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  I ALMOST GOT ON THE GOTTI TRIAL.  
   
   
  When I told friends I was called in for jury duty their response was all the same: I should postpone, I should plead vacation schedule, sickness -- a million excuses to get off. "It's okay," I said. "I never get on a criminal jury. My brother's a cop. I never make it past voir dire."

I never get to serve -- though I don't mind sitting to be selected and being a tiny pebble in the dyke of due process. Why? If it's ever my turn to be escorted in handcuffs to Federal District Court, I want a jury of my peers, not some sad old retired guy or a Section 8 Housing mother, only there for the air-conditioning and the $40 a day they pay when you serve in Manhattan.

My civic-minded reverie was blown the first day, when, after the ritualized four or five hours of sitting around, our covey of jurors were all handed a 27-page questionnaire. Suddenly our mission was clear: hundreds had been called to round up twelve souls for a single case. This was John Gotti Jr.'s trial -- the son of the Dapper Don -- listing two co-defendants and a battery of indictments for racketeering, extortion, kidnapping, attempted murder, and related grave felonies.

The questions seemed overly concerned with the media exposure surrounding the case. Did I believe there was such a thing as the Mafia? Did I watch The Sopranos? Did I read The New York Post?

The back few pages were filled with scores of names -- nearly all of them with a vowel at the end -- who had some connection with the case or were likely to be called as witnesses. Some I recognized from recent headlines. Some were New Yorkers, some from Jersey, where I grew up. I looked real close just in case there was anybody I knew.

Suddenly I wanted on this trial. "But they're never going to take anyone with an Italian last name," I said later to my brother Mike.

"Well, who are they gonna get who hasn't heard of Gotti?" my brother said. "Some Amish guy who doesn't have cable TV?"

By the time we started voir dire our ranks had thinned considerably. Other potential jurors had done their best to get voted out of our oak-paneled island, for reasons real or simply well-argued. Others had been dismissed, presumably, on how they'd answered the

 
  questionnaire. Those who remained all looked nervous. Who wouldn't be? Under law it was now time to be introduced, by the judge, to our cast of characters. John Jr. ("Junior or Johnny") a gently perspiring man who looked older than his 41 years and whose father had died in jail. Michael Yanotti ("Mikey Y"), dark and squirrelly, who may or may not have pumped five slugs into talk show host Curtis Sliwa. And Louis Mariani, looking like anybody's creepy uncle, shirttail hanging. Each side had battalions of lawyers: cheap suits on the prosecutor's side; Hugo Boss for the defense.

I felt small when it was my turn to be questioned by the judge, who

     
  was fluttery and squinted, puzzled, at her copy of my filled-out questionnaire. "We just want to clear up a few things," she said as she looked me up and down.

"You work in publishing?"

"Yes, your honor."

"You state here you have read books about the Mafia, the Godfather series and Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem?"

"Yes, your honor."

"I read that," she said sharply, nodding.

Great! I thought. I'm in!

But not quite.

The judge wanted to know if I read the Post, whether I thought newspapers gave a balanced report of the news.

"No, they don't," I said -- a slip. I worked seven years at a

 
      newspaper, but I don't plan to mention it unless you ask. Nobody wants a journalist on their jury. And truth be told, maybe I was just a teensy bit jealous of John's sister, Victoria Gotti, reality TV star and occasional novelist who blew a job as a Post columnist -- a gig I once craved for myself. (Copley News Service asked me twice to take over the nationally syndicated slot for the late C.Z. Guest's gardening column; I declined both times because the deal didn't include the coveted Post franchise, which that grand old lady held onto with both trowels until she died in 2003.)

The judge questioned me a bit more about my Mafia media experiences. "Well, it's fiction," I

 
 

pointed out. But these were just the warm-ups.

"You have a friend who is a criminal attorney. You do work for him?"

"He lost his bookkeeper last year, sometimes I help with his accounting."

"Would you recognize any names of clients?"

"They would just be names on check stubs."

Dodging this bullet, I think of D., who passed the New York Bar at age 50 and spent a few years in the Brooklyn District Attorney's office before hanging out a shingle to defend dark-skinned petty criminals "Because, once in a while, somebody is actually innocent," as he explained one day, adding, "Mostly, they're really, really guilty!"

"Is there anything about your work for your friend that would make you unable to give a fair hearing in a criminal case?"

I think, Success in court for D. is not acquittal -- it's three years instead of five, or getting his felon into a prison that's closer for family to visit on weekends. But I say: "No, your honor."

The bright blond guy on the prosecutor's team seems to glower a bit at this. The judge pulls out the big guns now, literally.

"You have a brother in law enforcement?"

"Yes, State Police."

"What does he do?"

"Homicide, now he works at the Academy." I cast a tender thought towards my baby brother, whose ex-wife keeps a loaded pistol in her glove compartment

"You have a brother who was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon?"

"Yes, your honor."

"This was what -- a black powder musket?"

Wait, wait, I want to explain. This brother's a gun buff and made that

 
 

musket from a kit when he was in college. He was pulled over in Massachussets, his car was searched, and he had New Jersey plates. That explains it, right?

"And someone stole your motorcycle?" "No, it was my brother's motorcycle." Thank goodness she didn't pursue that further. I had written down, "case was unresolved." Not: My brothers and their friends found the culprit and beat the crap out of him. But my trip down memory lane was going to be jogged further by Her Honor.

"You say here that you worked in high school for a law firm that had

     
 

Genovese and other crime family members as clients."

"Yes, your honor." As close to a white-shoe firm as you get down the Jersey shore -- because even criminals needs real estate attorneys. So what, if we had the same home town? Should I mention that Vito Genovese helped endow the church where I had my First Communion?

"That was a long time ago," she smiled, looking into my eyes as if pulling that memory out of me. Oh, yes, the summer they were pulling stiff bodies out of the Navesink River on a weekly basis. The large men, cleaning their fingernails as I brought them coffee and they waited for their boss to end his meeting. The real estate title searcher, who later committed suicide in his own basement? And who could forget Pussy Russo, a revered client, blown to messy bits at the top of the Harbor Island Spa?

"You say your family had a construction business? Masonry and contracting? In New Jersey?"

"Yes, my father and brother."

That seemed to clinch it for the judge. No wait, I wanted to pout, we were clean! Dad only handled residential contracting, small stuff. The fix was in commercial business! Just don't ask me about the time he was asked to build, in somebody's basement, a square cinderblock room that had no door

I realize suddenly that I'm now being profiled. We jurors are anonymous but it's clear by my coloring and my jewelry that I am Italian. I'm the victim of stereotyping. The way my friends won't believe me when I explain to them that my Dad, retired now, keeps getting comped for all those dinners and shows in Las Vegas just because he's a nice guy, the hotel people know him and he's very polite and sweet to the staff. Yeah, right, they tell me. Your Dad's connected, right?

I look at John Gotti Jr. and feel his pain.

"Is there any reason why you can not serve on this jury?" the judge asks.

"No," I say firmly, looking straight at her. "I am ready to serve."

Is she looking back, through me, again? OK, OK, I think. You really can't count my last ex-boyfriend, whose mother-in-law was found shot dead in her own kitchen. I recall how he spoke about cleaning up the blood, how the case was never solved. Perhaps it says something about a relationship if you have to ask if they've actually killed anybody.

They are waving me off now. She is picking me! She is fluttery, jubilant in her dark robe.

"OK, we have another," she says firmly. The two jurors after me also get the nod. I understand now: they are desperate for bodies. Who wants to be on this jury? Later that evening I feel a bit of queasiness. Do I really want to get involved here?

The next morning, I am kicked off the jury, no reason given. Guilty, perhaps, of knowing too much back story, too much context, to this case I haven't been paying attention to, not at all. Guilty of being Italian. I walk a long tread of carpet past the well-groomed, gently perspiring son of the Don, the squirrelly little guy and the old man in the sport shirt, past the phalanxes of prosecutors and defenders, including one that's got that "I could be dating you" look in his eye. I do a desperate scramble in my handbag for my sunglasses.

I depart, after a last look at John Gotti Jr. I hope he does get a fair trial. Because I am, in some ways, his peer.

 

Guess what? Mia Amato is not Japanese.