Thursday, November 19, 2015

"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."                           ~ Albert Einstein

 

I was called to jury duty last week.  It's my duty as an American citizen to go to the court house on that day and join a thousand other people who have things they'd rather do. So I drove to the city where the Superior Court is located. 

The city was so inviting to us jurors! There were signs with huge arrows along the maze of streets surrounding the court house, all of them guiding the jurors to the 4th and 5th floor of a large 7-story parking lot... So I obeyed. I parked my car on the 4th floor, climbed down the stairs to the sidewalk, and I walked spritely down the street… and then down another street… and then along side an entire high school… and then past its entire football field… I finally crawled across the next street and saw the courthouse… in the distance...

Now this was the third time I'd been called to jury duty, and I knew the drill, I thought. But when I opened the door and walked through, I was at the airport! Well, not really, but I had to grab the same sort of airport-type tray that you put your purse or your attache case inside of to be X-rayed by alert policemen. And then I was directed to walk into an X-ray booth so I could be inspected for any other things that might be hidden in my clothes. At least, I could keep my shoes on, though. It was cold in that building!

I was good to go, so I walked into the official prospective jurors' waiting room. Nearly every available seat was filled. No matter, because I needed to stand in line to get my official juror's name badge. A lovely lady came out to explain the day's procedures to us, and for the next 8 hours my official court name was "175." 

I sat in one of the chairs in that huge room that was nearly full of all sorts of citizens. I figured, from previous experience, that they would excuse many of us, and possibly even all of us at about lunch time… but I was wrong… soooo wrong.

Luckily, I was sitting in between two of the nicest people. One was a girl who, because of jury duty, had to take this day off of work, and she was not going to be paid. The lovely lady who was explaining our day to us announced that if any of us had to take the day off of work (It was Thursday! Everyone, except retirees like me, would be absent from their job!), each person who was absent from work without pay would be paid $15 per day, but that excluded this first day of jury duty! The girl next to me started to cry. 

On the other side of me was a young guy who had nearly completed all the credits he needed for his master's degree from university. His problem was that it was final exam time for one of his classes, but he was here for his jury duty. Before I could ask him whether he would be able to take his exam later, I was told to go to a courtroom on the 4th floor.

When I climbed the last stair, I was directed to a long, long hall where the individual courtrooms were located. The room I was assigned to was, of course, at the farthest end of the corridor lined with benches. Nearly every bench was occupied, and most of the walls were being slouched against, too. I had room enough to perch one half of my bottom on the last edge of a bench, and while I tried to keep my balance, I started to think…

Could I be objective about a case? Could I wait until all the evidence was in before deciding? Could I read a person as they spoke? 

ARE YOU KIDDING? Of course, I could! I wasn't a high school teacher for 43 years for nothing! That's what I did for a living! Just please, Lord, don't let it be a child molestation case. I'd been an advocate for kids all my working life. I'd seen a lot… I'd heard a lot... That was one thing I couldn't be detached about. But, no matter.  I couldn't be that unlucky. 

The doors opened, and the bailiff told us where we were to sit, so I sat. I could see a lady prosecutor, and a lady defense attorney, and a man who sat in the defendant's chair with headphones on. As soon as I was comfortable, the bailiff said, "All rise!" so I did, and in walked the judge. It was a lady-judge. Interesting… it was a triple play!

Then the judge spoke… 

The man at the table was accused of child molestation. The judge read the contents of each count… more than a dozen counts… and for each count there were details, details that were nauseating. The girls had each been 6 years old at the time of the crimes.

I couldn't do it! Who could listen to 8 days of that? Who could sit in the jury box and listen to it? ... for 8 days over a period of 2 or 3 weeks….? It surely was an open-and-shut case. They girls were 16 now, and they'd brought suit against this man. Of course he was guilty! I thought I ought to be able to see it on his face. But, no. His face, at least from the side that I could see, was completely calm. There were no emotions on his face at all that I could read. His eyes were on the judge and never wavered from her face.

The judge spoke, and spoke, and spoke some more… And then the judge spoke some more after that. We were to have a lunch break at noon, but the judge kept going over what she'd already said… and over it again… and then again… And finally, the court broke for lunch at 12:15.

When we returned from lunch, the judge began to speak again. "Understand that the defense counsel does NOT have to speak at all during the duration of this trial. The entire trial rests on the prosecutor's shoulders to PROVE that this defendant is guilty. That means that if there are, let's say, 6 things that must be proved, and the prosecutor absolutely proves, in your mind, 5 of the 6 points… but the 6th point is not completely proved, then the accused MUST be found innocent."

Yes, I understood that. But he was an adult and they were only 6 years old at the time… It was obvious that he was guilty! What girl would make up something like this, and then actually want to go to a public forum and sit in the witness box and talk about it and answer questions about it? Impossible!

The prosecutor was young and kept referring to her notes, and every time the judge restated that the defense didn't have to present anything at all, the young prosecutor seemed to tremble. She outlined the case without looking anyone in the eye. I was sitting only 3 rows from her with no one in between us. I could see her very clearly.

Next, the defense attorney rose, and she looked at all of us for a long minute. She didn't have notes in her hand. A notebook full of papers lay on the desk behind her. Then she said, firmly, but not loudly, "Is it possible that a 16-year-old-girl might lie? Is that possible?"

That question shook me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes!

The answer was, "Yes." 

Yes, a 16-year-old girl could lie. I had lied at 16. It was nothing big, no court trial, not even anything I can remember now. But, YES! I had lied when I was 16… not often… in fact, it was a rare thing for me to do. But YES! A 16-year-old girl might lie. 

And I saw what I was… I saw the smug surety inside of me. I saw that I wasn't the fair, thoughtful, rational person I thought I was. I was shallow! I had prejudged before I'd heard any evidence at all! I had just assumed that the man at the table was obviously guilty! I was disgusted with what I saw inside my own self...

After another two hours and so many, many questions from the lawyers and the judge, a jury was chosen. I wasn't called up at all to be questioned as a prospective juror.  At 5PM, when court was adjourned, I drove home. My "jury duty" was over.

Witnesses will be called, lawyers will question and argue, and the results will be in the papers in about 2 more weeks. And I had nothing to do with any of it at all. But I had been on trial, too, that day in the courtroom. And I was guilty. What I learned about myself that day will haunt me for a long, long time.

7 comments:

  1. We all have similar thoughts and feelings while in jury duty; we're all guilty of the same prejudices or presupposed conclusions. Heck, I spend most of the time thinking of what false excuse I can come up with to get out of it. Thankfully, knock on wood, I've never made it up into the juror box.

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    1. Thanks so much, Mark, for writing this. The funny thing is that I wanted to get out of it, too. But after my realization, I do think I would have been a decent juror. At least, I understood what my job would have been had I been in that jury box.

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  2. it's a hard pill to swallow sometimes when we realize what we thought is not what is.
    i have only been called once to be a juror, the company being sued turned out to be the same one my father was suing. yep, i was not chosen either.

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    1. You sure are right about that, Mary. Well, I've been called 3 times, and it's now twice that the case was about child molestation. Truly, who would truly want to listen to that testimony. Soooo sad….

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  3. How interesting that you were called in on a child molestation case..that was the crime for the last jury I was on. They picked me to be a juror, so I didn't have time to agonize about it like you did. Although it was an unsavory topic, I got into the witnesses' stories: the brave little girl who had to tell her story in court. The valiant social worker who spoke up for her. We on the jury reached a verdict. It was a worthwhile experience for me. One of these days you will get picked for a jury, and you will decide. I know you will be a good juror.

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    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Cindy. After the defense attorney made her statement, I really did think that I would be able to listen to the testimony and be fair. I will say that the judge said it was either "guilty" or "innocent." I totally disagree! It's "guilty" or "not guilty," meaning not proven. I'm not sure that anyone can ever know if a person is "innocent." There is a definite shade of difference between those two concepts.

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  4. By the way, I ought to tell you that when I filled out the forms for my summons, I made sure to tell them that my husband was an attorney, and that he'd done some appellate work. I'm going to tell you, and I know its bragging, but one of my husband's briefs was used in a case at the Supreme Court of the United States. It's in the records, permanently there in Washington D.C., for ever and ever. I am so proud of my husband.

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