My wife and I are strange people. The year when two red and white envelopes arrived in the mail we were excited. One was addressed to my wife, one was addressed to me. Many people dread getting the summons in the mail announcing that they are required to report for jury duty. Many become quite creative in figuring out ways to avoid doing their duty. I’m not certain I understand the reluctance to serve. My wife has wanted to serve on a jury for most of her life and had never gotten a summons before that day. She was overjoyed. I’d served on only one jury before that and was equally pleased by the opportunity.
Jury duty is actually a wonderful privilege. Given the history of the world, with tyrants dispensing sentence at their whim, sometimes for no better reason than that the poor defendant brought them bad news, we should be more grateful for the privilege and more in awe at such a system of justice.
Our jury service was scheduled for February and although we had to work a bit at finding child care, we were not going to be deterred.
So, bright and early one Monday morning we made our way to the local court house, passed through the metal detectors, and sat down in the jury assembly room. There was coffee there, so I was mostly content. After watching a short video giving an overview of jury service, one of the judges came and welcomed us and thanked us for actually showing up.
About an hour after we arrived, we went up to separate courtrooms where we sat through the jury selection process. I was among the first eighteen called forward out of a group of forty-five. My wife had a similar experience in her courtroom.
After being told what the trial would be about, we were given lists of questions to answer out loud. One by one, we were questioned by the judge and attorneys, to find out if we had any biases or issues that would make it hard for us to be objective.
In the end, both my wife and I were selected. My wife served as an alternate in a drug-related case that ended in a mistrial. An alternate is sort of like a spare tire or the runner up in the Miss America pageant. If one of the jurists was at some point unable to continue, my wife would have been called on to take that person’s place.
I served as jury foreman on a child molestation case. We found the defendant guilty about a half hour after we went into deliberations. It wasn’t very hard to make the decision, given that we had both DNA evidence from the aborted fetus and the defendant’s own confession in a forty minute video where he went into excruciating detail about what he’d done to his girlfriend’s twelve year old sister.
Despite the very unpleasant nature of the case, the process of serving on the jury was anything but. In the United States, not only do we get to vote for people to represent us in the legislative, executive and judicial duties of running our government, thanks to the nature of the judicial process, we also get to participate directly. As the judge told us, he was the judge of the law and would instruct us on that, but we were the judges of the facts. Without the twelve of us on the jury, there simply could be no trial. It was entirely up to us whether justice would be served.
The jury was made up of a cross section of the public. We had aerospace workers, school teachers, retired people, housewives, mechanics and a body shop owner. Ages ranged from twenty-three to seventy-three. Half were male, half were female. Two were Asian, two were African-American and the rest white. One was a naturalized American citizen.
While I was attending college in the seventies, this Cambodian man was suffering persecution and imprisonment from the Khmer Rouge. We were about the same age, but our life experiences could not have been much more different. And I couldn’t help but think what a wonder he must have found the whole process of serving on a jury. In his youth he suffered in a country where people were locked away without trial, without recourse, and without hope. Two million of his countrymen were executed without trail. He was a man who had suffered powerless and without justice at the hands of communists, who now found himself empowered with the duty and privilege of determining justice.
Sometimes in our day to day life, watching the news on TV, we may wonder if civil rights and justice have made any progress in this country. Sometimes we might wonder if there’s anything we can do to help make things better or if it’s just all out of our control and beyond hope. But get outside, go into the world, sit on a jury, watch the proceedings in a court, watch the care that is taken to ensure that both sides are heard, that rights are protected, and you’ll be encouraged.
The evidence against the defendant in the case I served on was overwhelming. There was no doubt as to his guilt. And yet, at every step, this defendant’s rights were protected, he was treated respectfully, and all involved went out of their way to ensure that the proper care was taken.
At the very beginning of the case, we were reminded that in our system of jurisprudence, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. If, following the opening arguments of defense and prosecution counsel, we had been asked to render a verdict, there would have been only one we could give: not guilty. In the United States, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof is entirely on the shoulders of the prosecution. The defense is not required to say a word. And until the prosecution gives evidence, innocence is assumed. Accusations and well-crafted opening statements are not evidence. They mean nothing in terms of demonstrating guilt. Innocence remains unbowed until the facts show otherwise. As a people, we have decided that we would rather have guilty people go free than have one innocent man be punished. We stack the deck on the side of innocence. I think that’s a good thing.
Both attorneys were young women; the defense attorney was white, the prosecuting attorney was African American. The bailiff was a woman. In my wife’s court, the judge was a woman. If you ever wonder whether opportunities have improved for women and minorities, simply consider all of that. It was good to see the diversity, the ease with which people of a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities came together in that courtroom to help justice prevail.
The next time you get a jury summons, don’t toss it away, and don’t try to avoid your civic responsibility. You wouldn’t try to get out of your right to vote, so why would you want to get out of your right to take part in executing justice?