Tom Carr really hates jury duty.
"When they sent me the questionnaire I said I was a felon, which was a lie," recalls Carr, a glass artist and neon sign maker with a shop on Manchester Avenue. "I guess they saw through that. So I got another card demanding that I go."
Carr presented himself at St. Louis Circuit Court as ordered June 16, but he had no intention of sticking around. He gave Judge Steven Ohmer two reasons he should be excused. For one thing, he said, he needed to repair a damaged sign that was about to fall onto Interstate 44. "The other thing I put down was that I had no use for their system," Carr says. "So the judge talked to me a little while."
The conversation didn't go well.
"I mentioned the fact that I thought most of the criminals in St. Louis were walking free in the building -- in other words, being crooked politicians or what-have-you," Carr says. "And then he said, 'Well, you're just going to do it.' And I told him, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Go upstairs and be a good boy.' And I said, 'No.' He seemed like a big ball-buster. He thought I was just going to roll over and do what he said."
So it was that Carr was hauled out of the courtroom in handcuffs and thrown in a holding cell filled with assorted thugs. Carr claims the sheriff's deputy who locked him up told his cellmates that he'd just beaten up a woman who worked in the courthouse. "Then he tells these other guys, 'Hey, if you beat his ass, I'll give you a pack of cigarettes -- I'll give you his cigarettes,'" Carr recalls. "They started looking at me like they might turn on me or something. And I said, 'Hey guys, that's not true at all. I didn't rough anyone up. The real reason I'm here is because I wouldn't testify against people like you.' So when I explained to them what happened, they were all on my side. They were all being my lawyer and we were all buddies. They finally shipped them off someplace else and I was alone."
Hours passed. At one point, he says he relieved himself in an orange-juice carton rather than use a toilet he thought was under surveillance. When he asked if he could use a phone to call his lawyer, Carr says his keepers told him he could make a call when he got to the workhouse, where "they're all going to fuck you in the ass."
After about six hours behind bars, Carr was brought once again before the judge. "I said, 'You've shown me the error of my ways, your honor,'" he recounts. "'I'm ready to blaspheme and bear false witness and testimony in any way, shape or form that you like.'"
Come back tomorrow, the judge ordered.
This time Carr did as he was told. He wasn't picked to serve on a jury and was excused at the end of the day.
"They were going to give me some kind of job waiver or something, but I just said, 'Keep it, man -- and keep my money,'" he says. "I just don't want to judge anybody. I feel that there's plenty of people who want to do that and with a lot better conscience than I have."
Ohmer did not return several phone calls. Mike Guzy, spokesman for the St. Louis sheriff's office, denies that holding-cell guards acted improperly but adds that they have little experience with folks like Carr. "Most people come down and begrudgingly do their civic duty and get it over with," Guzy reports. "Occasionally, dealing with the general public, you get a few who just don't conform to the program."
Odds are, Carr didn't have to spend a day in jail to avoid sitting in judgment of a peer. Of the 25,000 St. Louisans who show up for jury summons, about one-quarter are seated on juries, says Mike Devereaux, St. Louis jury supervisor. The rest are usually excused after two days. And there's no such thing as a conscientious objector when it comes to fulfilling your civic duty. Devereaux says his office refers about a dozen people each month to the circuit attorney's office for prosecution for failing to show up for jury duty, which is a misdemeanor. "Everybody's got to set their own affairs aside for a couple of days, but that's part of being a citizen here in this country," he says.
Carr says he has no regrets. A day in a cell is better than a week in a courtroom listening to lawyers drone, he figures, and he'll wriggle out of jury duty by any means necessary if he gets another summons. Next time, he says, he'll come better prepared: "I'll pay some doctor to say I'm insane or something like that."
That may just work.
"The doctor may decide that yes, you are," Devereaux says. "That's what doctors get paid for."
Devereaux says he can't remember any wild excuses people have given to get out of jury duty -- he says he also has a hard time remembering jokes -- but reasons run the gamut. And if there's an excuse that always works, Devereaux isn't saying.
"A sure-fire reason?" he asks. "You think I would tell you and have it in the Riverfront Times?"