‘You are hereby summoned…’

A tale of the transformative power of serving on a jury in Greene County

– WRITTEN BY LEE HEFFERNAN

“You are hereby summoned…” – four simple words that have the power to create feelings of dread when one receives the single page notice of jury duty demanding you show up at the courthouse on a specific day and time. The government does not ask or invite. It demands.

Most people rush to think of a way to get out of this civic duty. Let’s face it, it’s an interruption of our daily schedule, it is by its nature a forced immersion into a group of complete strangers, and it doesn’t pay well. My summons required me to appear the Monday after Thanksgiving, which admittedly, tainted my enjoyment of the holiday.

As the daughter of an Augusta lawyer who practiced for more than 60 years until the age of 93, I was well versed on how to get out of serving. Typically, just informing the court that my father was an attorney worked. The last time I was summoned to jury duty was in 2003 when I lived in New York City. Needless to say, the “experience” of jury duty was quite different in downtown Manhattan versus downtown Greensboro, Georgia.

The courthouses alone were strikingly different The NYC courthouse is the famous backdrop for thousands of episodes of “Law & Order” and quite intimidating. The building’s mass and scale give it the appearance of a temple with broad set of steps sweeping up from Foley Square to a massive Corinthian colonnade covering the front of the courthouse.

While not as imposing as its Yankee cousin, the Greene County Courthouse, built in 1849, sits prominently in the heart of Greensboro. It features a Greek revival style architecture with prominent white columns and a Confederate Monument on the front lawn. It has one main courtroom on the second floor, which is accessed via a set of very old, squeaky stairs, high ceilings, a functionless fireplace, poor acoustics, and that musty smell of an antique store. I loved it. As a Southern gal, this was small town Georgia at its best.

On my first day of service, I was still suffering from a bit of a Thanksgiving food coma, but showed up early at 8:45 a.m. and sat patiently on the uncomfortable wooden benches waiting for my name to be called. Unlike New York City where you wait among hundreds of people, the Greene County courtroom had around 75 people reflecting the true demographic diversity of our county.

Our judge was Brenda Trammell, who has a reputation as a fierce litigator and one of the top divorce lawyers in the state. The female members of our jury loved how she “blinged up” her otherwise boring black robe with striking necklaces and jewelry. She reminded me a lot of my mother, who was referred to during my Augusta childhood as “the warden.” Trammell displayed an obvious witty sense of humor coupled with a firm management style in her courtroom. She was someone “you’d like to have a drink with.” Should she run for president,  she’d have my vote.

The first case was a divorce. I was not called to be a juror for that one although after watching the couple involved in the lawsuit, whose courtroom interaction resembled two magnets repelling each other, I kind of wanted to know more about their story. But that was not my fate.

The second case was a suit against the city of Greensboro involving residential property mistreatment by the county. My name was called. I quickly ran through the potential questions they might ask so I could avoid being selected. The attorney for the city was a classic Southern character that seemed to be plucked from the pages of a John Grisham novel. Thinking back on one of the questions he asked during voir dire, it was apparent how I could have dodged the jury bullet. He asked us with a face that looked like he had just ingested a rotten egg, “Are any of you tree-huggers, fans of the EPA, or pro-environment groups?” In the South, admitting that in a public forum would give you an automatic scarlet letter. We all shook our heads in unison – no way would we be a part of that liberal group of crazies. Bingo, we just earned our place on the jury.

“I wish I could bottle that amazing feeling each of us had and send it along with every jury summons mailed every day. I feel certain if I could do that, not only would people not attempt to dodge jury duty,  they would look forward to it.”

The trial began after the judge issued her admonitions to us. The case involved two elderly African-American brothers, Tony and Flenard Rowland, who were life-long residents of Greene County. They had been tangled up in four years of legal action against the city over damage done to their property from a re-routing of water and sewage pipes. This re-routing was funded by a federal grant to address flooding in a housing project which was located “upstream” from the Rowlands’ property. This project created a plumbing “joint” under the main road and unfortunately redirected both storm and sewage pipe flow right onto the Rowlands’ property as the waters flowed to Town Creek.

Ironically, Tony Rowland, had worked for the city as the water department supervisor for more than 30 years. He was the city employee who did all the “dirty work” with the county’s water and sewage systems. He knew where every city pipe was located; it’s condition and how to fix it. It was well-known among locals that if you couldn’t get help calling 911, you called Tony. He would show up regardless of time or weather conditions to help the citizens of the community.

He and his brother, Flenard, owned a little over six acres, part of which was next to Town Creek. They were proud of their property and testified how much it meant to them, their children and grandchildren. Before the city improvement project, their land was a lush haven with old trees, and rolling, green grounds. After the city’s plumbing was re-routed, their land was saturated in standing sewer water and debris — including the insects and snakes that come along with those conditions.

The Rowland brothers had a warm, almost elegant presence, arriving each day dapperly dressed complete with suits, ties and polished shoes. Their demeanor was calm and soulful. Flenard had to use a cane to walk which made it a challenge getting around the courtroom.

Their attorney was Chandra Jones, a scrappy female lawyer who was literally a one-woman show – no team, no assistant; just Ms. Jones. She was small in size but packed a punch. Her relentless examination of witnesses and paperwork often exhausted and frustrated us every time she said, “I now ask you to refer to Exhibit….” but in the end, she was doing her job and doing it well even though the content was boring as hell. That wasn’t her fault.

We learned this case had been appealed numerous times and the city had already been found guilty. Our task as the jury was to evaluate damages, determine the amount if proven valid and award the Plaintiff.

We sat through four long days listening to witnesses, cross-examinations, the reading of reams of grant paperwork and legal documents, viewing flood plain maps, FEMA documents, video and photographs. It was beyond exhaustive. I woke up each morning with a sense of dread knowing that the next eight to nine hours would be spent hearing volumes of exhibits and bureaucratic finger-pointing.

Oddly enough, the collective opinion of the jury was formed on the first day when the attorney for the Defendant (John Grisham’s “good ole boy”) opened his mouth and spoke his first words. He drew a crude map of the area on a large white pad propped on an easel. He highlighted the area in question along with the location of the Rowlands’ property. As he pointed out the manner of the water flow from “upstream” down to the Rowlands’ land, he stated that “a smart man would buy property on elevated land and a stupid man would buy below that.” This was followed by his discrediting of Tony Rowland’s experience working as a supervisor for the water department for 30+ years. He categorized it as “not having any formal degree or civil engineering experience” and that “operating a backhoe does not make you an expert.”

You see, experience-rich Tony Rowland had warned the city prior to the water system “improvements” that the flow would not be optimal. He recommended that instead of creating a joint in the water and sewage lines (effectively forcing the water to make a right turn), they should instead use the ditches running along the road to install straight piping all the way down to Town Creek.

The composition of the jurors was very interesting. As someone who worked in marketing for more than 30 years, I’m always fascinated by demographics and consumer behavior. Our group was comprised of 14 people (12 jurors plus 2 alternates); nine were white, five were black. There were eight men (two of whom were alternates) and six women. The ages ranged from early 20’s to early 70’s and the socio-economic diversity was wide ranging as well. You had the guys who played on the private golf courses and the groundskeeper who cut that very grass – quite the cross-section. I was impressed by each of the jurors who all showed up on time and prepared regardless of work schedules (we had one night shift employee), children or any other “life” situation. I also found the positive nature of the group to be inspiring — some would bring in doughnuts, and snacks for everyone while others would automatically put on a fresh pot of coffee in the jury room and offer to serve the others. The room had an “old school” automatic drip coffee machine, the powdered additives and only one instrument with which to stir your beverage — a plastic fork – which everyone passed around the room each day.

The one thing that was apparent with the entire group — we all wanted to do the right thing. As much as we complained about the boring case content and the piles of exhibits, we all listened carefully, took notes and made the best of our situation. We all got along as a team, sharing laughs, life experiences, and our observations. We also had what I refer to as our wonderful “characters.” One was a middle-aged white guy who had lived in Greensboro his entire life and knew the city’s skeletons and where their closets were. We had two younger black guys who always gave us a laugh everyday — their sense of humor was priceless. We had a local pastor in his 70’s we nicknamed “Rev” who ended up being named our jury foreman  by a unanimous, immediate vote. We had several younger women who had endless energy, optimism, and generosity. We had some old souls too — the quiet ones who were wise and patient. Add to that a few “country club” men and you get a truly diverse cross section of America. We could not have asked for a better mix of personalities and backgrounds.

On the afternoon of Day Four, the attorneys finished their summations and we were provided deliberation instructions from our kick-ass lady judge. We retreated to the jury room, eager to wrap things up and have this be our last day of service. We had all pretty much made up our minds that the Rowland brothers would be awarded damages on day one — it was now up to us to determine what and how much.

Our much-loved foreman “Rev,” asked if he could start our deliberations with a prayer, which the group openly welcomed, and we bowed our heads. His moving words asking God for guidance were so powerful I got goose bumps. Admittedly, having been raised as a Catholic, you get accustomed to uniform, memorized prayers,  so when you hear the creativity of a “custom” prayer so elegantly phrased and delivered, you’re inspired and moved. We had all noticed during the week that when witnesses were sworn in, there was no longer a Bible present on which the left hand would be placed and that the final words of swearing-in verbiage “so help me God” had become optional. No one in the jury pool was overtly “religious” even though we were in the heart of the Southern Bible Belt — but everyone shared a spiritualty and respect for beliefs. I have to say in a world where the removal of all things “God” or “Christian” seems to be our new social standard; It was refreshing to know that we all didn’t agree with the “politically correct masses” who seek to sanitize the existence of any religious history. Amen.

As we began discussing what damages would be awarded to the Rowlands, it was seemingly easy and without disagreement. We gave each brother compensation for the depreciated value of their property due to city water damage. We also awarded them compensation for every item they listed on their property that was lost or damaged. We agreed to pay all legal expenses incurred by the Rowlands’ attorney who had worked for years on contingency.

Finally, we arrived at awarding punitive damages. This amount was the one where we had the most personal discretion versus placing a value on a riding mower. I knew we couldn’t be reckless and award millions even though we wanted to. I had given this a lot of thought over the course of the four-day period and wanted to share my opinion as soon as we opened discussion of this item. I started by reminding the group that this case had gone on for over four years — more than 1500 days. I asked the team to think about what “value” they might place on having a clean, welcoming residence to come home to every day.

Having a home, which provides a sanctuary from the stresses of work or life in general is something most of us take for granted. Our home provides a mental reset each day, a place to relax, enjoy family and interests whether it be gardening, cooking or just watching television. Consider the Rowlands, who for over four years lived with sitting sewer drainage, snakes, insects, flooding, debris and mud. Their grandkids could no longer play on the land as they once did and just getting in and out of their front doors was a challenge.

We tried to be realistic. In the end, we awarded Tony punitive damages of $100,000 since his property was on higher ground and had suffered less destruction than his brother Flenard. We awarded Flenard $150,000. We all collectively agreed on all damages, the “Rev” completed the verdict paperwork, signed and dated it.

By now, everyone in the small room was buzzing with energy…we were literally changing the lives of two people. “Rev” handed the paperwork to the bailiff and we waited to be called into the courtroom.

The moment came and we filed into the seats we had used all week. The judge did her thing after reading our verdict and handed the paperwork to the court clerk who would read out loud our verdict. As I looked over at the frail Rowland brothers, I felt overcome with emotion, as did my fellow jurors — some were beginning to sob before the verdict was read.

Ms. Jones took the hand of Tony Rowland who then took his brother Flenard’s hand as they waited for the verdict. As soon as they heard the words that we had ruled in their favor, it was as if an emotional balloon burst. Then the clerk got to the “good part” — how much we were awarding them for damages. It was a cascading effect as each line item was read starting with property depreciation amounts, followed by the value of all the damages on their property from trees to gardening tools, culminating with Punitive Damages which caused an elated visceral reaction I will never forget. In all, the total was around $400,000. By now, most of the jury was choked up or weeping. The judge thanked us for our service and reminded us of one very important thing: how much our service on the jury was the foundation of a fair and just government.

As we left the courtroom, we each shook the hands of the Rowland brothers and they tearfully thanked us for our verdict. We said our goodbyes to fellow jurors and shared our joy with what we had just accomplished. It felt so good. I wish I could bottle that amazing feeling each of us had and send it along with every jury summons mailed every day. I feel certain if I could do that, not only would people not attempt to dodge jury duty — they would look forward to it.

Jurors are given the privilege of having a direct role in the administration of justice — it is a true “connection” to our Constitution. It is an essential part of America’s system of checks and balances. You never know when you may need the services of a jury to decide your fate. To quote Thomas Jefferson, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” I encourage everyone to view jury duty as an opportunity to create a memory that you will always treasure — I know I have. Amen.

 

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