the other side of jury dutyPosted: September 10, 2011
For the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I am going to write about one of the most important ways that you as an individual can help ensure a more just society: jury duty.
In spring of 2001 I was arrested for being at the scene of a demonstration. Since I hadn’t done anything, I refused the plea bargain – I was hardly going to pay them $100 to have a conviction follow me around forever – and the police pressed charges against me, which no one thought would come to anything because it was all a lot of nothing.
And then one morning in September, everything changed. I took the bus to work and found out that downtown was being evacuated. When I arrived, we turned on the TV and watched in shock as the planes flew into the buildings.
The rising tide of nationalism in the days and weeks that followed amped up my fear. Would I get a fair trial? Would my jury convict me out of displaced anger? Would my prosecutor, already a vindictive man, try to charge me with something else?
My trial was two months later. My judge was a former police officer who didn’t like people who challenged authority and really didn’t like that I was going to sue the police for abuse, so I was really glad that I’d opted for a jury trial instead of a bench trial. Generally if you’re a defendant and you’re not a cop, you want a jury trial, because a jury will be more sympathetic.
I sat at the table with my attorney while she tried to pick the people who could hear my case fairly and sympathetically. We had to dismiss a few people who said something along the lines of that they couldn’t respect the process or couldn’t be fair to the defense, and one young man who told the attorneys, shaking like a leaf, that he needed to get out of there because he’d been a victim of police abuse too and couldn’t sit through it. In the end, we got a group of people that we weren’t totally thrilled with but who we thought could maybe get through it.
During jury selection my prosecutor started bringing up September 11 and tried to turn my trial from minor misdemeanors into unamerican activities. After a little bit of this, the judge made him stop doing it overtly, but the signal was sent: my prosecutor felt that nationalism compelled a guilty verdict, regardless of the evidence.
My trial took three weeks. When my attorney got to present her defense, I had to testify. We went through everything that had happened that day, and I had to relive the trauma. And then the prosecutor got to cross-examine me, which means he spent two hours trying to trip me up and make me say things I didn’t mean and admit that everything was actually all my fault.
When it finally wrapped up, the judge instructed the jury about what they had to determine and what the law was. I had no idea what they were thinking, since one of the most basic rules of this is that they could have no contact with me or with the attorneys. Apparently there were two men on the jury who felt that it would be patriotic to convict me and they refused to deliberate. My other jurors convinced them to acquit on the only serious charge, and then hung rather than giving in on the others.
So in six months I got to do it again, down to one minor charge, but sitting through the whole horrible mess a second time and with even more abuse from the prosecutor, who was still trying to ride the wave of nationalism and convict me for something, anything, so I couldn’t sue the police.
The second time I was cleared.
I do not know the names of my jurors, but I can never thank them enough. Even with the few who didn’t want to clear me initially, having decent people on my jury kept me from having to go to prison for something I didn’t do. I don’t know where I would be now or how I would be handling things if not for my jurors.
I wish I could pay this forward. I’ve never been summoned and the odds of me being seated are like Han navigating that asteroid field, but that doesn’t diminish my desire. So having been through all of this myself, and knowing that the process was easier on me than it is on many people who do not have the same privileges as I do and for whom so much more is at stake, it cuts me to the bone when people dis on jury duty.
People talk about how much they don’t want to do it. They talk about what you have to say to get out of it, or how jury duty is for people who can’t figure out how to get out of it, stupid people, since the system is stupid.
I’ll be the first in line to say that the system is often stupid and it messes up a lot of things and there’s a lot of injustice, but when you’re called for jury duty, you have a palpable, direct chance to change that. Jury duty is not a random punishment but a civil right, a right that earlier in American history was overtly denied to women and people of color and even now is too often denied quietly with peremptory challenges couched in code. One of the key issues in the Civil Rights Movement was the right to sit on a jury. It’s the right to participate in civic life, to contribute, to help ensure in whatever small way possible that justice is done, to build a world where people are convicted based on evidence and not because the jury can’t relate to their lives or is too pumped up with nationalistic rage or isn’t able to understand the impacts of institutionalized discrimination or doesn’t feel like deliberating or whatever.
The right to sit on a jury is the right to do something besides sit back and shake your head when you see a bad verdict.
It’s the opportunity to give a good verdict. It’s the opportunity to keep someone out of prison.
It could be the most important thing you ever do in your life.