Have You Ever Tried To Get Out Of Jury Duty? Jury duty's a civic obligation, but it can be tough to find the time to serve. Former Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman confesses he showed up for jury duty with good intentions, but finagled his way out of serving. He then found he felt guilty about it.
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Have You Ever Tried To Get Out Of Jury Duty?

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Have You Ever Tried To Get Out Of Jury Duty?

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Have You Ever Tried To Get Out Of Jury Duty?

Have You Ever Tried To Get Out Of Jury Duty?

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Jury duty's a civic obligation, but it can be tough to find the time to serve. Former Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman confesses he showed up for jury duty with good intentions, but finagled his way out of serving. He then found he felt guilty about it.

Read Peter Mehlman's piece in the Los Angeles Times, "Ok, I Confess. I Finagled My Way Out Of Jury Duty."

NEAL CONAN, host:

We've all had that moment after you open the mailbox to find that you've been summoned for jury duty. We know we have a civic responsibility, but we also have so much else to do. On "30 Rock," Tina Fey's Liz Lemon dressed up as Princess Leia in her toga and ear buns in an attempt to escape the courtroom.

(Soundbite of TV show, "30 Rock")

Ms. TINA FEY: (as Liz Lemon) And I don't really think it's fair for me to be in a jury because I'm a hologram.

Unidentified Man: You seem fine to me. Report to jury room B.

CONAN: Writer Peter Mehlman had his own moment recently when he was called for jury duty in Inglewood, California, and found himself wondering: How hard could it be to get a French passport?

Tell us how you did or did not get out of jury duty. What was your experience on the jury? 800-9898-255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Peter Mehlman is an essayist and former writer for "Seinfeld" who joins us from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. PETER MEHLMAN (Essayist; Former Writer, "Seinfeld"): My pleasure.

CONAN: And you wrote an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times where you said you went into this as not just a total fan of trials, but as an idealist.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah. You know, I love trials. Like I said in the article, you know, I - and when I lived in New York, I used to go to trials all the time, you know? For, you know, for Bernard Goetz, I brought a date.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You brought a date to�

Mr. MEHLMAN: But, you know, once you have jury duty and no matter how good your attitude is, there should just be a huge sign on the courtroom that says, you know, check your idealism at the door.

CONAN: Well, what actually happened? You were called and you reported on day one.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yes. I was - and I actually made it as far as getting into a courtroom, you know, for jury selection, which is farther than I've gotten in two or three previous times in Los Angeles. But�

CONAN: That's a process called voir dire.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Voir dire. And so there were 42 people in the voir dire, and they try to cut that down to - you know, the prosecutor and the defense attorney try to cut that down to 12�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MEHLMAN: �or there's 13, with an alternate. And it was endless.

CONAN: Endless. Was Sam Waterston the prosecutor in the�

Mr. MEHLMAN: If only. Although the prosecutor was very good. The prosecutor was really good, in fact, very concise and - you know, it got to the point so quickly that everybody was so concerned about their time being wasted, because, I have to say, the judge, the first day he spoke for about an hour. I mean, he went five minutes on why you're not allowed to have cell phones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEHLMAN: You know. I mean, this is like this thing in society now where everybody's trying to be your friend. You know, I'd rather the judge just be an authority. And then he goes into his theories of jurisprudence. You know, we've all seen "Law & Order." We all watched the OJ case. We know the whole system.

CONAN: Yeah. But if you didn't do it, then the case would be reversed on appeal. You know that part, too.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, I don't think he had to really go into his theory on, like, how America is the first, you know, country with, you know, with this kind of jury system.

CONAN: In any case, you would come back after you're selected for voir dire, and people start then questioning the jury, the defendant, who turned out to be representing herself.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah, that was a tragic move. She was representing herself and, you know, obviously, she didn't go to law school, so she doesn't know what she's doing. So every other word out of her mouth there's an objection to, and then the judge explains very simple things to her and she says, oh, OK. Gotcha.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. MEHLMAN: You know, you don't expect to hear gotcha coming from the defense table.

CONAN: When you heard initially that two people had been excused for hardship reasons, you say you could almost hear the rest of us glumly calculating how our odds of being chosen had slightly increased.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah. They went from, I think, 29 percent to 30 percent. And at least - I talked to several people, and that at least two or three of them had said they immediately had that thought: Oh, my God, my odds just changed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And then the judge started the voir dire and in terms of asking - you were juror number six.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yes.

CONAN: And he said - he asked you about your experience in courtrooms?

Mr. MEHLMAN: They asked if you had ever been a juror before and then they asked if you've been the victim of a crime - he asked - and you know, in recent years. And it just so happened in 2007, you know, I had my house broken into and my mother was - was carjacked at gunpoint.

CONAN: Other than that, you said I had a pretty good year.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah. Yeah. I got a big laugh.

CONAN: And then somebody immediately said that was a big mistake.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah. You know, they - somebody outside the courtroom said, you know, you know, once you said that your mother was carjacked, you know, that -at that point the prosecution probably really liked you, but the defense shouldn't have liked you but you made a joke about it so the defense thought that you were like really human. So that they - she likes you too. So you know, the guy literally said to me, You're screwed, we all think you're going to get picked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Juror number six. And at this point they're just winnowing out. There's a point in which each side is allowed to dismiss people for no particular reason, without cause.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Right. And you could see - by the way, this is - that didn't happen till the third day.

CONAN: The third day?

Mr. MEHLMAN: The third day. The first day was devoted just to the judge's lecture. The second day was devoted to the judge asking questions. And third day was finally the prosecutor and the defense or the defendant�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MEHLMAN: �asking, you know - doing their own screening of the jury. So this is the third day and everybody is incredibly impatient by this point.

CONAN: Well, the third day - you're only - this must be some incredibly important case.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Oh, no, no, no. This was a misdemeanor.

CONAN: A misdemeanor?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, two misdemeanors. And one of them was gun possession.

CONAN: Well, okay then.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEHLMAN: But a misdemeanor nonetheless. And, you know, when you're used to, you know, seeing Bernhard Goetz at that defense table, you know, shooting four kids on the subway for no apparent reason�

CONAN: Suddenly you remember it's Wednesday and it's new comics day, you know.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah. You can be somewhere else, yeah.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Amy in Shinglehouse, Pennsylvania. I got a summons in February. I really couldn't go because my ewes were lambing. When I called to get out of it, the woman actually laughed out loud. That would be hard to make that one up. Did you consider the ewes lambing?

Mr. MEHLMAN: I - it took me two times for you to say ewes to realize you were saying E-W-E because, you know, I'm kind of from cities.

CONAN: And people say ewes, it means youse bums.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah. Well,, if I weren't for the New York Times crossword, I would have no idea what E-W-E was.

CONAN: This is when we start asking what's a yoot(ph)?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah. Exactly. You know, I didn't - you know, as I said, I didn't go in it thinking, God, I got to find a way out of here. You know, I didn't dress as Princess Leia.

CONAN: And what point did you decide that you've got to find some way out of here?

Mr. MEHLMAN: After the first day, when the judge gave the one-hour discourse on the judicial system - and I think I described it in the article as the stuff that, you know, a poodle would already know - I just said, I can't do this. And then I saw that the defendant was representing herself, you know, I had that school's out feeling.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And let's see, we got a caller on the line. This is John. John calling us from Deaver, Wyoming.

JOHN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, John.

JOHN: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOHN: When you - if you don't want to show up for jury duty, if you don't want to attend jury duty, if you don't want to fulfill your commitment, just do it the way we do in Wyoming. When they call your name for roll call, just say guilty and you're excused.

CONAN: Raise your hand when - instead of saying present or here, you say guilty?

JOHN: Yeah, and you're excused.

CONAN: All right. I'll consider that. Thanks, John.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. In fact, it was a twitch that finally got you out.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah. It looked like I was going to be selected and then for some reason the prosecutor - you know, the funny thing is that so many of the potential jurors were getting on a soapbox at this point. They were just lashing out at everything. You know, one of them was saying - went into this whole discourse about how police officers lie.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MEHLMAN: And then there were other jurors who were chastising the defendant for representing herself, saying you're foolish and you're making a huge mistake. And you know, I actually never knew - during the voir dire, I had never seen jurors, you know, getting on soapboxes like that.

CONAN: I didn't think it was a dialogue, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah. I know. It seemed completely inappropriate, like, you know, as if - you know, as if all of a sudden I stopped right now and just started saying that, you know, there's a couple of things on MORNING EDITION that I'm not happy about.

CONAN: Well, given that - but did you go home at night, were you tortured by this feeling that you're evading your civic duties here?

Mr. MEHLMAN: No. I was tortured by - during the middle of that week I was tortured by the possibility of having to spend three weeks on this misdemeanor case. I didn't get tortured by shirking my civic duty until after I had already accomplished it.

CONAN: Hmm. So it was only shirker's regret?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yes. Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What was the final event that got you from the juror number six to shirker number one?

Mr. MEHLMAN: I think after one of the other jurors had been, you know, grandstanding, the prosecutor said, Is there anyone who doesn't feel that they can render a fair verdict in this case? And my right arm kind of twitched. As I said in the article, it was like an umpire, you know, thinking it was strike for a second and then saying, no, it was a little outside.

And that she - the prosecutor saw me and said, juror number six? And I just kind of gulped and I just said, you know, three of the biggest problems in California right now are budget problems, backed-up prisons and backed-up - you know, overcrowded prisons and backed-up courtrooms. And this is a microcosm of all three, and for a little misdemeanor case where no matter what this person is not going to end up in jail.

CONAN: So essentially saying I don't want sit here and waste my time.

Mr. MEHLMAN: And I just - I said, you know, I'm just saying it's incredibly frustrating. And then the defendant got to, you know, put another potential juror on parole. And she was looking around and looking around, and there were probably about 18 of us at that point. And I was kind of staring bullets at her. And she finally said, Juror number six, you're excused.

CONAN: Juror number six is Peter Mehlman, a screenwriter and essayist. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And how long after that did it take before that regret settled in?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Oh, as soon as I got out - you know, you go from the courtroom to another place where they give you this little diploma, you know, kind of like where that says you've served your jury duty. And soon as I left the building, holding that little diploma, I just felt kind of seedy. You know, I just felt, like, you know - the whole thing about - it's not just shirking the responsibility that made me feel bad, it was also just getting up on a soapbox and, you know, spouting my opinions. It's just - I don't know, it felt wrong.

CONAN: Here's some more emails. This from Greg in Phoenix. I was excused from jury duty after telling the judge that I believed the system was unfair because the state employs both the judge and the prosecutor - that's not too dissimilar from what you did. Steve in Kingsport, Tennessee: If you want to get out of jury duty legally, be a journalist. I was called while working for a newspaper. The editor told me not to worry. No attorney will accept a journalist. That was correct.

I could tell you not in all cases. Tweet from BRKyle(ph): I got out when I walked into the room with the attorneys and greeted my landlord cheerily - zip, gone. Well, that's not an occasion that the rest of us can use. And from Molly: I recently got out of jury duty because I was in "The Rocky Horror Show." Although having explained my role in the production to a very stern, very Mormon judge in eastern Idaho was enough to get me out of jury duty, I was prepared to appear before the court in full costume - French-made costume, garter belt, huge platform boots and very large hair and makeup - figuring they'd let me off the hook, so to speak, or arrest me for contempt. And�

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: �she has at the bottom - waaaaaa! I guess that's the Princess Leia approach.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yeah. You know, there's something kind of sad about that. But, you know, everywhere you look in this situation, you know, the system just seems so broken because, you know, what do you do - how do you get a jury for, say, a case like the O.J. case, where it lasts forever? I mean how do you get people that are willing to commit that much time?

CONAN: I think they're people who work for the government.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Maybe. Maybe. I mean, look, I'm a writer. I stay home. You know, I don't do anything and I still don't want to show up.

CONAN: Nevertheless, if you're called next time, you'll be eligible in what -another year?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yes. It's funny. Right after or, you know, towards the end of that week I was saying, I'm telling you, if I get out of this, next time I get one of these jury summons, I'm just tossing it. Of course now I'm thinking, oh no, I got to do my duty. Gotta do your duty.

CONAN: And what happens if you get called for, like, a grand jury and that's, you know, that's a big commitment in time?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, you know, that would be the end of the world, as you were just talking about.

CONAN: Talking about the previous segment. Yes, indeed. But it could be some great investigation. You could get a book out of it.

Mr. MEHLMAN: I can get a book out of a lot of other things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go to Jay. Jay is calling us from Oakland.

JAY: Hi. I went to jury duty, reported to jury duty in Oakland one time, fully intending to dodge it. And the judge said something that changed my mind, and I stuck around. And what he said was he knew that people tried to avoid jury duty and he said, look, if everyone who - if everyone who could avoid it avoided it, we'd end up with a system not of trial by jury but rather of trial by people who weren't smart enough to avoid jury duty. And that got to me. So I stuck around and ended up getting rejected anyway. But that argument appealed to me. So I stayed around.

CONAN: And have you since been back?

JAY: No. I have not been back. But I don't like that we have a system that was based strictly on jury trial by a group of people who weren't clever enough to get out of it.

CONAN: And put yourself in the seat of the defendant, perhaps, well, slightly different, maybe not foolish enough to represent yourself, but nevertheless -who would you want on your jury?

JAY: Well, I guess too much of my opinion about that is based on movies like "12 Angry Men," and you know, movies about the jury experience.

CONAN: Clearly you want Henry Fonda on jury.

JAY: I would love to have Henry Fonda, yes.

CONAN: Peter Mehlman�

JAY: Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jay. Appreciate it. And Peter Mehlman, since we're not likely to get Hank Fonda or Peter Fonda on our next jury, what will happen if you do get called again? You're going to stick it through?

Mr. MEHLMAN: As I sit in the comfort of NPR West, I say yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Did you find out what happened in the case, by the way?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Interesting, yes, I did. Because when the article came out, someone who was involved in the case actually contacted me through email.

CONAN: And?

Mr. MEHLMAN: And I found out that she was convicted on one of the counts. And the interesting thing was, they were 11 to one on the other count.

CONAN: And so the hung jury on the count.

Mr. MEHLMAN: And the funny thing is the one person of that 11 to one�

CONAN: Juror number six.

Mr. MEHLMAN: No. Somebody. But it was somebody who�

CONAN: Peter Mehlman, we got to go.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Yes.

CONAN: This is NPR News.

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