Jury duty is a call for neighbors to come together...

Jury duty is a call for neighbors to come together and decide whether someone else who lives or works here has failed to live up to the social contract. Credit: iStock

It was a dismal prospect. In February, I was assigned to a criminal court grand jury in Riverhead, a four-week sentence of minus-degree temperatures and long, dull drives from Smithtown. As a high school teacher, I wondered how I would survive. No colleagues. No students. No usual routine. No work -- for four weeks.

But the experience did not turn out as I imagined.

My grand jury team consisted of 23 men and women selected randomly from the first day's jury pool. As grand jurors, our job was not to debate innocence or guilt. We simply decided, based on the evidence provided, if a case should go to trial. Some of the cases were complex, but most were pretty clear cut -- drunken driving, drug possession, petty larceny. In most cases, the answer was, yes, go to trial.

Daily, we sat in a jury room and looked at evidence and listened to witnesses provided by a parade of perhaps a dozen assistant district attorneys. Some of these lawyers spoke at lightning speed; others took time to explain the intricacies of the law. Our group was especially fond of one who was a fan of the New York Rangers and used downtime to joke about how he jinxed his favorite team by actually watching games. All of the prosecutors were meticulous in their research and questioning of witnesses. Seeing the legal process up close was fascinating -- and refreshing -- because it actually appears to work.

I was amazed to hear how many suspects had flat out confessed every blessed detail and then some to police without having an attorney present. Hadn't these folks ever seen "Law & Order"?

Some cases made us chuckle. Imagine listening for more than 20 minutes to a witness' fast street patter about being a robbery victim, or to a detective explain the unique body part where a suspect had hidden a drug syringe.

Other cases, however, were incredibly sordid and sad. After hearing details of rape and pornography crimes, you would never let your children use a public restroom, go to a sleepover or set up a Facebook account -- not until they are at least 25.

I also thought about grand juries that made news in the past year -- the ones in Missouri and Staten Island that declined to indict officers after the deaths of suspects. We didn't see any cases of that magnitude, but given that assistant district attorneys must work so closely with the police, I could see how difficult it might be to bring such charges.

Although my grand jury group represented many ages, sizes, colors and nationalities, we bonded almost instantly. We spent our free time kibitzing about careers, education, movies and the best places near court for lunch.

A young bride-to-be worked during downtime on sparkling wands to give to guests at her wedding. By the end of the first day, her fingertips were sore from making holes with a thumbtack in the ends of wooden dowels. The next day, another juror -- a stranger little more than 24 hours earlier -- arrived with a wooden thingamajig that he made to help her create those favors. It worked perfectly.

We shared advice about the best places to scuba dive, where to honeymoon (for the bride), even how to remove an ink stain from a juror's shirt. No one could solve the latter problem, but one juror who lived nearby offered to go home and get a clean shirt. The inked juror declined.

After four weeks, jury duty ended. A few in the group went out for a celebratory drink, a few exchanged cellphone numbers and most hurried back to their families and jobs. For a brief moment, though, it was quite remarkable to step outside of our own lives together to see the world through the lens of our legal system.

Because of my service, I won't be called again for another eight to 10 years. But, frankly, I won't mind when the jury summons comes in the mail.

Reader Barbara Wagner lives in Smithtown.