On Civic Responsibility

There is a famous quote that says, “When you go into court, you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.” If that is the case, then I am really, really dumb because in my 36 years, I have somehow managed to find myself on 3 juries. At the beginning of this month, I spent 9 days serving as a juror. From the moment my name was called to head to the courtroom, I knew I was doomed. There obviously is something about me that screams, “I love fulfilling my civic responsibility!” I had a momentary glimmer of hope when I saw that there were 3 sherriff’s deputies on the witness list, but even the fact that my brother-in-law is a deputy, and I told them I wasn’t sure I could be totally unbiased when it came to how I would regard the deputies’ testimony didn’t make a difference. Meet Juror #6.

For those of you who have never done it, I will tell you that it is actually very interesting. However, if you are a fan of Law and Order or any courtroom-based dramas (I was a huge fan of The Practice when it was on), you might be disappointed. The lawyers are not nearly as eloquent, charismatic, or good-looking (Bobby Donnell, anyone?), and the testimony for the most part is not nearly as dramatic. But nonetheless, our judicial process is fascinating. The jury selection alone is worth the price of admission. Little old tee-totaler lady whose delicate ears can’t tolerate foul language? The defense would like to thank and excuse you. Unemployed alcoholic ex-con? The prosecution would like to thank and excuse you. With some of them, it’s like trying to solve a mystery–why did the P.E. teacher who hasn’t said a word just get excused? Was it her gender, her ethnicity, or did they see someone in the alternate spots that they really want on the jury? Impossible to know for certain.

And let me say that during the trial, the jurors are treated with the utmost respect and kindness. That has been consistent on every trial I have been a part of. The courtroom staff clearly want it to be a good experience for the jurors. And for the most part, it is. The one place where it gets sticky is in deliberations.

You see, the wonderfully difficult thing about jury trials is that 12 strangers, all with differing backgrounds and sensibilites, have to come to an agreement. Trust me when I say that everyone has a vastly different take on the word “reasonable.” And this decision we’re making is not just about where to have dinner that night…it is a decision of quite serious consequence. What I have come to understand over the course of my time on a jury is that coming to a decision is as much about social dynamics as it is about evidence. Take for example, the case I was just on. One man is a very loud dissenter on many an issue, mostly because, “He wouldn’t have done that.” Doesn’t really matter about evidence. Really. But how this man is handled in the deliberation room can make or break the process. Comments like, “that’s crazy,” “What kind of person thinks that?” and even simply, “you’re not following instructions,” put this man on the defensive. And the further he digs in his heels, the harder it is for him to be able to change his mind. Because now it is an issue of ego. It takes a very humble person to change course after 12 hours of insistence that his way is right, no matter what the evidence. And not many people have that kind of humility. I totally get that if someone rubs you the wrong way, it is hard to treat them with grace and respect inside that room. But it is necessary for the process to work. Is it possible that if this man had been treated differently, he could have come around? I do wonder. Social dynamics, people.

So in this last trial, we ended with a hung jury. After spending 9 days of my life in that courtroom, it was hugely disappointing. But reflecting on the experience, I can say with confidence that all 12 of us in that room were doing our best to serve with integrity. Even Mr. Grumpy-Pants, in his own contrary way, was doing what he thought was right. And really, that is what is great about the jury system, and why, even after this experience, I still have faith in it. Smart? I’m not so sure. But when 12 people in all of our glorious diversity can come to unanimous agreement about something, it is pretty incredible. That much is easy to see, even for a dummy like me.

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