And the verdict is...

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Friday before Thanksgiving, I received two government-issued summons: one was to pay fines for crossing the double white lines in the Peach Pass lane (for the record, those cameras do work); the second was the dreaded summons to appear for jury duty.

That's how I began the Monday after my holiday weekend - crammed into the largest courtroom available with more than 130 other poor souls who beheld an equally ominous light blue envelope in hand. Looking at the crowded courtroom, I attempted to mentally calculate my odds of getting picked. One in ten? I'd probably be excused before lunch.

But then...well, then, the stay-at-home caretakers were excused. And the peace officers. And the students in the midst of exams. And the over-70s wishing to tender their service to Judge Judy from the comfort of their own living room. The hard wooden benches looked much more sparse, but still, my chances of dismissal were still greater than the chances of selection, right? Until the clerk informed us that three trials required 12-person juries this week. And suddenly, I found myself in a group whittled to just 36 persons, and my percentages of getting picked rocketing upward.

I arrived at the courthouse at 8:15 a.m. and shuffled from room to room as an anonymous summons number for the better part of the day, finally being questioned by the attorneys around 1:30, and then herded into the grand jury room to wait. So by 4:45 when my name was called as the third juror in the criminal case at hand, the tediousness of the day had me wanting to object.

Instead, I reported as instructed the next morning for service with 12 perfect strangers. Having had to cancel a business trip and turn a project I very much wanted to work on over to someone else due to my selection, I felt petulant and irritable. But sometimes when everything seems to be going wrong, life will surprise you with something unexpected.

One case, three days, more than half a dozen witnesses, 20-something pieces of evidence, two closing arguments and almost three hours of deliberation, I learned a few statutes that I thought worth sharing.

1. Challenge your assumptions.Think actively about the ways you fill in the blanks of all kinds of narratives without real knowledge or understanding and recognize that those assumptions can be wrong, misguiding and close-minded.

2. Common bonds are easier to find than you might think. I sat down Tuesday with 12 strangers. The group was a multi-ethnic, multiracial, multi-generational mix of men and women from all different walks of life. Common ground was not immediately apparent, but it was there, waiting to be uncovered.

3. Turn off your phone and pay attention to the people around you. Every morning, we relinquished our cell phones to the bailiff at the courtroom door. Once sequestered in the jury room, we had no choice to but to talk to each other. And since we couldn't talk about the case until instructed to do so, we talked about ourselves and our lives and found those common places that would never have been found if we'd all been playing Bejeweled Blitz (which I am so guilty of doing).

4. Restore your faith in humanity. While I was assigned jury duty in the wake of an alleged crime, which might lessen my opinion of my fellow man, I served with a group of really good and lovely people who shared one bathroom, very little elbow room in the jury room, zero leg room in the jury box and a not insignificant deliberation with genuine human kindness.

5. People may surprise you with their earnestness. I realize that my experience is a millisecond in the grand scheme of the justice system. I'm no judicial expert and have no wish to comment on the reality of fair and just procedures on the macro level. What I can tell you is that 12 people sat in a room today and very seriously and thoughtfully considered testimony, evidence and the applicable law (which was no small task) and did so with a commitment to render a verdict we unanimously felt was indicative of the charges laid before us. Everyone spoke. Everyone cared. Everyone took to heart that we collectively determined the guilt or innocence of the defendant.

6. Say thank you. Every time we left the jury box and filed into the jury room, a bailiff held the door for us. And when we left the jury room through the courtroom, another bailiff escorted us to the elevator where a court officer waited until we were all packed tight for the ride down. I was heartened by how many of my fellow jurors thanked the bailiffs and the court officers. And one of our bailiffs told us as we left today that not every jury is a "sweet" as us. Let no small kindness go unnoticed.

7. Police-escorted lunches can be cool. While I have no desire to ride in a prisoner transport van under most circumstances, I had occasion to be shuttled to lunch today with my fellow jurors in one such vehicle. And since it was under lawful circumstances, I will say that arriving with a two-officer escort gets you good service.

And lastly, I must share that I left today with a piece of paper in my pocket. On it is written 11 names and 11 phone numbers. Because beyond rendering a verdict, we managed to render something else - real, human connections. Connections with people who don't look like us - who are older or younger or were born in a different country, who do different jobs and live different lives. But who are people - real people - who we hugged as we departed and called out promises to have dinner soon to wish each other happy holidays. And so the verdict is, people are people - good people - until proven otherwise.

Court is adjourned.