The halls of the courthouse are painted this drab green that makes you wonder what kind of person makes those kinds of decisions for a public building and doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in government. With few exceptions, there are no wall decorations, no picture frames, save maybe a scant poster about employee rights. If you didn’t know it was a courthouse, you might think it was a psychiatric hospital from the mid-century before entering its more sacred halls.
The courtroom itself, it would not have surprised me if there had been an episode of Law & Order filmed there. The chairs, the walls, the pews, all of it millwork, likely a stained hard maple. That much wood drowns out every thing and everyone else in the room and adds to the gravitas of why we were all there.
I had been called to serve as a juror, the defendent having the right to be judged by his peers and not by any government or dictatorial entity who decides who is from who isn’t “guilty.”
And being called to serve in this way was like rediscovering my childhood. Maybe it was some sense of civic duty or patriotism, like becoming a Boy Scout all over again. Or the jokes about Liz Lemon showing up at jury duty dressed as Princess Leia or other pop culture references to this responsibility we all share.
Honestly, I think I was excited because–even though everyone told me about long lines, sitting for hours, the inevitable boredom, or all the silent waiting you have to do–I saw past all of that stuff; I wanted to be a part of making something fair.
I’m not sure where my odd obsession with making everything fair comes from, but this was a chance to be a part of a decision that would deeply impact another human being’s life, and I wasn’t about to turn from the chance to do my due diligence, stepping into the moment of gravitas, and weighing in where I could.
I cannot and will not share the specifics of what’s an ongoing trial, like names or locations, though I’ll give you a basic overview: the case involved a middle-aged black male who had allegedly attacked and injured a middle-aged white male law enforcement officer. The plaintiff included two white females who worked for the State of New Jersey, while the defendant’s lawyer was also a black male. Most of the jury–all but two jurors–had already been selected during voir dire in previous days, and it took about five hours to find the final two jurors out of about a hundred of us who had been called.
Those five hours soured me on jury duty and soured me or whether the justice system in America still has any legitimacy at all to call itself “fair.”
We were asked when we sat down in the sacred pews to fill out a questionnaire that was trying to get to the heart of our biases: what news we watched, whether we believed police officers more or less likely to tell the truth, if previous experience with family or friends or elsewhere might affect our ability to reach a “fair” verdict.
One of those questions asked of us was whether we could comfortably reach a decision about a person’s guilt or innocence based on the law and not based around what the law should be: jurors are not asked to philosophize or to bring morality to bear. They’re expected to be legalistic and superficial, their ethics never exceeding conventional morality.
I found and find that annoying but I could live with it. It didn’t mean I wasn’t biased in other ways. I jotted a note to the side–“I’m not sure how to measure the difference between what I might call ‘facts I know’ and ‘bias.'” After all, if facts bias me against or in favor of someone, isn’t that decidedly different from biases based entirely on prejudice or false news? And if so, shouldn’t the real concern be with the latter and not the former?
We all have biases, no question. A good example of ways I’m biased is that I’m a white male, and white men have historically shown considerable prejudice, intentional or not, against minorities. I recognize that is a bias that’s part of my culture, perhaps ingrained in me in a way I wish it wasn’t. Honoring that is absolutely crucial to be able to serve fairly as a juror.
But that seems very different to me from facts that collectively sway my perception of reality: Am I really “biased” for knowing, for example, that police kill a disproportionate number of minorities every year? On the assumption the many studies backing up that fact are true, shouldn’t that be a consideration that the jury contemplates if it wishes to claim fairness?
It almost seems as though the justice system we are working with in the United States feels that the ideal juror, in addition to lacking a moral compass, should be completely uninformed–a blank, almost useless mind, a worthless canvas.
One of the more unsettling moments came as the judge would ask questions of newly selected jurors such as, “What kind of TV do you watch?” and they would answer with some selection of “Fox News,” “Honey Boo Boo,” or “Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress.” Some of the answers were kind of silly or funny in the moment, though in hindsight, the trash people watch is everything you need to know about why we’re in such a terrible situation we’re facing in America.
But what was perhaps more deeply troubling was that the answer evoked so much laughter–or even jokes about it from the judge. A man’s life was on the line; his fate seriously questioned by the State, but the judge wanted a light moment where we could all laugh together, so that’s what we got.
And my concerns didn’t stop there.
This was a case involving charges against someone who had supposedly attacked a law enforcement official. Why, then, is the room filled with police glaring at the would-be jurors, or firmly and sternly yelling orders when we were called. The argument, of course, would be for our own security, and to that end it’s undoubtedly appreciated; after all, this is a case allegedly involving violent actions.
But this seems an ideal opportunity to hire a security company who have nothing to do with the case and not have jurors being intimidated by the “family” that feels as though their law enforcement “brother” was harmed. Are we really going to pretend to have a fair trial while we’re all being glared at by the very people who feel personally victimized and are packing sidearms while they waltz around the room lording over us?
There is also the question of fairness when it comes to the very simple reality that, if you have money and you’re white, you’re far more likely to be acquitted, plain and simple. The justice system is inherently racist even by judges and jurors with good intentions.
But perhaps the worst of it was this: the morning I arrived for jury duty, details were coming out about Trump’s involvement, via Tweet, in getting the Department of Justice to lower its sentencing recommendations for Roger Stone. This, of course, after the President of the United States, has claimed–and succeeded in his claim–to be “above the law.”
I jotted onto my questionnaire an additional note to the judge: “I do not find this court to be legitimate so long as any president, or any citizen for that matter, can be above the law. Who will tweet in favor of this defendant?”
In the end, I didn’t have my day in court. They selected two final jurors, and I wasn’t even called to be screened for a sidebar.
I left sad and disappointed in our system. Whether or not the defendant was guilty was irrelevant to me, because the verdict, I knew, wouldn’t be a fair one regardless.
But we’re living in a fascist time in America, and no verdict in the age of Trump is fair anyway.