Every citizen has the privilege and responsibility to participate directly in our judicial system as a member of a jury, it is an important part of our democracy. But somehow, in the 40 odd years that I’ve been a licensed driver and registered voter, I was never summoned for jury duty. That is until a couple of months ago when I received my official letter from the Minnesota Judicial Branch.
Despite all of the jokes about jury duty and the ability, or lack thereof to get out of it, I was excited to have the opportunity to carry out my civic responsibility. After all, this is one of the few instances where citizens are truly able to be a part of the legal process and help make important decisions. I was ready to rise to the occasion.
The right to a trial by jury is a cornerstone of not only American democracy, but of popular American fiction as well. Several stories come to mind, Twelve Angry Men, Legally Blonde, Runaway Jury, and perhaps most notably, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Since Harper Lee’s novel is a favorite in our house, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons as I went through the selection and trial process. I have to admit I went in with the mind set similar to that story, that this experience would be an exploration of the moral nature of human beings—that is, whether people are essentially good or essentially evil. The phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty’ repeated itself over and over in my head, but alongside of that, I must admit I was wary of the fact that working with others on a jury would involve the threat that hatred, prejudice, and especially ignorance pose to the innocent. Whether by design or happenstance, the jury selection process took two and a half days, the trial, two and a half hours.
I arrived bright and early on that Tuesday morning. We citizens gathered in a room labeled Jury Waiting Room, to await the selection process. You could tell the people who had been on a jury before, because they had brought a book, and were quietly amusing themselves the old fashioned way, since no cell phones were allowed in the courthouse.
Having not thought that far ahead, I spent my time scrutinizing my future potential panel mates; Two readers, ironically both engrossed in crime novels. One fellow newbie, sitting near the front with her back to most of us, nervously alternating between furtive glances behind her, and fiddling with her hair. A tall older man with dirty nails, a sour expression, and a sweat-stained cap sat near me smelling of cigarettes. Two other men sat along the wall, one stared intently at his shoes, the other slept. A few more arrived, and as if unwilling to break the spell, no one made a sound.
The peaceful quiescence was abruptly shattered by the clatter of someone apparently wearing wooden shoes approached our Jury Waiting Room in a hurry. She arrived at the door and stood, as if expecting some kind of welcome. Receiving none, she asked loudly if this was the Jury Waiting Room. In keeping with our unspoken pact, no one responded except to shift their eyes to the sign that read Jury Waiting Room. Undaunted, the newcomer scanned the room, and with an exasperated sigh proclaimed “I was told there would be coffee.” Again we silently protested her disturbance by not responding in unison.
“Coffee Girl” as I dubbed her in my head, clomped her way to a chair, and proceeded to dig noisily in her bag. She produced a ball of yarn and two large knitting needles with which she then proceeded to knit, loudly. As if that wasn’t enough, she also started up a whispered conversation with “Furtive Hair Fiddler” wherein they proceeded to point or look at each of the rest of us and giggle.
Thankfully a bailiff arrived at the door, greeted us and explained that we were awaiting a few late arrivals, but that we would be starting the selection process soon. Shortly thereafter, a young black man came in and sat near the two against the wall. “Sour Expression Man” snorted in a disapproving way, glanced sidelong at me and rolled his eyes. It may have been in response to the young man’s late arrival, but something in me understood his meaning to be aimed more at the color of the man’s skin. It took every fiber of my self control to not grab one of Coffee Girl’s knitting needles and stab it into his racist eyeball. Coffee Girl took this opportunity to redirect my outrage by asking the bailiff for coffee. He had the good sense to leave, as if he hadn’t heard her.
It was intriguing to me that the themes in Harper Lee’s novel seemed to be playing out in some of the people in the room – Hatred, by the furtive hair fiddler, Ignorance by Coffee Girl, and certainly Prejudice by Sour Expression Man. My musings as to just how far this comparison would go were interrupted as the bailiff returned and led us into the courtroom. As if to further expand on the To Kill A Mockingbird theme, there sat the defendant, a black man, alongside his attorney – not quite Gregory Peck, but a tall lanky man, wearing amazingly enough, a rumpled, light colored suit.
We were told that this was a criminal trial wherein the State of Minnesota was charging the defendant with assault and we the jury would be questioned by the attorneys in a process called Voir Dire. This is french for speak the truth, and is used to determine if any juror is biased and/or cannot deal with the issues fairly, or if there is cause not to allow a juror to serve.
During the Voir Dire process, the attorneys seemed to pick up on the same character traits I’d noticed in the potential jurors. Furtive Hair Fiddler was winnowed out with questions about previously being a victim of a crime. Her answers were shockingly accusatory toward law enforcement’s inability to keep her safe in her own neighborhood. Coffee Girl was not picked because her answers sounded more like her bio for a dating service, including far too much personal information, and speculations on what her neighbors thought of her. But by far the most chilling was the way in which Sour Expression Man made no bones about his inability to coexist with people who he perceived to be different. When asked to talk about the last time he’d had a conversation with a person of color, they way he spat out the word ‘never,’ sent chills up my spine.
Finally, we the jury are seated, sworn in and the trial got started. In yet another instance of truth, proving that it is stranger than fiction, or in this case similar to fiction, the accuser turns out to be a white woman who lives in a trailer court. And while she never did ask the defendant to bust up a chiffarobe, she does accuse him of assaulting her – not physically mind you, but verbally, through a wall, as he was talkin’ some smack with his cousin, who was living with her at the time. Long story short (too late) it’s pretty apparent (to me, at least) that the white woman is lying. Not only lying, but apparently involved in some shady, if not illegal dealings herself. And while we were told to disregard the implication in our deliberation, the defendant had apparently done some time in the past as well.
And that’s where the comparison ends. Due process was observed and we unanimously found the defendant not guilty for the crime with which he was charged. As a matter of fact, we decided his fate in a matter of about 15 minutes – we only drew it out to an hour because we were hungry and they offered us pizza. Sadly for me there were no stirring words in the closing arguments. There were no silently heroic Boo Radleys to be falsely afraid of, no allegorical rabid dogs roaming the street, not even any catchy show tunes comparing gay with European. Only a chance to observe some peculiar examples of human nature, and of course the opportunity to write about it.
No mockingbirds were killed in the writing of this post.Thanks for visiting!