What I did on jury duty

Sitting in one of those hard seats in the cavernous central jury room of the George L. Allen Sr. courts building in downtown Dallas, I knew only two things for certain: That my day was shot to hell; and that I was bored out of my mind.

Well, things change.
It was Tuesday, the day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and it seemed every judge in Dallas County was in need of a jury. The room was packed with people--all of them good, stoic souls, sitting quietly with their novels and their knitting, patiently awaiting their separate fates.

I, on the other hand, was not feeling patient at all. This was my third appearance here in less than a year, and while I'm certainly willing to do my civic duty, three times in 10 months is a bit much--especially since I never get picked anyway. After all, nobody wants a nosy newspaper reporter who's married to a plaintiff's lawyer on a jury panel.

Case in point: Last April, I was dispatched to a county court at law in the Records Building, where a young, perfectly able-bodied man was suing Dallas Area Rapid Transit after slipping on a bus on a rainy night. Please. Though my gut reaction--without hearing any evidence, mind you--was to side with DART, I was one of the first to raise my hand when the friendly DART lawyer asked if anyone had any preconceived notions, no matter how trivial, for or against her transit agency. "DART wastes millions of dollars of taxpayer money," I said, offering my honest opinion, "and nobody is going to ride a train that goes 45 miles an hour and stops at every intersection."

I was out of there in 15 minutes.
So last week I was impatient, so impatient that upon my arrival that morning I begged the jury room clerks to put me on a panel right away--pack me off upstairs for a good, hard grilling and a quick strike so I'd be back at work by lunch.

At 10:15 a.m., my prayers were answered--or so I thought. I was summoned to the clerks' office where a group of us were told that our services were badly needed--halfway across the county in Oak Cliff. My heart sank.

The clerk, a woman named Diane Garza, handed me a form letter. "You have been selected to go to the justice of the peace court indicated below," the letter stated. "You will need to provide your own transportation to this court."

I quickly looked to see to which court I was going. My heart soared. "Report to: Justice of the Peace Jones."

Some people have no luck.
Take, for instance, the Hon. Thomas G. Jones.
Here's a man who has been hauled down before the Dallas County grand jury three times in the past year, once for investigation of official oppression and twice for perjury. (Through what I can only attribute to sheer luck and good political connections, he's been no-billed every time.) The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct is investigating him. And since June I've written four columns about his gross incompetence--only Walker Railey and the new sports arena have so captured my attention.

Jones has yelled at me, threatened to have me thrown out of his court, and refused to let me see his court files.

Now, with a fresh new year upon us--with all its attendant opportunities to wipe dirty slates clean--Jones gets me for jury duty. Small world. And quite the wonderful opportunity to see--up close and without fear of the boot--more of this guy's miserable judicial handiwork.

"We are ready for the civil and small-claims docket," the judge said that morning, employing a deadly serious tone as he presided over a generally empty courtroom. The only people there, besides the 12 of us on the jury panel, were four young Hispanics in the front row who looked completely and utterly lost.

"But first I would like to say for those of you not blessed to live in this area, welcome to Oak Cliff, Texas, the finest place in the city," Jones continued, apparently unaware of the central jury room's standard practice of sending him people who live as close to the court as possible. In fact, we were all from this area.

"I am Judge Thomas G. Jones, and to my right is Chief Don Stafford," Jones intoned, launching into a gratuitous description of bailiff Stafford's yeomanlike work history--specifically "31 years and two months" with the Dallas Police Department. "He heard that I needed some help over here so he took retirement and came over here to serve as our bailiff. Because of his help, we were recently, through the indication of the commissioners' court, cited as the No. 1 court in Dallas County," Jones continued. "We were very pleased about that."

Too bad the county commissioners have no frigging idea what he's talking about. "No. 1?" one of them told me when I later asked them about Jones' brag. "No. 1 at what?"

Perhaps Jones noticed my feverish note-taking--or my nonsense detector flashing wildly. I don't know. But a few moments later, he toned it down considerably. "You did come to the No. 1 J.P. court in Dallas County--as far as the paperwork we get," Jones said.

Wrong again, oh robed one.
Yes, the county number-crunchers do rank the justices of the peace. That's how they determine staff sizes in those courts. But the rankings are not based on paperwork generated; they're based on man-hours spent on various tasks. While Jones' court certainly works up a storm--in considerable part on private companies' hot-check cases, which he shamelessly poaches from other precincts--he's no Al Cercone, the downtown justice of the peace who is officially No. 1 in that modest regard.

Details, details.
Actually, Jones' shamelessly inaccurate brag (I can only imagine what he says when there are no reporters around) was not the highlight of his speech. His decision to summarily dismiss all of us from his courtroom was definitely more eyebrow-raising. "The case for which you were summoned--a continuance was granted because the attorney had to be in federal court," Jones said clumsily. That's why he had chatted us up so much, he explained. "I didn't want you to feel your time was being wasted."

NoCR> problem. After all, what's a coupla hours out of your workday when you can sit in an obscure strip shopping center, listening to the self-absorbed ramblings of an obscure county official?

Then again, my fellow jurors didn't know the half of it.
Knowing that Judge Jones ran this place like a Little Rascals clubhouse, I approached the bench on my way out the door to ask him if I could look at the case file of the lawsuit we didn't get to hear. I wasn't optimistic. After all, he'd never let me see a file before. (Jones was the only judge I'd encountered in 19 years' reporting experience who simply refused to allow people to inspect his court files--perhaps this country's most accessible public document.)

"Ask the bailiff," Jones said.
I asked the bailiff. He asked the judge. The judge said OK. Then the bailiff asked the chief clerk. The chief clerk then asked the bailiff if it was all right with the judge. Suddenly, I understood what it was like to star in a Three Stooges movie.

The chief clerk, a seriously ill-humored woman named Gloria McMahon, handed me the file with dagger eyes, then insisted I stand directly in front of her to review it. Opening the file jacket, I immediately noticed a fax from the defendant's lawyer stating he needed a continuance because he had to be in federal court that morning. The fax was dated January 12--four days earlier.

Now, granted, the fax had come in at 6:18 p.m. on the Friday evening before a long holiday weekend. But Jones' court had opened Tuesday morning at 8 o'clock--in plenty of time to confirm the attorney's conflict, call off the jurors, and notify the plaintiff that she wasn't going to get her long-awaited day in court after all.

Then again, this was Jones' court. "I didn't know in time to stop the jury," McMahon told me icily. Three hours wasn't enough time? I asked. "The fax was in my mailbox," she said.

As McMahon and I talked, I noticed a woman standing near us, taking in every word. It turned out that this was none otCR>her than the plaintiff herself, a 59-year-old widowed mother of eight named Dorothy Thomas who had taken off a day from her job at Texas Instruments to be here for her big trial.

Thomas was listening intently to what I was asking Gloria because she was hoping to learn something--anything--about the small-claims case she had filed 19 months before in this court. When Thomas asked questions, she told me later, she never got answers, and she didn't have a lawyer. She was thrilled that somebody--even a person she didn't know--was getting answers out of these people.

Thomas had filed her case on June 21, 1994. She was suing an ex-boyfriend named Cary Holland, whom she had met at D/FW International Airport one weekend in 1989 when she was standing at a huge picture window watching airplanes land, and he was working baggage for American Airlines.

Their relationship lasted four years. During that time, Thomas spent money on her honey. According to bills she filed with the court, she bought Holland a $2,000 diamond ring from Corrigan's and two pairs of shoes from Larry's Shoes; she loaned him $200; and she obtained a mobile phone for him--she signed for it, he paid the bills, the records say. On Valentine's Day in 1993, she says, he dumped her. He also kept the ring, which was not paid off, and the phone, which he kept using but for which he promptly stopped paying.

Thomas called him. She wrote him. She didn't get her stuff back. So she sued him, asking for $5,000 to cover everything.

Pretty simple case. Or at least it should have been.
It took three months to serve notice that Holland was being sued. Then again, he wasn't served. Another American Airlines employee--a man named Kerry Holland--was actually served with papers.

It was kind of a dual screwup--the citation had the wrong address on it; the Tarrant County deputy constable didn't think to ask Kerry Holland how to spell his name before handing over the papers.

That deputy constable, David Woodruff, quickly learned tCR>he error of his ways. A woman in American Airlines' legal department called him a few days later with the bad news. She told Woodruff that she'd call Jones' office to alert them to the mistake. Just to make sure, Woodruff called the court, too.

Jones' court has no record of either call. Nothing was done to correct the problem.

A few weeks later, on September 23, Jones held the trial as planned. No one named Holland--Kerry or Cary--showed up. Jones ruled against Holland and in favor of Thomas.

Six months later, with no payment from Holland in sight, Judge Jones sent Deputy Constable Woodruff a writ of execution--in other words, an order to go get the $5,000 or, if Holland didn't have the money, to haul off $5,000 worth of Holland's possessions.

Woodruff, of course, was confused.
"Officer Woodruff of Tarrant County called re: writ of execution he has to file," a May 2, 1995 notation in the court file states. "Not sure which Holland to serve at American Airlines."

Again, Woodruff explained the screwup with the two Hollands. This time, he also faxed a written summary of events to the court. The court spent the next month corresponding with the county clerk's office to expunge the judgment against Cary Holland--which was improper because Cary had never been served notice of his trial.

Then the court started all over again from scratch.
On May 10, Deputy Constable Woodruff received his third citation for Cary Holland. But by this time--almost a year after Thomas filed her lawsuit--Holland had left American Airlines, and with the element of surprise long gone, Holland avoided civil process at his Fort Worth home.

Eight months passed with no activity in the case. Finally, the second trial was set for January 16. Thomas showed up. We jurors showed up. Even Holland showed up. Holland's lawyer didn't.

When I later called Holland's lawyer, Roger Turner, he declined to discuss the case. "I wouldn't want to talk to the press about this," he said. "I have no authority from my client to do that." I'd be happy to talk to his client, I explained, but he'd left American Airlines, and his home number was not listed. Would Turner contact him for me? "No, I won't."

Sitting in her Duncanville home last weekend, Dorothy Thomas was bewildered by it all. She had not gotten her trial; she had no date for another trial; and now, according to what I had seen in her court file that day, Judge Jones considered the case over. "Plaintiff and defendant agreed to settle out of court and will submit agreement to court through defendant's attorney," Gloria McMahon wrote in the file jacket that day.

That's news to Thomas. "Cary asked me in court that day if I would consider settling the case, and I said I'd listen to what he had to say," Thomas said. "He said he'd have his lawyer call me, but it's been almost a week, and I haven't heard anything. Knowing how Cary's done me in the past, he probably thinks this is going to go away.

"I feel like I'm back where I started," she added. "I am so disgusted about all of this. I was just telling my son that I need to call the court on Monday and say, 'Where does this go?' because they really didn't explain anything to me--what my rights were or what I was waiving by agreeing to talk to the lawyer."

Welcome to justice, J.P. Jones-style, Ms. Thomas.

Two days after my cameo in Jones' court, I went back to the central jury room. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that none of this was a coincidence. Surely, the jury-room clerks had put me in Jones' court as a joke. Right?

"It was really just luck of the draw," jury clerk Faye Henderson told me. "We look at people's zip codes when we look for people to send out to the J.P. courts, and you had an Oak Cliff zip code. So you were sent out there."

Still, Henderson and I figured the odds of my getting assigned to Jones were pretty small. The county had mailed 1,900 summonses for jury duty that day. Of that number, 415 people showed up to serve (the rest either had bad addresses, or weren't citizens, or had felony records, or simply took an exemption or a powder.)

Of the 415 of us who showed, 60 of us went to justice-of-the-peace courts out in the hinterlands, 36 of us to three Oak Cliff courts. Of those three courts, Jones' was the least likely to get me because it was the farthest from my home.

It was an insanely busy day for the jury clerks. In fact, they ran out of jurors by 11 a.m. and had to start calling in standbys.

And while those standbys were getting those calls, I was sitting out in South Oak Cliff in a court that didn't need me with a judge who pretty much screws up everything he touches.

All because of the magic of zip codes. "See, nobody was picking on you," Henderson told me.

She was right. But somebody up there sure was picking on Thomas Jones.

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Laura Miller