Last week I took part in a long standing American tradition which some would say is the very bedrock of our society. I was a juror. A few months ago I received the summons, and oddly enough whenever I told people about it I was met with eye rolls, scoffs, and piteous looks. We say that America is the greatest country in the world, but when it comes right down to it….
At the orientation we were given a pamphlet and some verbal instructions on how to conduct ourselves during the process. We call the hotline phone number every weeknight to see if we are to report the next day, and if so we are instructed where to go. As we neared the first of the month well meaning friends gave me advice on what to wear, how to hold my face, or what body language to utilize to “get out of it”.
The day of selection came. We were all herded into a courtroom and sat down facing the bench. A well dressed group of people faced us, standing as we walked into the room. Here we were, a slice of America, dressed in work clothes, scrubs, jeans, casual office wear facing a group of eight lawyers, pressed and dressed in courtroom finery, a defendant, and a plaintiff. The selection process took all day (luckily I had brought a book). We had the appropriate amount of breaks, and then at the end of the day they called the final fourteen jurors. I made the cut.
The next day we reported to the courtroom and were immediately whisked away by the bailiff into the jury room where we made ourselves as comfortable as possible in the sparse room which held a long conference table and a pot of coffee. Once we had all reported we were herded back into the courtroom, sent in by the bailiff in an assigned order. We sat down. The judge, a tiny lady with a no nonsense voice, called us by juror number to make sure we were all accounted for. The first plaintiff’s lawyer called a witness, and just like that court was in session.
We were given a small notebook and pencils to take notes during the trial. Glancing down the line I saw intense faces, quick scurries of notes and then listening again. We knew that what we were doing was important. Not particularly interesting or glamorous, but important. The people sitting in the courtroom had waited a long time for their day in court, and we the jury, were the sole decision makers for the outcome.
We had breaks to stretch our legs, and an hour for lunch around noon. Each time we left and court was in recess the judge gave us specific instructions not to discuss the events of the trial with each other or with anyone else, not to engage in social media of any kind regarding the trial, and to avoid media which may discuss the events of the trial. All of this I can understand. At first I thought “My husband won’t tell anyone. Surely, I can tell him,” But then I thought about it and I realized that as a juror my job is to remain completely unbiased to the evidence that we are given. If I told him what the case was about and he made any comment “Oh, you know how fill in the blanks are about their you know what’s,” then my juror-ness will have been compromised.
The judge did not just off handedly remind us not to talk to others about the trial, she admonished us every. Single. Time. Her words were the same, which belied the fact that this was part of her job to constantly remind us of the importance of this step. Our job was simple. Listen to everything and keep your mouth shut.
By day two we were all getting a little bit comfortable with each other. We would share tidbits about ourselves, exchanging pleasantries about our jobs and daily lives. During one of these breaks when we were all sitting in the jury room waiting for our summons, one of the jurors started to talk about the lawyers personality. Very discretely the other jurors veered the conversation away from that topic as it was in fact quite taboo. This gentleman surely should have known better, but apparently he did not.
He was an older man with silver gray hair and a kind face. In my Internal Back Story that I sometimes write for people that I don’t know very well, I had him as a Deacon in a Baptist church. There had been times when he had expressed his frustration with not understanding the jury process. He had said “Telling us not to form an opinion is like telling us not to think!” His comment about the lawyers was brought to the attention of the bailiff and the judge. We were then individually brought into the courtroom, sworn in and questioned by the judge and the lawyers until everyone was comfortable that the integrity of the trial was still intact.
That was that.
Until the next day.
One of the other ladies and I were in the elevator going down to the break room, and we both expressed that we were glad the judge did that as we were a little uncomfortable with the comments that had been made. We arrived in the break room followed shortly after by the Deacon and some of the other jurors. We all chatted over lunch, filler conversation really. At one point we were all talking about our favorite fast food offerings, the Wendy’s Oatmeal bar and MdDonald’s Shamrock Shake made the list. And then…
The Deacon did it again. Only this time he mentioned the other lawyer, and how he seems like a really nice guy. Now he is clearly showing a bias. Dang.
After the lunch break we all frittered around in the jury room twiddling our thumbs. Several of the people expressed their displeasure with having nothing to do (again, I had brought a book). One man said he would rather be digging a ditch than sitting on a jury… and he hated digging ditches. Some people tried to stay positive and expressed how much they had learned about the justice system and what is involved in the trial. About an hour later the bailiff stuck his head in. We had all become familiar with him and were relieved that he was coming to gather us to the courtroom.
But in fact he only called one. The lady who had been my companion in the breakroom. A short time later, the bailiff returns for the next juror, another one who was in the breakroom with us. The third time he returned he opened the door wide, says “You guys get a personal visit,”
In walks the judge.
After we gather up our collective jaws, she informs us that she has had to declare a mistrial. Even the small comments made by Juror Deacon compromised us, she explained. That is why she reminded us each and every time we recessed. Jury misconduct, is what she called it. She said in all of her years as a judge this was her first mistrial.
Our job had been to listen. That was it. Nearly everyone understood this, and understood that we were a part of something bigger than ourselves. We all had a purpose to fulfill and we knew that we did not have the whole story. We did not need to understand why. One person’s need to know with certainty caused the whole system to come to a clashing grinding halt.
The plaintif and defendent had waited twelve years for their day in court. The judge said they may have to wait another several months or up to over a year to retry the case.
We don’t always have to know everything. Sometimes we just need fulfill our purpose for that which is greater than ourselves. Even if we don’t understand it.