and suffering.  How you will perform your duty, the judge will explain everything when you go to his court. Now you can relax and chat among yourselves and get to know each other because you will be spending the next few days with one another. Now please excuse me. The room is all yours. See you in the court room in fifteen minutes. He then left the room.”

After the bailiff left, we started to talk among ourselves. Out of ten jurors three were women, and seven were men. I was amazed to see that the jurors’ education level ran from high school diploma to Master’s in Chemistry. One guy was a mechanical engineer. Two of them were working as clerks in government and private office, one was the stock clerk in a department store, and the other seven (including myself) were professionals from all walks of life. Education did not mean anything here; the judge asked us to weigh the evidence with reasonable common sense only. We had some chit chat among ourselves. One thing was clear from these gossips: all of us were very concerned about delivering justice; all of us were a bit nervous about whether we would be able to find the truth in this trial, and deliver justice on that basis to the judge. Suddenly we heard the announcement that the judge was coming into his court. Everyone stood up and the judge told us, “Please be seated.” He explained the case to us briefly, explained what we could or could not do, and said that should we have any question about any statement or any word, we should ask the Judge to explain the meaning to us. He also forbade us to come in contact with the defense or plaintiff’s attorneys, no matter what. We were not allowed to ride the same elevator if they were in there; we were not allowed to say even words like ‘good morning or good night’ etc. to them. Any kind of contact with them was forbidden. 

The trial started. The judge stated, “I am the Law in this court. Any legal explanation I give must be adhered to. You must not, I repeat, you must not ask any question to any witnesses or attorneys. Should you have any question about anything you must ask me. In this court you are not permitted to speak to anyone other than me. Remember this advice or you may face contempt of court.” He was very clear to us. We understood the gravity of his advice.

This was a trial where Ms. Jane Doe was seeking justice for her false arrest by police, false allegation against her by Valeria Mall, for humiliation, assassination of character, pain and sufferings of her mind and body. The plaintiff’s attorney approached the jury bench, smiled at us and said, “It is a very clear-cut case of violation of the civil rights of Ms. Jane Doe by the Police Officer, Town of Bargain and Valeria Mall.” The plaintiff’s attorney was a very beautiful woman; her personality was very pleasing and her charming smile could win anyone’s heart. She smiled at us and said, “Once all the evidence and testimonies of witnesses are presented to you, it will be very clear to you that this woman was persecuted for nothing, and she deserves justice in this court. And I am very confident that you will deliver justice to her.” She made her point and went back to her seat. ­­­­All of us paid full attention to her speech; some of us also took notes from what she said. For me it was very interesting: what she said and the way she said it made an impact on all of us.

Then the defense attorney approached the jury panel and said, “From the support of the evidence and testimonies of the witnesses, I shall prove to you that the Police Officer John Smith, the Town of Bargain and Valeria Mall acted very properly and Ms. Jane Doe’s rights were never violated; that’s all, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Once you hear all the testimonies, you will have no choice but to dismiss all the charges against my clients.”  He stopped his speech there and took his seat.

The first defense witness was a security guard of Valeria Mall. In his testimony he explained that he saw a person with a baseball cap on his head, who looked like the person who was barred from entering the mall. He was standing next to the car which he drove to come to the mall. The security guard said, “I could not see his face clearly because of his cap.” He was convinced nevertheless that he had spotted the barred person. So he called his supervisor and his supervisor called the police. Seeing the police car come in, the plaintiff sat in her car and started the engine. At that point the police officer confronted her from the passenger side of the car and pulled her out through the driver side window of the car. During cross examination by the plaintiff’s attorney, he also confirmed that this person was screaming, “Let me go, it hurts, you cannot pull me through the window”. His supervisor said that it seemed to him that the police officer used excessive force to take her out of the car. When the plaintiff’s attorney asked, “How would you take her out of the car?” he replied, “I would take her out by the passenger side of the car.” The next few witnesses gave their version of the episode but nobody corroborated one another. On the final day of the hearing, Police Officer Smith was called and in his testimony he described that he pulled the woman out through the driver side of the door and then arrested her for unlawful trespassing and loitering. When he was interrogated by the plaintiff’s attorney, he said that he was very polite and gentle with the woman but she was not cooperating and was cursing him and the mall for arresting her. He said, “I acted very properly and professionally with the woman. Then I took her into custody and transferred her to the police station.” After listening to the police officer’s testimony, the plaintiff’s attorney sought the Judge’s permission to show the arresting incident in a video clip.  Someone from the crowd had videotaped the whole event till the police officer made her sit in the patrol car and left for the police station. All of us on the jury bench watched the video and found out that the testimony given by the Police Officer Smith was full of contradictions, and the facts were distorted by Police Officer Smith to safeguard his own wrong actions. It became obvious to us that he committed perjury on the witness stand. When the video showing was completed the plaintiff’s attorney said, “As I mentioned before, this innocent lady has been violated and she deserves to receive justice and compensation for her sufferance of pain and humiliation of her person. This video has shown all the wrong doings to her by Police Officer Smith, the Valeria Mall and the City of Bargain. Please deliberate with your common sense on the basis of all the given evidence and come up with the guilty verdict, making them responsible for their illegitimate action.” She then stopped her summation.

The defense attorney came to us and started his summation. He started, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it is a very clear-cut case of mistaken identity, where everybody was confused about the identity of Ms. Jane Doe. The security guards thought that she was that guy who was barred from entering the mall. The policeman tried to do his best so that Ms. Jane Doe does not get hurt when she was arrested. Also we have found that Mr. Smith’s statement and video of the incidence did not match, because it took place three years back and he possibly forgot the details of this incident. In the last year, Mr. Smith received a commendation from the police department for his honesty, bravery and selfless service for the local community. In making your decision, you must consider the goodness of Mr. Smith who has put his life on the line to protect the neighborhoods of this Bargain Town. And if you consider these good acts, you can only find him not responsible for Ms. Jane Doe’s pain and suffering; instead she is the one who should be held responsible for her arrest and suffering. Consequently, please come back and give a Not Guilty verdict. That is all I want to reiterate to you all.”

After his summation, the judge looked at his watch and looked at the jury bench and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, now you have heard the summations narrated by the attorneys of the plaintiff and defense. You have heard and seen all the evidence and testimonies; now please make your decision solely on the basis of the testimonies and evidence . If you have any question about any evidence, any witness’s testimony, any legal explanation for any point, please get back to me. Do not engage in forming any opinion on the basis of any hearsay or any imaginary arguments that may sound fair to you. It is my instruction to all of you that you decide the case strictly on the basis of all the testimonies beyond any reasonable doubt. I hope you have understood my instructions; if you did not understand any part, please let me know now, and I shall explain to you again.” The Judge also suggested, “Should you find the defendants guilty of wrongdoing to Ms. Jane Doe, you must reward her monetarily for her defamation of character, pain and suffering; you can recommend punishment for the police officer too. Also remember, the reward money should not exceed the amount they are seeking. Furthermore, I would like to remind you that you do not have to deliberate about her legal bills; I shall decide on that amount. I wish to remind you that you can render one decision at a time or both together if you choose to do so. Thank you very much and resume your duty as jurors of this case.”

We entered the jury room. But before we could settle down the bailiff came into the room and announced that the court had been adjourned for now; the court would resume at 10 am the next day. He said, “You are dismissed for now; you will resume your duties tomorrow. Please do not discuss the case with anyone, and that includes your spouse too. Thank you very much, see you tomorrow.”

The next morning all of us assembled in the jury room. We started to discuss the body of evidence and the witnesses’ testimonies. We concluded that none of us believed the testimony which was given by Police Officer Smith. We also came to a conclusion that the plaintiff’s witnesses were truthful and we had no doubt in our minds that Ms. Jane Doe was humiliated and had suffered at the hands of the police, the mall and the Town of Bargain. So, all of us decided unanimously to render a guilty verdict against the defendants. Now we had to deal with the second part of the decision -- the monetary reward for Ms. Jane Doe. We started to deliberate on this issue. I proposed, “Let us decide the fate of the Police Officer. In my opinion, being a lawman he broke the law and lied in court.” A majority of the jury did not accept my proposal; they wanted to show some leniency to the police officer. Someone came up with a proposal to fine him for one dollar and stop the raise for the next 3 years. Someone else had the idea of fining him one hundred thousand dollars and stopping the raise for the next ten years. However, none of these proposals made any progress in our deliberations. Finally, after numerous discussions we came to a conclusion that we must be just to the police officer; we should not treat him harshly, but rather we should show our impartiality towards him. At last we came to a consensus that we will impose a fine of forty thousand dollars and stop the yearly raise for four years. One part was done but the harder one was waiting for us; now we would have to determine the amount of compensation for the plaintiff’s pain and suffering. For that we would have to consider her age, education, employment, salary and loss of salary, etc. During the trial we came to know that Ms. Jane Doe had an associate degree, and she was working for a bank for a moderate salary. After being arrested she lost that job; her friends looked down upon her; she was mentally oppressed by her acquaintances; and she was ashamed and suffering from inferiority complex. Now we would have to weigh her situation and try to compensate her for her losses accordingly. All of us started to think how we could deliver justice to Ms. Jane Doe. All of us felt the burden on our shoulders. It is very easy to think of delivering justice, but when it is your responsibility to deliver, the whole dynamic changes. My conscience started to prick me; I was afraid thinking what if I failed to discharge my duties as a juror. All these thoughts made me real nervous. It was a big question for all of us: how we would determine the parameters of a legitimate number, then put a dollar amount on it for her pain and suffering. We did not have any magic trick to do it but we had ten dedicated minds to accomplish it. The foreman of the jury said – I have an idea. Let us put the dollar amount on a piece of paper, whatever individually we might feel is the right amount of compensation. His suggestion seemed to be reasonable at that moment. So, we put a dollar amount on small scraps of paper. Ten jurors, ten minds, ten pieces of small note-papers and we had ten different dollar amounts -- that seemed to be our magical solution for the puzzle. We had ten different dollar amounts. One of the jurors suggested that we discard the highest and the lowest amounts which were suggested, then take the average of the remaining numbers and make that number as the dollar amount of compensation. I thought, it was an interesting idea and I also remembered that I heard about it somewhere but I could not remember where I heard about it. Anyway, that is not important. After all our discussions, we took the average of the middle eight numbers, excluding the highest and the lowest numbers, and came to 523 thousand dollars and all of us agreed to round it up to 525 thousand dollars. Although some of us argued the amount was not enough for her humiliation, pain and suffering, others took the position that this amount was not too small to compensate for her loss. So we started to talk about the figure and finally came to a consensus that 525 thousand would be her compensation amount. All of us were very happy that we could fulfill our responsibilities as jurors and then our foreman went to the bailiff and informed him that we had finished the deliberation and the verdict was ready for the judge. 

At the request of the bailiff we entered the court room and took our seats. The judge asked our foreman, “Have you reached the verdict? If you did, may I have it?”

The foreman replied, “Yes Your Honor, we have reached the verdict.” He handed the verdict paper which all of us had signed. The judge looked into the verdict and then the bailiff said, “Plaintiff and defendants, all rise.” Everyone on both sides including us stood up; the only person seated in the court was the judge, and he read the verdict. After reading the verdict the judge looked at us and said, “Thank you very much for your help as jurors. You are dismissed from jury duty. You are free to go back to your regular life.”

The plaintiff and her attorney were very joyful with the verdict. They thanked us and the plaintiff said, “Thank you very much. Finally I got justice for my sufferance. Wish you all the best.” We came out of the court room.

It was time for us to take leave of one another. Some of us developed some friendships amongst ourselves. We hugged, exchanged telephone numbers, wished good luck to one another, and our hearts became heavy for the ensuing painful separation. During this judicial process we became like a family. Our family broke up just then; we did not know if we would meet again in future, but hoped to do so. I was looking on as one juror after another was leaving me to join their families. I was looking at them go, and finally I started to walk towards my car. I was very happy; the burden had come off my shoulder. I became a free man again to resume my work life, to resume our family life that I had left behind. I felt like I was a bird flying high in the sky with all the joys of freedom. I embraced my usual life again. I was very glad to have performed my civic duty as a juror and help the justice system of my newly adopted country. I stored this unique experience in the recess of my heart. In my mind, I thanked the jury system for giving me the privilege of experiencing such a unique system of delivering justice.

(Names have been changed in the narrative to avoid hurting people.)


(Posted April 1, 2017).

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My Civic Duty
Dilip Chakrabarti