Today, I went to a local district court in response to a summons for jury duty. This was my first summons. The timing was inconvenient, of course. I got the usual round of jokes from coworkers about gently nudging the truth to get out of it. Honestly, though, I was and am okay with the idea of civic duty, and serving on a jury. If my day ever comes to be tried for a crime, I want my jury to consist of civic-minded peers who want to do the right thing.
Sometimes, the right thing is to be excused from a jury. This was such a time. My experience was awkward, humiliating and humbling. I like to think that I am a rational person. I am a software engineer who loves logic and reason, and who, in general, believes that while we are emotional creatures, reason is the only tool by which we might elevate ourselves above the morass of life’s perpetual seething to accomplish great things. Perhaps this is hubris on my part. After all, what were the odds that my very first jury panel would be for a trial in which I could not be impartial?
After some introductions and an overview of the process, the panel was informed that the defendant was a woman charged with assault for domestic violence against a man. My very first thought was that there was no way that I could sit on that jury. The next two hours of the jury selection process felt like a protracted approach to a foregone conclusion. It was painful for me, as perhaps it needed to be to ensure a fair outcome for the defendant.
During jury selection, the judge, the prosecutor and the counsel for the defendant all took time to ask us rather pointed questions in order to arrive at judgments of our character with respect to our impartiality toward the defendant and toward the court. If every jury selection process is as thorough as this one, perhaps there is yet hope for our justice system I laid bare, under oath, the reasons that I might succumb to bias against the defendant despite my good faith and best efforts. I left that room in a state of vulnerability that I thought I had conquered years ago.
The first few questions, asked by the judge, were fairly straightforward procedural things. Has anyone ever been a juror before? Was that jury able to reach a verdict? Has anyone been party to a hung jury? Stuff like that.
Then began the questions more closely related, presumably, to elements of the case. The first such question was the dealbreaker. “Have any of you, or someone close to you, been involved in domestic violence?” I had expected this question – and sat on my anxious anticipation – since they informed us about the nature of the trial. A few hands went up, including mine.
I was in the back row. The judge started with the front. A few people had sisters, aunts, or other relatives who had experienced domestic abuse. Three rows, each with five possible respondents, before my turn came. “Juror Sixteen?”
“When I was a boy, I was, well, rather savagely abused by a stepmother. A few years later, she also abused my father.”
“Was that event ever brought to trial?” The judge asked.
I replied, “Not to my knowledge.”
At that point, I might have been what, in modern vernacular, has come to be called ‘triggered.’ I loathe what has become of that concept. How cheap it has become. My mind’s eye flashed back again and again as I filled with anxiety and the crisp memory of the futility of being a child in an abusive situation, lacking the words to describe actions that I could not understand. The questions were not yet finished, so I applied myself to keeping calm.
Next question: “Does anyone who raised their hand to that question feel or believe that their impartiality might be affected by these experiences?”
I raised my hand sheepishly, and waved it in kind of a “so-so” motion. I was so embarrassed to have to concede the possibility of bias, when I believed (and continue to believe) so strongly in civic duty. The judge did not appear surprised to see my hand go up. “Juror Sixteen is indicating that he kind of feels that he might. Juror Sixteen, with this being a domestic violence case and the defendant being a woman, why do you feel that your impartiality might be affected by your experiences?”
I started to gesticulate, struggling to find words and get them out into the open. This was something that I did not want to admit. She told me, “You have to speak, this is all recorded.”
“I would like to believe that I could….”
As politely as was practical, she interrupted, “Well, this isn’t about what you would like. This is about what you can do and whether this will affect the trial.”
I mustered a response. “I believe that, while I would like to be fair and impartial, I am concerned that my experiences with abuse at the hands of a woman and my general observation that the court system favors women in such circumstances might introduce bias.”
“What kind of bias?”
“Bias against the defendant for being a woman tried for domestic violence. I’m concerned that I might not be able to give her a fair shake.” There, I said it. It was humiliating, but not only was I under oath, I owed it to this woman to do my part to ensure that she receive a fair trial. I had declared the possibility of my bias and revealed myself to be inadequate for this trial. She asked a few more questions about the possibility of bias, similar in theme but with slightly differing assertions, to each of which I raised my hand with more resigned embarrassment than the last.
The questions then drifted to other topics. Has anyone ever been a victim of a crime? A lot of car prowls and burglaries surfaced, as well as one experience that sounded truly terrible. Has anyone ever been a witness in a trial? One or two hands went up. Does anyone have family or friends who work in the justice system? Et cetera.
The prosecutor was up next, asking questions about beliefs and opinions about the justice system, the burden of proof, reasonable doubt, and a few pointed questions toward a few of the jurors about the experiences that they had shared. I don’t recall her spending much time on me, which was not a tremendous surprise: she, the defense, the judge and I must all have known that there was no way I was going to be selected for the jury. I felt sheepish, but continued to do my level best to participate.
The counsel for the defense finally got her chance to question us. The astute reader might anticipate where this is going, but might be surprised to discover just how long it took to get there. She addressed the panel, asking questions about parenting, discipline in the household and times when things may have gone awry for those parents in the panel. Finally, she came around to me.
Looking at the form I had filled out prior to the panel, she said, “Juror Sixteen, I see that you do not have any children, but I will definitely be coming back to you.” She finished quickly her barrage of parenting questions toward Jurors Seventeen through Twenty.
“Juror Sixteen, given your background, do you believe that you can be fair and impartial during this trial?”
I attempted to muster a shred of dignity and replied, “I can’t say for certain. I think it will be a challenge, but I will try.”
She drove the point home. “If you were the counsel for the defense, would you want someone like you to sit in this jury?”
“Almost certainly not,” I replied, as honestly as I could.
In my district, before a jury panel convenes, everybody watches a dumb little video about the process. This video includes an admonition to the audience that they not take personally the questions asked of them during the panel, no matter how difficult they may be. The purpose of these questions is meant to inform a judgement of our utility as jurors in a specific trial, rather than to invoke judgement of our value as people. This point was reiterated by the judge prior to beginning the panel. I tried to keep this in mind.
I had been in the building for over four hours, of which the panel might have taken a little over two. From the moment that the nature of the charge was stated, to the moment that the defense attorney hit me with that final question, I poured a lot of energy and mental discipline into remaining as focused and stoic as I could. I guess I was a little surprised at how painful the experience was, and I certainly had moments where I thought that I might break down a little. I’ve spent many years doing battle with my demons. I don’t think of myself as a delicate flower, but in this case, circumstances had aligned themselves just so.
Nobody else in the panel had experienced domestic abuse personally. Nobody, aside from the judge and the attorneys, seemed to care all that much that I had. Maybe they thought I was just trying to ditch out, as my coworkers might have recommended with tongue in cheek. The questions over, the judge instructed the attorneys to move their chairs to face the bench, and the selection process began.
The judge asked, “Would the prosecution like to request to excuse any jurors for cause?”
The prosecutor asked that another juror be excused for his prior experiences with other trials on other matters. The defense did not object.
“Would the defense like to excuse any jurors for cause?”
“Yes, your honor. The defense would like to excuse Juror Sixteen for cause of (unintelligible).” Ironically, I didn’t hear what the cause was. I mean, it’s not hard to figure out, but I would like to have heard it. She was too far away, facing the other direction and speaking quietly.
“Does the prosecution object?”
“No, your honor.”
Both the prosecution and the defense had requested a juror to be excused with cause. The peremptory dismissals were next, wherein the attorneys may request that up to three jurors be excused without stating a reason. I believe that five were chosen in total. Of the remaining jurors in the panel, the judge selected a sufficient number to hear the case. The rest of us were instructed to make our way back to the orientation room to await further instruction.
Maybe forty-five minutes passed while we waited to hear whether we would need to return to sit on another panel and endure another round of questioning. During that time, some of the other panelists from that courtroom conversed a little bit with each other. Others had been inconvenienced by their summons, but a couple of us had bared some deep scars. Nobody approached me, nor even made eye contact, though this might have been for many reasons. I felt much like I once did as a child: alone and vulnerable.
I believe I should take an opportunity to do a little disclaiming. First, by no means do I intend to imply that I was in any way entitled to feel a certain way or otherwise have the environment accommodate me more than any other individual, regardless of circumstance. For all that it may sound like I’m whining, the intended message here is of hope and duty. Second, I have lived with the burden of childhood abuse for almost my entire life. Child abuse is bad not just because of the transient harm inflicted, but because it places a burden of futility and alienation on a human who is not yet capable of reasoning about it.
That few people can or will ever understand this burden is itself a part of the burden, and part of why abuse is such a terrible thing. People are generally absorbed by their own experience, and in circumstances of rigid formality, expressions of sympathy may be as downright inappropriate as they are difficult to muster. As someone who has dealt with this his entire life, I am well aware of the boundaries at play here, and intend only to convey the emotion itself of loneliness and vulnerability as I experienced it at the time.
At last, the clerk came through with our instructions. You’re clear to leave for the day. Please come back on Thursday. Thank you and drive safely.
The point in all of this is that, in order to function, a system of justice must strive to be fair at all costs save for fairness itself. It must dig deep to drag darkness into the light at every step. Jurisprudence requires vigilance and a commitment to the process of reason. My emotions are important to me, but they do not and must absolutely never interfere with a criminal trial. If I had been in the defendant’s chair, rather than a juror’s, I would hope for nothing less than total professionalism on the part of all parties as they honor the presumption of innocence and the duty to uphold a system that does the best it can to mete out justice.
I know that the justice system has many flaws. Every system has flaws. Today, though, in that courtroom, I believe I did the right thing by being candid The other participants in the trial made the right decision by dismissing me from the jury. It was painful, enervating and humbling, but it was the right thing to do. My emotional well-being was disrupted for a time, but for very important reasons.
I suppose I’m still a little shaken up, but elements of the experience have given me a renewed sense of hope. After living in a society that, so far, either hasn’t given a damn about my experiences and those of my father – or has assumed that we deserved them – the people in this courtroom, in at least this circumstance, appeared to be taking seriously the allegation of abuse to be determined by trial. It was an eye-opening experience for someone who grew up in the age of the Duluth Model.
I do hope that the defendant receives a fair trial under the presumption of innocence. I do not care for the court of public opinion and find the behavior of the media regarding criminal cases generally to be abhorrent, but the public and the media are not answerable or accountable to any one of us. On the other hand, the court of law is accountable to us all. We must continue to hold it to the highest possible standard, including a burden of proof – beyond reasonable doubt – so exacting that it must pry into the darkest recesses of the human condition, discovering gaps where reason might fail, in order to ensure the fairest possible outcomes.