Wednesday, February 01, 2017

`And Here the Fell Attorney Prowls for Prey'

As a newspaper reporter I covered courts in Indiana and New York at the municipal, county, state and federal levels for about five years. It was an education in human nature. I shed a few illusions, and you can’t ask for more than that out of a job. I enjoyed the raffishness of courthouse life, the mob of lawyers, defendants, judges, cops, bail bondsmen, bailiffs, clerks, fixers, trial freaks, reporters and hangers-on. I learned to deal in the currency of information. People talked when they wanted something, even if only your attention. As a reporter, the trust I could earn was always qualified, never absolute. I was forever in the audience, not on stage, and I’m comfortable in the role. I’m not a crusader or advocate by nature. A writer is a spectator.

For the first time I received a summons for jury duty, and spent much of Tuesday in a room that resembled a lecture hall, with theater seats and a smart board. I was in the fourth pool of thirty potential jurors called to the tenth floor of the courthouse. When the elevator doors opened, I was back in that old familiar world. Defendants, many of them tattooed and with exotic haircuts (in one case, tattoos instead of a haircut), mixed with attorneys. Some of the latter were expensively suited and coiffed; others, ill-shaven and strictly off the rack. The defendants looked worried or feigned bravado. The attorneys feigned compassion and looked distracted. The deputy sheriffs who escorted us were friendlier than I remembered. They had us sit in three rows of pew-like benches at the back of the courtroom.

The judge, whose surname is Bull, lectured us for half an hour, mostly on the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The prosecutor took over and had to be told by the judge to hurry it up. The defense attorney was more articulate and charming, and tipped his strategy when he asked if we, as jurors, could believe a man might have to defend himself by hitting a woman. The charge was misdemeanor assault. Defendant and complainant shared the same surname and probably were husband and wife, but I’ll never know for sure.  I was potential juror number twenty-nine of thirty, and only six jurors were called. The reporter and nosy parker in me felt a brief pang of disappointment. The corridor, as we left the courtroom, was a Hogarthian swarm, and I thought of those lines from Dr. Johnson’s “London”:  

“Here Malice, Rapine, Accident, conspire,
And now a Rabble Rages, now a Fire;
Their Ambush here relentless Ruffians lay,
And here the fell Attorney prowls for Prey.” 

In his Dictionary, Johnson defines the adjective “fell” as “cruel; barbarous; inhuman” and “savage; ravenous; bloody.”

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