I was working long hours on an important project at work. Just about when frustration and apathy was setting in, I received a jury summons in the mail. And like most people, my first thought was how to avoid getting picked. Helpful co-workers suggested ways to get out of it; I even found web sites devoted to the subject. The most popular suggestion is usually to say that you can see a guilty person a mile away. And as I sat waiting for the attorney’s questions, I realized that I couldn’t lie about my ability to judge facts fairly. I decided to simply answer all the questions asked of me and see what happened.
For a few reasons and to my surprise, I was selected. I remember thinking at the time that it had to be an open and shut case and told my boss that it probably wouldn’t last more than a few days. I treated it as a break from the stress at work.
Instead, the experience lasted about two weeks and left me sleepless, heavy with the responsibility I was given. The case involved a motor vehicle where someone died. All I had at my disposal was the information being provided to me in court and the brain in my head. I couldn’t bounce things off of my husband or my co-workers. I couldn’t research questions that I had. It was the hardest thing I have ever done.
The emotional aspects of serving as a juror profoundly affected me. The details were explained to us several times during testimony. The victim’s family sat in a daze or cried softly as this was reviewed. I reflected about what it must have been like to hear the details discussed in such a surgical way only 50 feet from the person you think is responsible.
The family of the defendant also attended court every day. I knew it had to be equally difficult to hear about the poor choices all the men involved made that night, and to consider the potential loss of freedom their son faced if convicted of a horrible crime.
Our jury was considerate and smart and took very seriously what we were there to do. I was amazed at how quickly we formed a bond. The system could not have picked a better group. We poured over evidence again and again. We worked through our lunch or as late as they would give us. We challenged each other in a respectful but pointed way. And we made sure that everyone felt committed to what we were about to do. Ultimately, we passed a not guilty verdict.
I think several of us weren’t prepared for the emotional reaction of the defendant who would have served a ten-year sentence. Afterwards, when the door closed on the deliberation room, I was shaking. No matter which way you look at it, this young man was given a gift that was the result of our democracy and I hope that he won’t waste it.
I returned to work a changed person. Suddenly, the things I thought were life and death weren’t so critical. My area of responsibility limped along without me and everyone commended us for the job we did. And while I haven’t completely figured out how I can turn this into something meaningful, I had one idea immediately. I have become a fervent advocate for civic duty.
If you are called to jury duty, go. Don’t lie about your ability to be objective or make up a lame excuse about your sick grandmother. Every defendant deserves a fair trial and every victim deserves justice. It crystallized for me both the responsibility and the gift our freedom is. We all deserve to live in a society of people who are willing to serve when the circumstances are uncomfortable or inconvenient.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.