I’ve always thought of myself as a fair person.
My kids may not have thought the same while they were growing up, but I really did attempt to hear everyone’s side of the story to determine the truth when there was an argument, altercation, or any other typical disagreement between siblings.
I think I also try to be fair in dealing with people, either those I know or strangers. So a few days ago, my self-declared sense of being just and fair met a significant challenge.
Author Victor Hugo once wrote, “Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just.”
He wasn’t kidding.
I’m certainly no student of the law but I do know that the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right to a fair trial for a person accused and arrested for a crime. Depending on the crime, the alleged perpetrator also has the right to a trial by jury.
That’s where I come in. A couple of months ago, I received a summons in the mail to report for jury duty. Inwardly….okay, outwardly too….I groaned a bit. Not because I wanted to shirk my responsibility as a citizen of my country, state, and county or be derelict in my civic duty, but because in my lifetime, I’ve received about six or seven such pieces of paper.
I’ve actually lost count how many jury summonses I’ve received, but after that many times, I question the idea that people are called “randomly.” I’ve known many people who have never once been called for jury duty, so I have to wonder why my name keeps coming up in the pool.
I vividly recall the first time I received one of these notices. I was 19 and away at college. The day I was to appear for jury duty was during finals and that thought rendered me nearly hysterical. I couldn’t come home and miss exams; obviously, I needed to be excused.
In those days, one had to actually appear in front of a judge in his office to be excused from jury duty. My father took the day off work to come pick me up at college (I had no car) and drive me to our county courthouse to appear before the judge and ask to be excused.
I was terrified, so my dad accompanied me but he made me speak to the judge. After a lengthy lecture on how young people wanted the right to vote so badly (18 year-olds had just been given that right) but didn’t want to take responsibilities of civic duty seriously, he finally did excuse me.
Fast forward a few years. As a young mom, I can recall at least twice receiving jury summons. Since we moved back here to our home state, I’ve received several such notices in my mail box.
The last time I appeared for jury duty, I didn’t make the cut for selection. Someone very close to me had been a victim of the same kind of crime for which the defendant was on trial. The judge called me to the bench to ask me questions.
When he inquired whether I could put my opinions and emotions aside and hear the case in a fair manner, I answered honestly. For that particular crime, I could not. The defense attorney challenged to have me excused.
But I sincerely thought I could be a fair and impartial juror on any other trial for any other crime.
I was wrong.
On the appointed day last week, I arrived at the courthouse. I surveyed the courtroom’s high ceilings while all of us prospective jurors waited for proceedings to begin. Silhouettes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln along with portraits of past judges stared down at us as we completed questionnaires with our names, addresses, marital status, municipalities, education, occupation, number of children, spouses’ occupation, spouses’ education, and children’s education.
The older gentleman sitting next to me leaned over and said, “Isn’t this profiling?”
The courtroom was silent. I mean absolutely silent while we waited for the next phase. A black-robed judge entered and after welcoming us and expressing appreciation for our service, he went through a lengthy list of questions on our dossier to complete one at a time.
Afterwards, we sat again in silence except for the time we were asked to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. As we waited, sobering quietness engulfed us. Then one by one, names were called for the first case’s jury pool. My name was not announced.
Those 50 potential jurors went to another courtroom. From the rest of us, 45 more names were identified for the second trial. My name was included.
The judge presiding over that case introduced the District Attorney, the Defense Attorney, and the defendant, who all sat facing us. An officer of the court asked us to stand, raise our right hands, and take an oath that we responded to our questionnaire inquiries with truthful answers.
When the judge announced the serious charges against the defendant, my stomach actually churned and I believe I had a visible reaction to that statement. Aggravated assault, sexual assault, rape and several other charges. The alleged victim was also in the courtroom and was identified. I stared at the defendant and I’m not kidding here, I got a chill.
The next procedure took quite a bit of time. The judge asked us numerous questions; if we had a response to his inquiries, we raised our jury number. During this time, I had a direct view of the defendant and let me tell you, he wasn’t winning any brownie points by his actions.
He repeatedly, and I do mean repeatedly, glared at the alleged victim at the far back corner of the courtroom. Talk about trying to intimidate someone, he was the poster child for intimidation, if you ask me. Once he locked eyes with me. I did not avert my eyes but merely stared back at him. And then I shocked myself by thinking, “You did it.”
The longer it took for the attorneys to finish this challenge phase of jury panel selection, the more my stomach churned and I squirmed in my seat watching the defendant defiantly glare at the victim. A young woman seated next to me also shifted in her seat, obviously just as uncomfortable as I was. I glanced at her and she whispered to me, “He’s creepy. I can’t believe he keeps staring at her!”
The end result was this. I was not chosen to sit on that jury, probably because I had prior knowledge of the alleged crime from a newspaper account I had read which I related honestly during the challenge phase.
And I’m glad. Because the longer I sat there watching the defendant, the more convinced I was that he was guilty as sin. May God forgive me, but there’s no way I would have been an impartial juror. That man would not have received a fair trial from me and I would have had to stand up, admit my biased opinion and ask to be excused had I been chosen.
I admire the 12 citizens and two alternates who will serve as the trial jury and who must be impartial and fairly listen to both sides of this case. I can only pray justice is served.