I believe in the jury process. I had said the words many times. But, when the jury summons came, I was irritated at the disruption to my life.
The first hour reinforced my irritation. With other potential jurors, I stood in line just to be sent to another room where I got a number. When the judge called for us, we lined up by number. Faithful to my stereotype of government, we had lost our names.
The judge administered an oath by which we agreed to serve impartially. For hours, that oath got tested as he, prosecutors, and defense attorneys probed for anything that could threaten our objectivity. One person was dismissed because he knew a defendant, another because she was friends with a police officer who would testify. Two were excused after acknowledging that the language in rap songs played as evidence would offend them.
When I was placed on the jury, by my number, we took an oath again. It was only then that the weight of my responsibility sunk in.
Over the next three weeks, we heard about murder, drugs, and kidnapping by men who it seemed had never been boys, whose street savvy was a survival skill and a badge of honor. A convicted felon in subdued voice described how he shot his cousin to death in a crossfire. It was as farcical to hear as it was devastating.
On the last day, in the jury room, a juror blurted out something he read about the trial. My insides churned. The judge told us every day to avoid all news coverage. When the juror ignored my plea to tell the judge what he had done, I did. With trembling hands I handed the bailiff a note, and in a halting voice I answered the judge’s questions in open court. Perhaps a million dollars of legal work was tossed aside in a mistrial. My action still haunts me. I think it was the right thing to do.
Despite the mistrial – actually in part because of it – I feel both awe and gratitude for the jury process. I also now see that, for me, the jury process goes beyond the courtroom. It is a way to live my life, a constant reminder to set my prejudices aside, however painful or inconvenient or costly. It was from the bailiff, for example, that I learned that my number was to protect me. It’s hard to threaten a juror you know only by a number. The jury process is also a reminder of the importance of empathy. Whether guilty or innocent, the black men on trial grew up in surroundings that gave them little and held out hope of even less. If I thought that the effects of slavery were confined to the history books- and I did – jury service taught me how wrong I was.
I believe in the jury process, and that belief now is more than only words.
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