Monday, March 16, 2009


Today marked the end of a long week: three days of jury selection, two days of trial, and one day of deliberation, and I was witness to it all.

The jury selection took as long as it did due to the nature of the case: a black man being accused of raping a white woman. Later, one of the jurors told me something I'd heard before: somewhere in the last decade, some apartments weren't getting rented out, so the landlord took out an ad in Chicago and Gary, Indiana newspapers; the citizens of this town had apparently not had a great many black neighbors, but began to be witness to a rising crime rate--the first murder in many years was gang-related, and just last year at this time a family was shaken up by arrests for crack dealing and making (indeed, the family lived across the street from us). My own life experiences are vastly different; I spent my childhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where my birthday parties had just as many black as white friends, and moving to the Midwest was startling in its near homogeneity. Ultimately, I'm not sure what any of that means--I cannot say I'm not aware of race (what does that word mean anyway? I mean really mean...), of culture, but I also feel, with absolute confidence, that when I was participating in deliberations, that neither the victim nor the perpetrator's race was a factor, and I don't believe it was for the other eleven as well. I am all too familiar of how loaded that situation was, and how the deck can be stacked against someone. (Of course, then, is this harmful thinking too? Again, it honestly was not a factor, but I realize this line of thinking can be damaging too.)

Thursday was by far the most difficult day: it began with the victim taking the stand, her affect strange (we learned she had taken a Valium), her thought process slow and her expression often blank, though just as often, she was crying. I was amazed at the burden of both attorneys; I know it's spoken that the burden of proof is put on the prosecuting attorney, but there is a certain responsibility a public defender has that amazes me. Also, that day testifying: the medical team--the ER nurse and doctor--who did the exam and rape kit, which struck me as another form of (necessary) violation, with swabs and prodding, with clothes as evidence, being permanently exchanged for sweats, a secondary part of a rape kit. The ER nurse explained her professional history, which included "traveling"--thirteen week contracts throughout the western United States, including Denver--and for the decade or so she'd been a nurse, she'd only had two rape cases, and both happened to be here in town. The doctor had seen about sixty, he said, and fifty of those were here in town (he also worked in southern Minnesota as well as on a military base, I believe). We ended our day with the interviewing officer's testimony, including the recorded interview between the officer and the victim, and this is where we left it for the day.

Needless to say, I came home and cried. At the time I didn't know if it was true or not, but the experience was vivid and it was clear the victim had gone through something, had experienced something to bring her in that day, that much we knew.

The second day was more official, with more items being entered into evidence--photos of the living room, clothing, phone records, interview transcripts. It's not all black-and-white, these trials. We are fed these cases on television that give us elements that prove "beyond a shadow of doubt" of guilt or innocence. We're given a litany--the injured hand, the busted chiffarobe, the bruised face, the angry father, the frightened daughter (I taught To Kill a Mockingbird four years running while in the K-12 system--can you tell?). Not so here, and that makes sense--a case wouldn't go to trial if there weren't enough evidence to convict, or just as much evidence to decline a plea bargain. There's always a reason to put fourteen people in those chairs, take away their long workdays and replace them with something that will haunt us for a long time.

And Friday, we hoped closing arguments would close holes, but they didn't. We went into the jury deliberation room, that small box of a place with no windows and a narrow conference table, ready to hash it out. We picked apart the facts, drew a timeline on the board, made a map of the apartment complex, discussed relationships and whose children belonged to whom, and on. We asked each other to pretend as if we were the defendant, or the defendant were our son--what then? What could we bring to the table? We discussed what "beyond a reasonable doubt" actually meant, using the handbook we were given that defines such terms. We went through the four elements of arriving at a verdict (did penetration occur, did it occur against the victim's will, was it achieved by force or coercion, did the event occur in our county on the date in question). We talked and talked, telling ourselves we'd stay all day, as long as it needed, because not only did everyone on the other side of that door deserve our complete fairness and attention, but once we run into each other in town, we want to be able to look each other in the eye and say we'd done the right thing, what was best. And when it appeared we were feeling black-and-white as opposed to that gray area (the one with doubts, which plenty were raised going in, and much was answered by our notes, our charts, our examination of evidence), we then began again, discussing of ways in which we might be able to convince ourselves of a not-guilty verdict, playing devil's advocate and questioning.

In the end, we were only gone three and a half hours. And while we were gone, some officers and others in the courtroom that morning attended the funeral of one of their own who had died of a heart attack during a CPR drill at the station--indeed, with the defibrillators and all other materials close by, the next "best" place to have a heart attack being in an actual hospital. When it was done, the verdict read, our things gathered, the judge came back into our little cave, revealed what had been in the newspaper (the perpetrator was an unregistered level three sex offender--what wasn't mentioned in the article was that he was without an address and the offense happened nearly two decades ago--and the perpetrator opted to not take the stand during the proceedings specifically for this reason--he may have wanted to tell his side of the story, but he knew the prosecuting attorney could ask about prior felonies, putting his credibility into question), and the judge let us ask questions--about the process, details left out of the case, and on, which I felt was incredibly kind of him. We were a curious bunch.

And I do wonder things about the outcome: what might have happened if one certain person had been found to testify, or if he would have testified, or if the investigation would have done certain things, or the child she was babysitting had woken up. We are so talented at the what if game and it can bog us down. It comes down to the facts, what was presented in that courtroom, and we can't speculate in any direction, not in such a way that influences our decision; those conversations can be for later.

I'm glad for the experience, the intimate look at the justice system, going behind the scenes, in a sense, though it's been one of those weighty experiences that will shadow me for a great long while.


leedav said...

Thanks for sharing. I've never been called for jury duty. You always hope that when you are it will be an interesting case but I hadn't really thought about it much more than that. Hope you sleep okay!

A Day That Is Dessert said...

I've never been assigned to jury duty - it sounds intense. I took a walk this evening with a friend who is a judge and was amazed,as always, by her stories.

Margosita said...

This was such a beautifully written and thoughtful post about your jury experience. I enjoyed reading it, thank you!

Chrissy said...

Wow. I can't imagine having to serve on a jury for a case like that. I have never been called for jury duty either, but if I am I'll surely reread this insightful post. Thanks for sharing.