Pages

Friday, May 1, 2009

Blind justice

Just another letter in the mail. A questionnaire from Allen County Superior Court. Because I may be needed for jury duty.
And I wonder how often one can get called for jury duty, because it certainly seems I get called often. Somebody must like me at the courthouse.
And I fill out the form, wary of perjury charges as I answer, are there any reasons you could not serve on a jury? The inference being, besides the reason you just don't want to.
And I forget about the questionnaire in the hurly burly of the everyday.
Until another letter comes, this one a summons, commanding me to a time and place I don't really want to be. Because jury duty might mess up my life.
No matter, Wednesday morning finds me sitting forlornly in a stiff chair in a wing of the Courthouse, me and 100 or so other resentful souls, voters and car owners and taxpayers, all.
Waiting.
Waiting for the lady to talk to us, waiting to watch the oh-so-precious DVD about how lucky we Hoosiers are to be called to jury duty, waiting for the bailiff to come get us. My stomach sinking when I hear that this is not the usual one-day trial but rather a two-day affair. Lucky us, huh. My stomach sinking further when they tell us to line up in the order they call our juror numbers, my number being three, and discovering that in my new universe, three is the new one. I'm first in line. It can't be good.
Bailiff Steve leads us up the marble steps, some among us vowing the take the elevator the next time (not me). We wait a moment outside the double wooden doors; when they open, for the first time I hear the words, "All rise," and we file into the courtroom, where I'm told to lead the way into the jury box. At that moment, I become juror number one, and I will remain so for two days.
Then Judge Gull begins instructing us, and we commence two days of being talked at. Two days of the judge telling us what to expect, what was expected of us, what was going to happen. Two days of the attorneys first questioning us, weeding us out, looking at our questionairres, conferring about us, sending some of us home, and retaining others -- me included -- in the hard wooden seats.
Seating the jury takes all morning. Since I'm in the first group, I can spend the rest of the morning observing: the beautifully restored courtroom; the judge, whom I've seen on TV news many times; the young bailiff, who'll be our liaison for the next two days; the prosecuting attorney, a lovely young woman with a quick smile and animated personality; the defendant's attorney, a pleasant-looking man with the most deadpan, monotone voice I've ever had the misfortune to listen to; finally, the defendant, a young, African-American man with wide eyes, cropped hair, and a calm demeanor. Though his foot taps incessantly
Just before lunch, when the extra jurors are dismissed (The lucky dogs! I think--dismissed to get back to work or home or shopping or otherwise on with their lives), we twelve are given even more instructions, then excused for lunch. Just before I leave, I notice the clock high on the back courtroom wall--it seems to be working, but it has the entirely wrong time, hours and minutes. I soon learn, the courtroom has its own time.
I've been without cell phone all morning, since they are not allowed in the Courthouse, fighting the desire to text somebody to let them know what's happened, but I've already warned them: If the phone doesn't ring, it's me. And I'm on the jury.
At lunch break, it cool and rainy outside, downtown busy at midday. The world has continued while we've been shut up inside the courtroom and it's a little jarring to be back in it. I run to the parking garage and get in my car and start calling: I won't be back to work. I won't be home. I won't be going to the Vera Bradley sale with my sisters. Don't call me, I won't have my phone. I don't know when I'll be home. I can't talk about the case. Gotta go.
So here I am downtown by myself for the first time in 15 years. Deli 620 on Calhoun looks promising, me having a soft spot for delis since a New York trip a couple years ago. A great surprise of the day, little  Deli 620 -- if it didn't have the crowded-out-the-door frenzy of NYC, it was funky and welcoming and the egg salad, chunky and smooth and delicately tasty. The tomato basil soup with a little peppery kick -- even better.
By 12:45 I'm back in the jury room with my 11 new best friends, enjoying our first awkward silence. But we're a bunch of friendly, open Hoosiers, and the silence doesn't last long. If the weather is a safe subject to start out with, we soon segue to our observations of the judge, the lawyers, the accused, and how lucky we are to doing our civic duty. Or not.
Bailiff Steve soon calls us to enter, and for the second time when we hear the words, "All rise," it's because we twelve are coming in.
Our afternoon begins, with more instructions and opening statements, and we begin to get to know the case we'll be asked to make judgement on -- the judge's calm explainations, the attorney's carefully crafted presentations, the list of witnesses we'll listen to. I've brought my Diet Coke along with me and luckily there's a little nook I can hide it in down by my feet. Sipping it sereptitously makes me feel a little more normal--I'm in such a strange place, a room full of strangers, being asked to concentrate on -- what I'm beginning to realize --  a decision that will affect not just the life of the accused, but also his girlfriend and children and who knows who else.
During a break, when we're told not to leave the jury room, if we leave it has to be all together, our judicial bonding continues. We're allowed to talk about the case among ourselves in this little, stuffy room--not much historic in here--and we do. And even at this early point, it's possible to discern how some among our little group are leaning.
We don't know each other's names--no one asks, no one tells. We could, if we wanted to, exchange names, but we don't. We laughingly refer to each other as our jury numbers.
The jury room has windows. It's still raining, the day goes on without us. In my car, my cell phone rings, I'm sure. Somewhere the stock market is going up, or down. Someone is sick with swine flu. Chrysler is bankrupt, or not. Inside this room, even as we laugh about the Attorney B's monotone, or complain how cold the courtroom is, we know we are responsible for just one thing. Is the young man sitting before us innocent, or guilty?
The afternoon isn't. I mean, I knew it was Wednesday afternoon but it could have been any time, there in that domed, wood-paneled room, full of voices and evidence and "overruled" and "sustained" and questions and answers and our chair creaking. They are not comfortable chairs.
We hear from the victim, we hear from the officers, from the detective, who seems bored and arrogant and distant. We hear from the defensive, alibi-providing girlfriend, the not-very-helpful pal-in-jail, the scared nurse. We hear from everyone except the police dog, who can track but can't talk, and the accused himself.
We hear a story you could read in the paper of any city in any state, not a new crime, not an unusual or creative crime, thankfully, not a violent or deadly crime. Just a small-time break-in, in a old Fort Wayne neighborhood that has seen better days. A crime that scared the bejesus out of the victim, that left him bereft of his laptop and Palm Pilot, a crime that seems to have bored the officers to near death.
At six we're finally through the witnesses, and we're allowed to go. Go, but don't talk about the case. Be back at nine a.m.
The grey day seemed beautiful, real if raw, and I could feel time moving back into its normal path. When I had my cell phone back in my hand I felt almost normal, and immediately reconnected with everyone looking for me. And the evening's freedom stretched before me, a pitcher of margaritas at Bandito's promised, a lively dinner with family and visiting sisters, an evening at Jefferson Pointe with the ladies, lots of laughter making it easy to forgot that tomorrow, my vote would help chose the road a young man would follow. Well--no. He chose his road. Maybe we the jury were red light, green light.
At the end of the day, I was exhausted, and my sleep deep and dreamless. I wondered if the defendant was dreamless, as well.
Thursday and nine a.m. Still raining, but warmer. We're back in the jury room, we 12, more familiar with each other now. Smiles come easier. We're asked to give lunch orders. We've heard the evidence, now, and our conversation is more pointed and specific. And, we know our job is near to complete.
Bailiff Steve calls us in. A witness is recalled and some clarifications made. Then the closing arguments, the lively lady lawyer, the deadpan quiet guy. Both of them tell us what to think and how to vote.
And the judge, again, reading us several pages of instruction, telling us just what we need to know of the law to get our job done. Just barely enough.
Then it's time back to The Room, we 12 stranger-friends. It's us, the law, and a two-sided story in the room. An innocent-til-proven-guilty defendant. A scared victim. And the responsibility.
I volunteer to be foreperson. Mostly what it means is I count the votes. There's plenty of leadership in this group, several confident voices. A few with quiet questions. A couple silent.
The discussion begins, a more pointed continuation of the talking we've done previously. Now it's for keeps. We go over the main points, we list what's circumstance and what's concrete. We make everyone contribute. We take a first vote. We send a question or two out to the judge, and wait for answers. We go over evidence. Voice raise and fall. But always we remember he is first innocent. Always we remember it is the state who much prove the guilt. Always we remember, we are the ones who will be going home when the last vote is taken.
We take another vote. It's closer. We concentrate on the areas that seem the most questionable, and talk about what is reasonable doubt. Can we ever know? I think about moral relativity,something we often talk about at work. Is reasonable doubt somehow related to moral relativity? I don't know.
We go over the judge's instructions, and comment on how helpful they are.
One of us take notes and papers into the attached anteroom, and has a quiet moment.
When she's back, we talk a little more, and vote again. This time, it's unanimous.
As foreperson, I fill out the form, marking the appropriate place, signing my name. My scrawl, now filed away in the depth of some legal file, somewhere.
I knock on the door to the courtroom, our signal we need something, or are ready. And I let Bailiff Steve know.
Takes a little while for the courtroom to be as ready as we are. Judges, lawyers, officers, all scattered, I guess. We the jury are relieved, ready to go home, yet we'll all be happy when this last responsibility is passed. One last job.
Finally we're brought in. Even in this dead-air courtroom, there's a little electricity, and I feel ... a little power. We know, they don't. All rise. Look at us.
Everyone sits.
The judge asks me if we've reached a verdict, and I say, "yes." She asks for the form. I hand it to Bailiff Steve, and he hands it to the judge.
She reads its aloud, in a clear, calm voice.

The newly convicted drops his head in his hands, the most emotion he's shown in two days. The defending attorney puts his arm around him, says something, shakes his head, as if in disbelief. Surely, he's not surprised at this outcome?

If the prosecuting attorney smiles, I don't see her.

I'm watching the other table.

The judge asks if the attorneys want us 12 polled; Mr. Monotone, also coming alive here at the last, says yes.

But our minds have not changed, not even any of us who may have had difficulty with the decision, the "reasonable doubt," the weight of the responsibility.

That's it, mostly; we're thanked, and told to wait a moment in the jury room, as the judge wishes to speak to use. We don't see what happens after we file out; if the newly convicted is escorted out, if the lawyers talk, if the judge speaks to anyone.

For a last time, we wait together in the airless jury room, make a couple jokes. But I think we're all a little shaken by the reaction of the defendant, the hand over the eyes, the droop of the shoulders.

We're ready to go home.

Our civil duty, our "lost" days -- done. We're free.

He's not. Maybe he never was -- although I can only guess. His life before we came together in the historical Allen County Courthouse is as much a mystery to me as the vast machinations of the law itself.

The judge comes in, and thanks us. A few comments about the proceedings, and then, we're free to go. Some bolt out.

Others linger. The prosecuting attorney has asked to speak to us, to clarify a question we had asked. I join the conversation. A few details are cleared up, and I learn a little more about those whose lives we've affected. I feel better about the decision. And worse about these lives of these young people, lives lost, maybe. Probably.

I've lost -- donated! -- two days to the judicial system, because I'm a voter and a taxpayer and a car driver, a "responsible citizen". I can't imagine being anything else. Yea, the great, lucky me.

What have we lost? What has Brandon lost? What did he never have, or ever imagine? And how could I do anything, except find him guilty? Guilt was all I could give him.

Brandon, I'm so sorry. And I'm not sure why.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:33 PM

    I served on a jury a few weeks ago. While reading your post I felt as if I was reading something I might have written about my experience. Very eerie for me to read this. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete