Tedious Brief

A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.’
Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
  — Wm. Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V,1)

“Tedious brief” could also describe much of the output of lawyers. They write novels, in a Dogberry-like language too convoluted for us mortals. They produce fiction, or perhaps romans à clef. Except for one case going on now in New York, where everyone – including the defendant – knows it’s fiction.

And the words of these novels are couched in wishful thinking.

The other day, I sat through seven hours of a different “tedious brief” known as voir dire, which is French for “speak the truth.” And I have to say about fifty people in the jury pool did their best, digging into some of their deepest fears, reliving a few nightmares, because the defendant faces multiple charges of sexual assault.

Either the lawyers didn’t want me or I was too far down the list to make the cut of twelve jurors and two alternates, so I’m allowed to write about the case now.

But I’d prefer to write about the process. Tedious brief. Fifty jurors, almost all of them digging deep for difficult truths, but here’s how it went:

  • 9:15-9:30: Get lined up in the hall, by number, as if we were in second grade. (This was supposed to start at 8:45, by the way.)
  • 9:30-10:30: The judge tells us about the process. The judge was very kindly, but apparently there’s this theory – quite false – that the jury pool is made up of idiots who cannot comprehend what’s going on, and who have never seen enough of a courtroom drama to know that there are two sides to every case. I’ve served on multiple juries over the years, and all of them – with one person excepted – were both thoughtful and aware of how these things work. (The exception wasted two hours of our time before the rest of us agreed to return a 5-1 verdict in the civil case at hand, which didn’t require unanimity.)
  • 10:30-11:00: Fifteen-minute break. Yes, I can do the math. But that’s what it was called, fifteen-minute break. One juror later referenced Twelve Angry Men. We could have watched the entire movie, plus a couple of Looney Tunes, during our downtime.
  • 11:00-12:00: The lawyers, very slowly, probe the jury pool about the truly sensitive issues of the case. I’m not minimizing the sensitivity here. Some of the potential jurors were having a very hard time because of the memories being dredged back up, and not just the women. But I saw about thirty-five minutes of questioning in this one-hour block.
  • 12:00-1:20: A “one hour” lunch.
  • 1:20-1:30: Line up by numbers.
  • 1:30-2:30 and 3:00-3:40: More questioning, at a snail’s pace, plus the thirty-minute “fifteen-minute break.”
  • 3:40-3:50: “Thank you and we’ll let you know” from the judge, expressed as succinctly as, say, Chapter 9 of Moby-Dick (“The Sermon”).

Three hours of material spread out over a seven-hour day. In an airless courtroom, with most of us sitting on wooden pews that might have been hewn from the timbers of the Pequod, each topped with a handrail.

See the little knobby mini-rail? That was digging into our backs for the whole time, those of us who weren’t seated in the padded chairs inside the jury box. I suppose it helps keep prospective jurors awake, though in theory these pews are for spectators during the trial. If the trial proceeds at the same pace as voir dire, well, the spectators are going to need them. Until they get to the graphic images the attorneys promised. From their dancing around the descriptions, these images will be distressing.

(Really, domestic violence is further past “distressing” than “violence” is from “distressing” in the dictionary. I suspect those images will remind everyone that domestic violence and sexual assault are real, and devastating, and disgusting. And on a related note, the NY Court of Appeals overturned Harvey Weinberg’s conviction today, saying that mentioning that he’d threatened other women was out of bounds.)

I wanted to serve, actually. It’s a civic duty, in a time where so many have forgotten the words “civic” and “duty” in favor of “me” and “freedom.”

I started out trying to find humor in all this. As you can see, the humor vanished when I got to the part about sexual assault. There’s nothing funny about it. I can make a joke out of anything, about anything… but not here.

Anyway, back to novels where I can control the flow and the outcome. More or less. The characters often have something to say about that.