A few weeks ago I got a notice in the mail that I was to serve jury duty. This was my first call to serve, so I had no idea what to expect.
A few people I told set my expectation that there would be just a lot of waiting around and to bring work or something to read. Good advice all around.
They say to get there at 8:15am, but if you get there at 8:20 and the security guard is fingering every item in your purse, laptop bag, and turning on your laptop himself for 6 minutes and you actually get there at 8:26 you won’t get in trouble.
After feeling like my entire arsenal of personal items had been violated, I settled into a chair in the back of the jurors room and got out my laptop to get some work done. Free wifi! What a nice surprise! Without which I would have been relegated to entertaining myself on my iPhone for who knows how long.
Finally some time after 9am, a lady came in and addressed the room, about 60 of us, what we were going to do and put on a video for us to watch- it was probably the same video they show 5th graders learning about the judicial system for the first time. It all seemed very basic to me, and I was never a big government/history person. The fascinating thing that I did learn is that in the state of Virginia, jurors not only decide the guilty/not guilty verdict, but they also determine the sentence if the defendant is found guilty.
Now I am happy to show up and serve as a citizen of this community and do my duty. I would even think of myself as a very fair and just person to do make decisions like these. If I had the tolerance to go through law school, which I do not, I would fancy myself ultimately to be a judge. I love to hear both sides and make fair judgements about things. Even when they don’t go in my favor in real life. I can operate under a pretense of no bias whatsoever. It’s a gift.
I looked around at the 29 other people chosen for my jury group, those which the judge and both the prosecutor and defense attorney would choose a set of 12 jurors from for the criminal case we were called to hear. We were told prior to the court being assembled that we were to hear a case of a woman who was accusing her ex-boyfriend of strangling her and assaulting her with a firearm. He clearly was pleading innocent, which is why there was a case to be heard by a jury in the first place.
I saw a number of reasonable looking people. And by reasonable, I don’t mean pretty or dressed well. People who look like me – like they don’t really have a dog in the fight and just want to hear both sides and make an unbiased decision. Then there were a handful of middle-to-older-age white women who were staring daggers into the defendant, a young black man. They had already passed judgement.
If I were the prosecuting attorney I would want as many of those snitty-faced white women on the jury as possible. And, if I were the defense attorney, I would want them all OFF. Anyone who had a case of domestic violence or assault with a firearm, for themselves or anyone close to them, was automatically stricken. The possibility they could be unbiased was not high considering their personal experiences and the emotions that stay attached with the past.
They asked numerous questions to whittle the potential jurors down from 30 to just the 12 that eventually would be selected. And after hearing many confessions from other jurors about how their daughters, sisters, nieces, or themselves had been sexually assaulted or abused by a partner or alcoholic, or threatened at gunpoint made me feel so very lucky. My answers to all of those questions were no, no, no. I had to hold back tears as one women told the judge and attorneys about how her 19 year old daughter was sexually assaulted last year while at school.
Was I comfortable making a judgement about guilt or innocence in this case without a bias? Yes. I would boast that I am the perfect candidate for this. Especially in this case.
But, when they asked whether I was comfortable about making a judgement on the sentencing if the defendant was found guilty, I paused.
And I thought.
And I became very concerned that even if I was 99% certain the defendant was guilty of the crimes he was accused of, I would have a hard time living with the guilt of being a direct part of the decision to place that young man in jail for however many years of his life. I think, in terms of fairness, character and history play an important part of how an individual should receive punishment. Those aren’t things that we would be privy to as a jury, or that we would be able to assess fully in just a few days of trial. What if this young guy was a really loving person and a caring father and was just provoked while on his last nerve on that particular day? That doesn’t make it right. But it also doesn’t justify decades of payment in jail either.
So as it turns out, I thankfully didn’t get selected as part of the jury. And I feel good that some of those snitty-faced women got sent home also. Hopefully that young man will have a fair trial, innocent or not.
And also, as it turns out, I might be a fair judge, but I wouldn’t be a good one. Too much guilt for this girl.