The crowd in the McLennan County jury intake room got an unexpected sight Monday morning: a local attorney dressed as an inmate showing up for jury duty.
Kent McKeever, a Mission Waco legal advocate and youth pastor, is spending the 40-day season of Lent in jailhouse orange to draw attention to the problems of mass incarceration and the cold welcome ex-offenders get in society.
He got attention in spades when he showed up at the courthouse a little before 8:30 a.m., finding the room full of about 300 juror candidates.
“I had to walk around and in front of everybody,” said McKeever, whose Lenten journey was profiled last week in the Tribune-Herald. “I could feel everyone’s eyes turning toward me and heard whispering.”
McKeever made his Lenten resolution before he got his jury summons, but he decided to stay in uniform even at the courthouse.
“I saw this as an amazing opportunity to bring awareness to the people I’m advocating for, who can’t ever serve on a jury,” he said.
McKeever was called to be part of a jury pool for a civil trial, but he was not chosen to be among the six jurors and went home by noon. By then, he’d had several “positive” conversations with courthouse staff and potential jurors about his appearance, McKeever said. He also saw a couple of actual prisoners who were leaving a courtroom in jail scrubs and shackles.
“I saw them and made eye contact a little and smiled,” he said. “That was really sobering. I thought, ‘That’s real.’ ”
Before McKeever showed up for jury service, one of his spiritual advisers, former Baylor Law School professor Mark Osler, gave a heads-up to a district judge that Osler knew. The judge alerted other courthouse officials to avoid misunderstanding.
McLennan County District Clerk Karen Matkin said McKeever was randomly assigned by a county computer to the trial in 414th State District Judge Vicki Menard’s court.
She said he might have gotten more scrutiny for his attire if he had been assigned to one of the county’s criminal courts, although she noted criminal defendants going to trial do not wear orange jail clothes at trial.
“I’m sure somebody would have objected just out of principle to be objectionable,” she said.
Judge Ralph Strother of the 19th State District said he would not have allowed McKeever’s outfit in a criminal trial.
“Considering that my court deals only with criminal cases, I think any juror attired in an orange jumpsuit who clearly is making a statement about the criminal justice system would be inappropriately attired,” he said. “Everyone has the right to freely express their opinion, but they do not have the right for that opinion to affect the neutrality of a court proceeding.”
McKeever headed to Jimmy John’s sandwich shop for lunch after jury duty and found himself still on edge.
“A guy with a badge and a gun walked in, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m kind of out of place,’ ” he said. “I wondered if, when someone like that walks in, there are others that feel the same way because of their past or the way they look.”
McKeever is blogging his experience at http://40daysinorange.wordpress.com
Staff writer Tommy Witherspoon contributed to this story.