Outside the closed doors of Courtroom 6A one recent Tuesday morning, 24 potential jurors waited in a line, single file. They shared anxious glances with the people in front of and behind them as they fiddled with straps on their purses and messenger bags.
When a clerk thrust the doors open at 10:30 a.m., the jurors shuffled in. One man in a gray-and- cream striped button-down shirt walked with a limp. Another woman wearing a bright floral shirt held a cane in one hand and a book in the other. None seemed eager to enter.
Jury selection is a meticulous, tedious and, at times, impersonal process — strangers are brought together in the Durham County Courthouse and, one by one, quickly questioned about their life experiences as lawyers try to decide whether they will be fair and impartial.
But, as soon became clear on this day, this same questioning can also be tricky when jurors and attorneys are all members of the same community. Sometimes, the process can even reveal unexpected connections.
Inside the courtroom, the group sat socially distanced — six in the jury box, which usually seats 12, while the rest filled the benches. Anyone not affiliated with the trial stood outside the courtroom until there was a seat available.
The plaintiff, Ahmed Chahdi, sat upright next to his attorney, Robert Perry. In a white short-sleeve button-up shirt, Chahdi was a sharp contrast to defendant Jocelyn Mack, who wore a purple dress under a cheetah print fur coat.
The two were in civil court for an incident that happened six years ago. Mack’s car collided with the wall of a convenience store where Chahdi worked as a cashier, according to Perry. Shelves fell on Chahdi and injured him. Now, Chahdi has sued Mack and another person for punitive damages.
When it was time for pretrial questioning, jury clerks passed sheets of questions to the attorneys.
“Does anyone know Judge [James] Hill? Anyone know any of the attorneys?” Perry rumbled, as he swiveled his chair to face the jurors, leaned back and crossed his legs. He held his papers in one hand and a pen in the other.
Karen Briggs, in the second row of benches, slowly raised her hand. She wore jeans and a navy cable-knit sweater that matched the color of her mask.
“You used to be my neighbor,” she said quietly.
“I used to be your neighbor?” Perry repeated. Briggs nodded.
“And I work with your wife,” Briggs added. “She substitutes at my school.”
Perry asked where she taught. He confirmed his wife works at the same school.
But Briggs wasn’t finished: “And I taught your grandson.”
The room erupted into laughter.
“All right, you did everything right then,” he responded, chuckling.
Perry then asked if Briggs, as a juror, could be “fair and impartial.”
“I’ll be honest, I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s hard to separate knowing someone for me.”
Perry deferred to the judge. “Ma’am, I think you can be fair, but I don’t want to push you into a compromising situation,” Hill said, and excused her from the case. She hurried from the room.
Perry continued questioning the jurors, splitting his attention between the six in the jury box and the six on the benches. Mack often turned her head around to look at the jurors as they answered, but Chahdi did not.
Perry asked if anyone had sued someone or been sued. One man in the box, David Efird, raised his hand. Efird explained that as a partner at the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, he had sued people on behalf of his clients.
The next topic was car accidents — if anyone had been in one, caused one or knew someone who had been involved in one. And, Perry asked, had anyone ever experienced neck injuries or seen a chiropractor.
The jurors were quiet and monotonous, but never annoyed. No heavy sighs or impatient whispers. Some even offered up details, like the date of a crash or where their chiropractor was located.
After an hour, though, only 15 prospective jurors remained, and some grew restless. One man in the box rubbed his head and shifted around in his seat. A woman on a bench picked at her nails. Even Judge Hill alternated between staring into the benches and typing at his desktop computer, the glare of the screen reflecting on his face shield.
Then, Macon Patton was called by the clerks to replace Jennifer Cameron, who could not serve on a jury in Durham County because she lives in Orange County. Patton rattled off responses to Perry’s previous questions. On his last answer, he pointed at Efird.
“My wife works in the same firm as this lawyer here,” Patton said.
“Do you know this man?” Perry asked again and motioned to Efird.
“I do not,” Patton said, shaking his head.
“But I do know his wife,” Efird jumped in, and the three men chuckled. Neither attorney objected to Patton sitting on the jury as scattered, tired laughs bounced around the courtroom.
Efird added: “It’s good to meet you.”