When I received the envelope stamped “Jury Service: Your Civic Duty,” I rolled my eyes. Like almost everyone I know, I’ve been getting these summonses for years, and I am never chosen to be on a jury. So the notice usually just means I have to get up early, slog through rush hour traffic, and sit for four or five hours in a crowded room before being sent home. In the unlikely event that my number is called and I go stand before a judge, I am always rejected by the defense attorney. This is because I have a family member who worked as a law enforcement officer. Defense attorneys always assume that I’ll be biased in favor of the prosecution (nope), or that I will grant a police officer’s testimony more weight than another person’s (not at all). Their false assumptions in this regard always got me out of serving.
So when I arrived at Superior Court, I paid fleeting attention to the little propaganda film about the importance of jury duty. It talked about how founding fathers like John Adams regarded the right to a jury of one’s peers as equal in importance to the right to vote. One commentator pointed out that when you vote, your voice is one among millions. When you serve on a jury, your voice is one among just twelve, giving you an outsized impact on the lives and property of your fellow citizens. That caught my ear.
The court officers called for potential jurors holding numbers one through seventy to report to a courtroom. I was number 48. Once in the courtroom, there was an undercurrent of good natured grumbling until a judge entered and explained that this would be a criminal case. The defendant was charged with nine counts of forcible rape of a child, plus one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The charges were very specific and quite graphic as to the acts alleged; I could not list them here without grossing out the readers and probably violating the terms of service of this site. When the charges were read, the mood in the room instantly got very sober and serious.
We were all called before the judge in numerical order, beginning with number one. Since twelve jurors and two alternates would be needed, I hoped against hope that they could fill that number before they got to me. No such luck. When I stood before the judge, I answered the question about having family members in law enforcement and waited for the inevitable objection from the defense. It never came. The judge also asked me if I would give a police officer’s testimony more weight than a civilian’s. I answered truthfully, but deliberately hesitated a second or two, as if I needed to think before saying no. Again, no objection was raised.
Then the judge asked me something truly interesting: Did I have any religious convictions that would prevent me from rendering a fair verdict in this trial? I thought about that. I certainly didn’t want to spend days listening to explicit descriptions of sex organs and unnatural acts. And I certainly didn’t like the idea of having to discuss details of the crime in mixed company. Perhaps I could invoke my personal standards of propriety to get myself out of what was sure to be a very disagreeable task.
But I couldn’t bring myself to take that route. The complainant was a young girl who was fourteen years old when she was allegedly gang-raped. If the charges were true, then someone needed to step up and provide justice for her. And if the charges against this defendant were false, then the reasoning ability of twelve people was all that stood between an innocent man and the deep pit over which he now teetered. Someone had to do the dirty work of sifting through the evidence, deciding the facts, and rendering a just verdict. How could I refuse? I wasn’t about to become that guy who demands that justice be done, but declines to get his own hands dirty doing it. So I told the judge the truth: I would not be happy deliberating on this jury, but I could render a fair verdict. I was chosen as juror number seven.
Over the course of the next week-and-a-half, I observed a number of things. In no particular order they include:
Juries aren’t as dumb as people think. The judge’s instructions to this jury were read aloud, and the process took an hour. There were precise instructions about what could or could not be considered evidence. Many things we would have wanted to know were not admissible at trial. We were to avoid discussing the trial with anyone outside the jury room, avoid all media accounts, and avoid any online research about any aspect of the trial. We could not be moved by either sympathy or animosity. Only the evidence that had been admitted at trial could be considered in arriving at a verdict. By contrast, when the general public follows a trial in the media, there is lots of speculation and assertions that are not admitted at trial. The court of public opinion is more freewheeling than a court of law. When a jury reaches a verdict different than the public’s, many conclude the jury members were stupid or corrupt. They are neither. But they are severely constrained, and this is good.
If the administration of justice were a business, it would be big business indeed. The day this trial began, there were fifteen other trials scheduled to take place in the same courthouse. In my little home state of Massachusetts there are 20 Superior Court locations and 62 District Courts. That’s a veritable justice factory churning out trials and verdicts, with monetary damages, jail time or prison time for the losers. This is high stakes stuff, and except for high-profile cases, it goes on quietly in the background, unnoticed and unremarked by most people. But for the people caught up in the system, it is a big deal. The defendant in my case was a young man in his twenties. He tried to look stoic throughout the trial. But when the jury found him guilty of seven of ten counts, he sat with his face in his hands. Each count carried a potential sentence of fifteen years to life. His bail was revoked, and he was remanded to custody pending sentencing next week.
Since this blog is primarily about writing, allow me these two observations: First, real life is intense. So there is no excuse for writing sterile, emotionally flat fiction. This was a gut-wrenching trial for the complainant, her family, the defendant, and the jurors. . Furthermore, there is intense drama around all of us; people experiencing unspeakable joy, or shattering grief, or blinding rage, or crippling fear. We need only take the time to look around and see it. If our fiction doesn’t provoke strong emotion, it’s because our characters and/or their stories aren’t real enough.
Second, answering the judge’s questions during jury selection reminded me of what I like about lead character Eddie Caruthers in Fighting Back. He’s deeply flawed in many ways (aren’t we all), but he is always willing to wade into a bad situation to help someone. He knows that to make the world a cleaner place, he sometimes has to get his hands dirty. This he willingly does, and it’s one of the things I admire about him. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I hope you’ll agree!