Serving jury duty in molestation case a reality check for McMurray

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson woke up Thursday morning thinking about his trip to the Super Bowl and visit with President Bush in the White House. Jeff Gordon woke up thinking about his daughter, who was just about to crawl before he left home. Dale Earnhardt Jr. woke up thinking about how much happier he was than a year ago when contract negotiations with the company his father built ruled his life.

Almost every Sprint Cup driver participating in media day under the big tent outside of Daytona International Speedway woke up thinking about the 50th running of the Daytona 500.

And then there was Jamie McMurray.

He woke up thinking about jury duty.

"I'll tell you, jury duty was life-changing," the 31-year-old driver said.

McMurray took a break from his duties as a Cup driver two weeks ago to serve as foreman on a jury for a child molestation case in Iredell (N.C.) County. He traded his rock-star lifestyle to spend four days with a first-grade school teacher, a truck driver, a dairy farmer, people who normally pay to watch him drive fast.

"It was really neat because I was a normal person," said McMurray, whose life as a driver is anything but normal. "People didn't really talk about [racing]. I don't know. It was nice just sitting there listening to their other stories and talking about their families and stuff."

But McMurray wasn't prepared for what he was about to see or hear. The pressure of having the future of one man's life in his hands was more than anything he experienced in a race car -- so intense that he'd never want to do it again.

"When you race it's intense, it's fun," he said. "That's what you live for and that's what you wake up for every single day. Nobody wakes up and asks to be put in that situation of being on a jury on a case like that."

McMurray had one stipulation when he agreed to serve on the 12-person jury: He would give it his all until Friday, Jan. 25, but on the 27th he would be on a plane for Las Vegas to test his No. 26 car for Roush Fenway Racing.

"So they found out I was a race car driver, and everybody kind of giggled in the courtroom," McMurray said.

The laugh was on McMurray when it came time to select a foreman. Trying to be polite because the jury consisted of him and 11 women, he let some of the women use the men's room before he took his turn.

"When I came out they said, 'You're the foreman,'" he recalled. "I was, 'OK, I guess I'll be the foreman.'"

McMurray's status as a driver wasn't as high profile as Earnhardt carrying a camel on a Super Bowl commercial or Johnson at the White House, but it did draw some attention.

On the second day of the trial, outside the bathroom he ran into the father of the 10-year-old girl who accused the defendant of molestation. The father, recognizing McMurray as a celebrity and not a juror, asked for an autograph.

"I'm thinking, 'I can't talk to you,'" said McMurray, knowing enough about courtroom procedure to understand that was frowned upon.

So they found out I was a race car driver, and everybody kind of giggled in the courtroom.

-- Jamie McMurray

News of the meeting quickly got back to the judge, who called McMurray into chambers to ask if he'd talked to somebody with the prosecution side.

"She asked me if that was going to affect my decision," McMurray said. "I was, 'Noooo.'"

McMurray's job as a driver actually made him a perfect juror. Because he is on the road 75 percent of the year and spends more time avoiding the media than reading what is being said or written, he "didn't have a history of anything."

"I'm not biased," he said. "I have no opinion on anything,"

McMurray called the testimony touching "stuff you read about or see on TV that you don't ever think you're going to experience or be a part of."

"I've watched Perry Mason and these shows that have been on forever," he said. "It's kind of like that, but it's not. Until you deal with the intensity that goes along with it, it's hard to explain."

McMurray's biggest fear outside of deciding the fate of another human was having to read that fate to the judge in the courtroom.

"You don't know if there is going to be sighs or cheers," he said. "I was fortunate that the clerk actually read the verdict so I didn't have to go through that."

By 6 p.m. on Jan. 25th, the defendant was found not guilty and McMurray was signing Crown Royal bottles -- his primary sponsor -- for fellow jury members before departing for his not-so-real world of NASCAR.

His attention now is focused on Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout and qualifying for next week's Daytona 500. But while others spent media day telling about what they did during the offseason -- or, if you're Tony Stewart, how you'd rather be anywhere but media day -- nobody's story was more compelling than McMurray's.

"I don't think [any of us] wants to be a normal person," McMurray said. "It's a pretty grand life; it's not like you want to trade it. But it's different and it's unique to be able to sit on something like that and be treated normal."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.