I have never been called for jury duty. That is until December 2, 2014. Not wanting to lose a week of pay right before Christmas, I postponed it for June. Of course when June came, I was starting a new job the same week as jury duty. So I was allowed one more postponement to August. And now I am here recounting two of the most emotionally trying days of my life.
I am a little embarrassed to admit that before Monday’s jury duty, I was curious and more than a little excited to serve. My husband made fun of my eagerness to perform my civic duty. I am reluctant to admit the most damning piece of information that will forever brand me as corny – the night before jury duty I dreamt that President Obama visited my group of dedicated citizens to congratulate us and explain how important our work was. He also brought a thief to the courthouse that he brought in off the street. Even my subconscious was betraying my feelings.
Of course actually serving jury duty has quickly disavowed me of any mistaken notions of civic duty. It is a lot of just sitting around and waiting. I arrived around 8:45 in the morning to a mostly empty room. I sat down and quickly pulled out my book, Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching” (this book becomes an essential element in my Day 2 experience). I tried to ignore most of the people around me, primarily out of a desire to resist judging them based on their appearances. Consequently, by the time our two hour wait in that room was over and we were herded to the courtroom for another hour of sitting, I did not recognize any of the people and was finally confronted by all of the judgments I had tried to avoid.
The jury pool consisted of about 80-100 people and possibly only 30 of those were men. As I sat down on the hard pew-like bench, two older women were seated next to me. After the court officer asked us to turn off our phones, there was an Hispanic woman looking on her phone and hiding it under her bag. I don’t care. It was boring and I didn’t really mind. The white woman next to me tapped my elbow and pointed to the woman. “She didn’t turn off her cell phone,” she said to me, as if we were the same. I just shrugged. This is made more ridiculous by the fact that this woman’s own phone beeped at least twice in the courtroom.
Clearly I had not demonstrated the appropriate level of complicity, so she turned to the other woman on her left and began whispering to her. The judge started describing the case and the process to us; I began to panic. I knew what serving on a jury meant, but for some reason it had not occurred to me that I would have to be part of a group determining the fate of another human’s life. I would be the reason someone went to prison. I would be the reason someone was separated from his or her family. Could I be 100% sure of someone’s guilt to be able to do that? Who gives me the right to decide someone’s life course? The heaviness of my realization weighed on me for the remainder of the day.
If you’ve ever been to jury duty or read a John Grisham novel, you know that the judge randomly calls up prospective jurors and then the judge and lawyers ask those people questions to determine their suitability to serve as a juror. One of the questions was about occupation. The two women to my left had apparently been whispering to each other about people’s profession. (This must be a universal occurrence as one woman approached me in the bathroom and said she “knew” I was a teacher after my round of questioning.) As the first group began revealing their occupations, these two women started a running commentary. “Oh, I knew he was a professor.” “Yes, I said she was a teacher.” “I could tell he was a lawyer.” I think they both found their jury duty soul mates that day.
As the questioning of the first panel continued, I could clearly determine who was not going to get picked. The lawyer commonly practiced in that courtroom and knew both the defense and prosecutor. The professor complained about police brutality and found it difficult to separate police officer testimony from current events. The remaining twelve people seemed alright. Some people had spoken up, but no one was especially biased one way or the other.
Then the judge announced who would be staying – four people. We had gone through three rounds of questioning that lasted more than two hours and they only chose four people. And they were the four people that had not spoken at all or had replied yes or no to every question. Were they just too timid to speak up about complicated issues? Did they honestly believe it when they responded with their yes or no? So the only people who were picked were too shy to speak up or too naïve to actually believe that matters of nuance can simply be divided into black and white.
The second group was called and my number was up. I felt a flutter of anxiety as the clerk called number 55. Then there was a ridiculous series of about eight dismissals where each person had some conflict that immediately excused them from the jury pool. When we finally did get to the questions, I paid closer attention to how people responded. It was an outspoken group. I was asked a question about another juror’s response and I disagreed with him. I should have known then that I was off the jury, but I had some notion that they would want a person who was willing to admit that they would be able to disagree with others if they had a strong conviction.
The judge announced who would be remaining – two young girls who were still in college who I had forgotten were even in the jury box with me.
After so many hours of waiting and agonizing over deciding the fate of someone’s life, I was released. I felt that I had withstood a test and come out the other side. And in my elation I hardly noticed the little mouse-voice in my head squeaking that half of the jury that was picked were under 23 and the fate of someone’s life had been left in their inexperienced hands.