Recently, the Associated Press reported that a man showed up for jury duty in Caledonia County wearing an iconic black and white striped prison jumpsuit and matching beanie. According to the report, he was segregated from the rest of the jury pool, admonished by the judge and dismissed from service – leading some to speculate that this might “set off a new trend” among persons seeking to avoid jury duty.
The Vermont Rules of Selection and Summoning of All Jurors are explicit in defining qualifications for prospective jurors. They must be 18 year old citizens, living in the county of the trial, fluent in English, mentally and physically capable, and they may not have been imprisoned by virtue of a felony conviction. Otherwise the Rules indicate, “no other person shall be automatically excused or barred from jury service.”
But nothing is said about inappropriate court apparel, prison garb or not – which brings me to the Coen Brothers and their films about the strange and obscure underbelly of life in the U.S. They feature a cast of ever evolving characters like the Dude in the Big Lebowski, Barton Fink in his eponymously named film, and Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. But talking about prison stripes reminds me instantly of Ulysses Everett McGill played by George Clooney in “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou.”
Based loosely on the Odyssey, Clooney and friends escape prison in their black and white jumpsuits and set forth on an epic journey beset by numerous trials and tribulations, in the depression fraught Deep South. The film is an allusion, wrapped in an allegory, shrouded in a metaphor. But one overarching theme is clear - in order to survive in a developed society, we must be able to help and rely on each other - which brings me right back around to jury duty.
I’ve had the opportunity to both observe and try cases before dozens of Vermont juries, and I’ve seen plenty of unhappy jurors. They miss work and family, and the pay is a pittance. But their service is invaluable.
A juror IS the judge and in a criminal case decides the ultimate question of whether a crime has been committed. Deciding guilt is not reserved for the elite; it’s a right and responsibility open to everyone. That’s why it’s important to get a broad representation of society on any given jury.
And since we’re all in fact our brother’s keepers, jury duty is really about keeping ourselves and our society from becoming beset by constant sorrow.