Noe Valley Voice May 2008

Florence's Family Album: A Call to Duty

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

Editor's Note: The Voice first published this essay in June 1995, when columnist Florence Holub, now 89, was wrestling with her fourth jury summons in seven years.

Again? I had already served in 1990, then in 1992, so I was surprised to receive another jury duty summons last March. Six and a half years ago when I first served on a trial, I felt it was my duty since I had the time and because I had been excused from serving when my children were small.

But now I am busy leading tours at the M.H. de Young Museum and Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. I also try to be available for my brother's widow, Margaret, who is legally blind.

Margaret has some peripheral vision, but she cannot read the streetcar
numbers, nor can she see street signs. Unfortunately, strangers rarely come to her aid, because her beautiful blue eyes show no signs of impairment. She depends upon me to accompany her to numerous doctors' appointments, as well as anyplace else she needs to go via the Muni system.

When the clerk of the Superior Court sent me a summons questionnaire last spring, I was slow to fill it out, and when I finally did get around to it, I said that I would not be able to serve right away, as I was otherwise occupied, leading museum tours for school children. I suggested they check back with me during the summer months.

Perhaps they did not like my attitude, for within a few days, much to my consternation, a summons to appear in Superior Court arrived.

It was raining on March 17, which dampened my already dismal spirits. When I arrived at the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street, I joined a long line of prospective jurors that stretched halfway down the block.

The line wasn't moving, so a group of ladies nearby began speculating as to the nature of the case before us. The first lady suggested that this must be the case of the seven Mission District gang members charged with brutally assaulting two young women in a park at the foot of 24th Street in 1993. She expected to be excused because she was the only bookkeeper for a small company, and this trial, she predicted, would be a lengthy ordeal.

The rest of us were silently considering our options, searching for plausible excuses, when the African-American woman standing behind me declared that, if chosen, she would wear a blond wig and dark glasses to avoid being recognized by vengeful convicted gang members!

Another lady stated vehemently that she would refuse to serve. These were my sentiments exactly, but it didn't look like I had much choice. I tried to console myself, thinking that no lawyer would want a juror as strongly opinionated as I.

Our line inched slowly into the building, through the metal detectors, up the crammed elevators, and into the large (350-person capacity) assembly room, which was already so full we had to stand in the aisles and foyer.

They gave each of us a 30-page questionnaire. I had to use the flat top of the garbage receptacle next to me to write on. When asked about my feelings concerning rape, I wrote, "These despicable acts of violence against members of my gender are inexcusable and indefensible." I added that I did not have an open mind on the subject.

In response to the query about whether I would be offended by explicit medical photographs of the teenage victims, I promised to throw up before the court. (And I could, too, like I did when I was a teenager, and my father tried to make me eat string beans, which I hated.)

When the judge entered the room, she introduced all of the lawyers in the case, then read off the vile charges against the accused as unconcernedly as if she were reading a shopping list. I cringed.

After we turned in our papers, we waited until the clerk came out and read off the names of those people who were excused. The relieved citizens marched triumphantly away, while the rest of us were told to return to court in a week.

For me, that day in court a week later started out with a bang. When I entered the room, I rushed to claim the only vacant seat left in the prospective jurors' gallery. But when I sat on the fold-down seat, it collapsed, depositing me, alarmed but unharmed, on the floor. Others might have suffered the same mishap, had I not warned them in the nick of time.

On the far side of the bulletproof glass partition, the judge was seated on the bench. To her right sat the defendants, behind their lawyers. To her left sat the jury panel.

Throughout the day, each lawyer for the defense relentlessly interrogated the potential jurors--under the gaze of the accused-- asking questions that the jurors had already answered on paper.

When it was after five o'clock, the last lawyer stood up and announced that he would not speak at that time. Much to the judge's surprise, the audience in the gallery burst into applause. The judge sternly directed us to return in the morning.

Unfortunately, I had agreed to accompany Margaret to her doctor on that day. I'd thought that even if I were called back to court, I'd be excused by noon. This didn't happen, however, and poor Margaret suffered a nerve-wracking, unaided journey to her physician.

The next day, the judge read off the names of more people who were to be excused. I listened breathlessly until she uttered the prayed-for name -- mine!
I was given standby status, which meant I was permitted to go home but had to phone in each day for the next seven days, until my two-week sentence was up.

Five days passed uneventfully, but on the sixth -- just one day short of freedom! -- the recorded message directed me to appear in court that afternoon.

I didn't go.

Instead, I kept my date with two classes of delightful school children who had been scheduled to take tours at the Academy of Sciences.

Afterward, worried about the consequences of my defiance, I asked our friend, neighbor, and successful lawyer Wendy Tice-Wallner if she could tell me what happens to shirkers. Wendy couldn't answer my question precisely, but she kindly offered to defend me!

When a summons to appear at another court session arrived in April, I decided to enlist the help of my sister-in-law, and get myself off the jury hook once and for all. I revealed my plan to Margaret, who was a bit reluctant at first -- not wishing to be fitted for an orange jumpsuit. But I assured her that she would not have to say a word, just accompany me to court.

I needed a cane to carry out my plan, so I fashioned one from materials around the house -- a wooden dowel, which I tapered at one end and painted white, and a flat piece of wood, which I screwed on top of the dowel, to be a handle.

A day later, the two of us appeared at the Hall of Justice. Margaret wore dark glasses and held her cane high. I solicitously gripped her elbow as I steered her down the halls.

The cane worked miracles. People parted like the Red Sea. When we reached the waiting room desk, I told my sad but true story: I was absolutely indispensable to my blind sister-in-law, and therefore would be unable to serve as a juror. The sympathetic clerk asked me to fill out another form, but prom-ised to put in a good word for me with the judge.

When I phoned in later for the verdict, I got the good news: I was a free woman! And I didn't feel the least bit guilty!