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Jury duty at the Civil Courts Building: same sit, different day; plus, other St. Louis follies and foibles


The wheels of justice grind slowly, and sometimes not at all. Just ask the poor souls who are summoned for jury duty in the city of St. Louis.

If you live in the city, chances are you'll be summoned for jury duty once every three years. (Though it's called justice, believe this: A lot is left to chance.) If you live in the suburbs in St. Louis County, a summons will be issued about once every 10 years. In rural Missouri, citizens might get called once in a lifetime. The reason city folk are in such demand is simple: There are more crimes and more civil suits per capita. There are jury trials for more than 200 felonies a year in the city and for more than 200 civil suits. Those numbers are way ahead of Jackson County's and St. Louis County's, and they're for a smaller population (about 340,000) with higher proportions of juveniles and elderly.

In years past, heading downtown for the $12-a-day payday of jury duty meant surviving the dingy confines of the jury-assembly room on the eighth floor of the Civil Courts Building. That's the building that looks like the LA County courthouse shown in the opening credits to Dragnet, the '60s TV series that featured Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday. From the outside, with the columns and pyramid on top and the classic lines, the stately building is one of the taller structures downtown, virtually a 30-story building. Inside, it was -- and, in some regards, still is -- a dump. Things were so bad that the Circuit Court sued to force the city, which owns the building, to fix it up. The state Supreme Court ruled against the city, and the slow, expensive renovation began years ago.

Prospective jurors were the first to see progress, with renovated quarters featuring televisions, a smoking lounge and even updated restrooms (but don't expect much hot water). Word is that many of the courtrooms and other offices are lacking all but the barest of amenities, including temperate heating or cooling. Mayor Clarence Harmon's office announced last week that the city wants to increase the filing fee for suits by $65 per case, with the increase expected to bring in $1.3 million for fixing up the Civil Courts building (inaptly named, because criminal matters also are ruled on at the northeast corner of Market Street and Tucker Boulevard). Harmon's proposal is part of a bill that must be approved by the state Legislature.

This Monday, the 400 or so citizens who bothered to show up for jury duty were greeted with a video presentation by Julius Hunter of KMOV-TV (Channel 4). During Hunter's explanation of what is and isn't evidence, one juror tried to exit a side door, setting off an alarm. A uniformed man stood by the door and did nothing to turn the alarm off, instead waiting for a court worker to come do it. At first glance, the jurors might have expected the uniformed man to act, but then it became clear that he was an emergency medical technician from a local hospital, just another juror wearing a yellow ID badge. Jeez, if an EMT couldn't get out of jury duty, how can anybody with a less urgent job expect to get a waiver? Hard times in the city.

As the day wore on and only sporadic groups of 50 were called out and sent to various courtrooms, jurors read, watched TV or dozed. The new-and-improved assembly rooms have a first floor and a mezzanine, with a sectioned-off smoking lounge in the west end of the mezzanine. At its peak occupancy, the lounge had a thick after-the-battle smoky haze to it. The EMT was spotted inside, perhaps hanging out in case someone keeled over with a medical emergency.

The televisions, which include two big-screen TVs in the mezzanine, were tuned to Channel 4, perhaps in a deal cut in exchange for Hunter's services. (Why didn't they work a deal with Court TV?) Watching these screens became irritating, both because of the vapid programs and the frequent intrusion of a rolling scroll of information that kept reminding jurors that only parking tickets to the Kiel Parking Garage could be validated, that smoking is prohibited in the east lounge, and that bus and MetroLink tickets would be issued at the end of the day. Even Bob Barker of The Price Is Right was a welcome sight once the scroll stopped. ("Millicent gets $6.33. She did not get the car. Poor Millicent will have to take the bus back to Florida.") Faced with such limited viewing options, more than a few jurors slept. Seated two rows apart, Juror 272 and Juror 274 provided stereo snoring effects, trading off snores like a narcoleptic version of "Dueling Banjos." For these two, justice was not only blind but fast asleep. Later, as those uncalled jurors who were still awake watched Inside Edition, a few perked up for coverage of a Phoenix murder trial in which the "sleepwalking defense" was used, with the defendant unsuccessfully claiming he was sleepwalking while he did the killing. If only Jurors 272 and 274 had been picked for that jury, the guy might have walked, if'n they had stayed awake in the box.

For some, what they brought to read might have served as clues to what they would have done as jurors. One wore a full-length black leather overcoat and read Anne Rice's The Vampire Armand. Would he be good for the prosecution? And what about the woman reading Danielle Steel's Mirror Image? Would she be sympathetic to the defense? And what of the jurors engrossed in The Guiding Light soap opera? Gullible, perhaps?

All that was certain in the city's new digs for jurors was that the seats are nicer, there are more TVs and you don't have to wait for the dank elevators to trudge up to the eighth floor anymore. If only we could renovate what's outside the building -- maybe it wouldn't be so busy inside.

SUPER BROTHA LIKE NO OTHA: "You are the minister of hype," Tom Bellows, a local producer, said to Darnell Singleton Thursday night as the two exchanged laughs and hugs behind the last row at the Esquire's main theater. Another man, his graying hair in cornrows, told Singleton: "Saw you on Channel 5 last night. Looked up and saw you. Thought you had you a job." Singleton, whose movie "Super Brotha" premiered at the Esquire, laughed at the jibes. The night was going well, and perhaps he was indeed the minister of hype. A plug in the P-D by Greg Freeman and interviews on the news on KSDK-TV and KMOV-TV, as well as an appearance on KSDK's Show Me St. Louis, had all paid off: Nearly 700 people showed up to watch an unreviewed, locally made movie that took five years and about $20,000 to make.

As for the premiere, Singleton feared that only about 300 people would show up. That more than twice that number actually paid the $6 admission meant he would at least break even for the rental of the theater and other premiere expenses. "Here's my movie showing at the Esquire, and there was a line all the way down the street," says Singleton, who is originally from University City. "People were there to watch my film. That blew my mind. What a cool community. I know a lot of people came out strictly because they wanted to support a local filmmaker. That's what was so cool about it."

As to whether the toil was worth it, Singleton says the whole moviemaking experience was "priceless to me. I got some really good relationships, lifelong relationships with people out of making this film. I met so many cool people while making this film." So however quickly "Super Brotha" fades to black, he plans to make a sequel, "Super Brotha Squared," and a romantic comedy, "Last of the Big-Time Lovers."

As for "Super Brotha," let's just say this: What can you say about a movie that starts off with its main character in bed, raising his leg and farting? You can say the movie doesn't have a misleading beginning: It was slapstick. It wasThe Three Stooges without the subtlety. The best thing you can say about it was that it was done at all. Now that Singleton has the marketing down pat and he knows he can finish a movie, all that remains is for him to do it better next time.

FLOTSAM AND JETSAM: Last week's mention of the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, S.J.'s sending out a fundraising letter from his hospital bed after knee-replacement surgery triggered a caustic call from a former St. Louis University Hospital nurse. Turns out the nurse also had received the letter, the one in which Biondi waxes eloquent about how much the university means to the community. The caller was miffed because Biondi's bionic knee was implanted at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., not at SLU's medical complex on Grand Avenue. Uh, make that Tenet Healthcare's medical complex, though physicians at the hospital remain affiliated with the university. Though the Mayo Clinic surgeon is a SLU graduate, Biondi could have found that in Dr. Robert Burdge, chairman of orthopedic surgery at SLU. Maybe Biondi didn't want to put himself in the care of any former university employees still riled about his sale of the hospital to the for-profit Tenet and the reduced tuition-remission benefit.

Give us your feedback by e-mailing "Short Cuts" at shortcuts@rftstl. com, faxing 314-615-6716 or calling 314-615-6711.

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