The Reluctant Juror, the Dowager, and Dr. Betty

This week I have been summoned to jury duty.

I arrived at the courthouse yesterday with my wife’s death certificate in hand figuring I’d play the grief card to attempt to weasel out of my civic obligation. Once through security and ushered by a bailiff to the seat next to the man in front of me, I looked around the room, which was nicely appointed, official-looking but not ominous. There were four rows of benches holding five potential jurors per bench. I’d say maybe 200 people had been summoned.

Eventually (it seems a traffic incident on the Ravenel Bridge delayed the start), an assistant clerk, a tall, slender man who appeared around 30, welcomed us and made a few opening remarks. I had seen him milling around with his buzzcut temples, spiky crown, and angular beard, all of which created a sort of villainous vibe, like he could have been cast as an undercover Stasi agent in a coldwar movie. However, his voice was warm, friendly. He thanked us for our service, acknowledged the inconvenience. He mentioned that this was a propitious week to have been chosen (randomly from voter registration and DMV data bases) because there were only two trials on the docket, both civil litigation cases, whereas a typical week would feature 3 criminal and 3 civil cases.

Once the judge arrived, each of us had to stand when called and give our juror number, age, occupation, marital status, and if married, the occupation of our spouse.

This procedure seemed somewhat intrusive. Age, I can see, occupation okay, but why marital status?

Juror 147.   My name’s Bottom. I’m 25 years old, a weaver. My wife is a charwoman.

This occasion marked the first time I had to officially acknowledge that now I’m single, and I hated it. Although many proudly shared specifics about where they worked – “I’m a third grade teacher for Berkeley Counter Schools and my husband an electrical engineer at Folsom Manufacturing” – I decided to give as little info as possible.

“Juror 238. Wesley Moore, 64, a teacher, a widower.” [1]

As the preliminaries moved slowly along, it became apparent even if I could be excused this go around, I’d be transferred to a future term. The last time I had served on a jury was in 1978 when Judy and I were newlyweds and I could walk from our apartment on Limehouse Street to the Courthouse on Broad.  Even though I had brought along Kaufman’s translation of The Portable Nietzsche to give the false impression to lawyers that I believed “[i]n the last analysis, even the best man is evil: in the last analysis, even the best woman is bad,” I was chosen for 3 trials, the last right out Flannery O’Connor.

***

As it turned out, I served as the foreman of that jury, the only non-African American
represented. I don’t remember the official name of the case, but it might have well be dubbed Rich Dowager Whose Address Contains the Word Plantation vs. Dr. Betty, doll surgeon.

The Dowager was represented by her son-in-law whose day job was assisting Senator Strom Thurmond in Washington DC, and Dr. Betty’s counsel was a public defender, a young dark-haired woman who looked as if she might have been Joyce Carol Oates’s first cousin.

Here’s the gist: The Dowager had brought an 18th century doll that had been in the family since – um – the 18th century.  Somehow the doll’s nose had been knocked off, and Dr. Betty was to replace the nose so no one would know the difference.

Dr. Betty, who referred herself in the third person (“Dr. Betty would never do a thing like that”) was probably in her 60’s with poorly dyed unkempt blonde hair. She wore a thin dress with a white cardigan even though it was in the summer. Essentially she looked like the type who might take care of thirty cats roaming around a yard strewn with inoperable automobiles and cast away washing machines.

The Dowager was seeking $5,000 in real damages and $5,000 in punitive damages because, as it turned out, when the Dowager had come 2 years later to retrieve the doll, it was gone, allegedly sold by Dr. Betty to someone in a town near Columbia for what she claimed was $5.

Judge Stoney: So you don’t remember the name of the town. Could it have been Cayce?

Dr. Betty: Yes, yes, that was the name of the man I sold it to. His name was Casey.

Oh, if I only could create a gif of Judge Stoney’s expression.

Through the course of the trial it came to light that an 18th century doll who has had a nose job possesses only sentimental value, that Dr. Betty’s phone records showed she had called So-and-So Plantation in Beaufort trying to get the Dowager to pick up the doll, which Dr. Betty had repaired.  It had been two years, and she had not received any remuneration.   However, in South Carolina you can’t lawfully sell another’s unclaimed property unless you announce that intention in the newspaper.

At one point the Dowager told of visiting Dr. Betty’s shop, peeking in one of the windows,  and described its squalor in tones of obvious disgust.

Dr. Betty: That’s not my shop. That’s where I live.

Dowager: My God, you poor woman!

I swear, I’m not making this up.

Once we went into our deliberations, my colleagues, who had taken to calling me “Professor” [2] unanimously wanted to find Dr. Betty innocent, but I explained to them we shouldn’t do that because according to the law she was guilty because she hadn’t published her intent to sell the Dowager’s unclaimed property.

“Look, I said, “we can award her one penny in real damages and nothing in punitive damages,” but we have to find her guilty.”

“No, 5 dollars,” one of the jurors said, “that’s what she sold it for.”

We all agreed. The deliberations may have taken ten minutes.

When I had to stand and deliver our verdict, the Dowager smiled, and Dr. Betty looked incensed, the opposite reactions of what I would have imagined.

***

A clerk’s announcement of who were being selected for the pool ended my reverie of long dead Dr. Betty and the Dowager, and sure enough I was selected to join the pool of potential jurors.

Several of the chosen got out of it by approaching the judge and telling her their sad stories, but I didn’t try.

Charleston  County Courtroom

The Bailiff ushered us upstairs to the courtroom pictured above where a different judge, an older bald-pated white-haired fellow from Edisto Beach presided. He announced the case and asked a series of questions: for example, were we kin to any of these people, had we ever received their professional services, etc.

Finally, the judge asked if there were any other issues that might prejudice us, and I approached the bench.

Huddled there with the judge and the attorneys, I disclosed that I had taught one of the parties’ son and daughter. The judge asked me if he thought this might prejudice me. I said in a perfect, rational, Euclidian world it would not but that in this messier world I had a great deal of affection for both of this person’s children. The judge seemed sympathetic.

Of course, I was struck and set free, and here I sit hoping against hope that when I call in this evening at six, the message will be to call in Wednesday at 6.  At the very worst, I’ll only be involved in one trial.


[1] As it turned out, I was the oldest person there; the youngest was 18 but looked all of 12.

[2] I was an adjunct at Trident Technical College at the time teaching composition, Business English, and Technical Report Writing.

4 thoughts on “The Reluctant Juror, the Dowager, and Dr. Betty

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