Jury duty at the Civil Courts Building: same sit, different day; plus, other St. Louis follies and foibles

The wheels of justice grind slowly, and sometimes not at all. Just ask the poor souls who are summoned for jury duty in the city of St. Louis.

If you live in the city, chances are you'll be summoned for jury duty once every three years. (Though it's called justice, believe this: A lot is left to chance.) If you live in the suburbs in St. Louis County, a summons will be issued about once every 10 years. In rural Missouri, citizens might get called once in a lifetime. The reason city folk are in such demand is simple: There are more crimes and more civil suits per capita. There are jury trials for more than 200 felonies a year in the city and for more than 200 civil suits. Those numbers are way ahead of Jackson County's and St. Louis County's, and they're for a smaller population (about 340,000) with higher proportions of juveniles and elderly.

In years past, heading downtown for the $12-a-day payday of jury duty meant surviving the dingy confines of the jury-assembly room on the eighth floor of the Civil Courts Building. That's the building that looks like the LA County courthouse shown in the opening credits to Dragnet, the '60s TV series that featured Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday. From the outside, with the columns and pyramid on top and the classic lines, the stately building is one of the taller structures downtown, virtually a 30-story building. Inside, it was -- and, in some regards, still is -- a dump. Things were so bad that the Circuit Court sued to force the city, which owns the building, to fix it up. The state Supreme Court ruled against the city, and the slow, expensive renovation began years ago.

Prospective jurors were the first to see progress, with renovated quarters featuring televisions, a smoking lounge and even updated restrooms (but don't expect much hot water). Word is that many of the courtrooms and other offices are lacking all but the barest of amenities, including temperate heating or cooling. Mayor Clarence Harmon's office announced last week that the city wants to increase the filing fee for suits by $65 per case, with the increase expected to bring in $1.3 million for fixing up the Civil Courts building (inaptly named, because criminal matters also are ruled on at the northeast corner of Market Street and Tucker Boulevard). Harmon's proposal is part of a bill that must be approved by the state Legislature.

This Monday, the 400 or so citizens who bothered to show up for jury duty were greeted with a video presentation by Julius Hunter of KMOV-TV (Channel 4). During Hunter's explanation of what is and isn't evidence, one juror tried to exit a side door, setting off an alarm. A uniformed man stood by the door and did nothing to turn the alarm off, instead waiting for a court worker to come do it. At first glance, the jurors might have expected the uniformed man to act, but then it became clear that he was an emergency medical technician from a local hospital, just another juror wearing a yellow ID badge. Jeez, if an EMT couldn't get out of jury duty, how can anybody with a less urgent job expect to get a waiver? Hard times in the city.

As the day wore on and only sporadic groups of 50 were called out and sent to various courtrooms, jurors read, watched TV or dozed. The new-and-improved assembly rooms have a first floor and a mezzanine, with a sectioned-off smoking lounge in the west end of the mezzanine. At its peak occupancy, the lounge had a thick after-the-battle smoky haze to it. The EMT was spotted inside, perhaps hanging out in case someone keeled over with a medical emergency.

The televisions, which include two big-screen TVs in the mezzanine, were tuned to Channel 4, perhaps in a deal cut in exchange for Hunter's services. (Why didn't they work a deal with Court TV?) Watching these screens became irritating, both because of the vapid programs and the frequent intrusion of a rolling scroll of information that kept reminding jurors that only parking tickets to the Kiel Parking Garage could be validated, that smoking is prohibited in the east lounge, and that bus and MetroLink tickets would be issued at the end of the day. Even Bob Barker of The Price Is Right was a welcome sight once the scroll stopped. ("Millicent gets $6.33. She did not get the car. Poor Millicent will have to take the bus back to Florida.") Faced with such limited viewing options, more than a few jurors slept. Seated two rows apart, Juror 272 and Juror 274 provided stereo snoring effects, trading off snores like a narcoleptic version of "Dueling Banjos." For these two, justice was not only blind but fast asleep. Later, as those uncalled jurors who were still awake watched Inside Edition, a few perked up for coverage of a Phoenix murder trial in which the "sleepwalking defense" was used, with the defendant unsuccessfully claiming he was sleepwalking while he did the killing. If only Jurors 272 and 274 had been picked for that jury, the guy might have walked, if'n they had stayed awake in the box.

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