Thursday, September 08, 2005

Democracy Inaction

I was called to jury duty on Tuesday. There's nothing like waking up at 7:00 AM the day after Labor Day and going someplace to be ordered and herded around, alternately interrogated and bored out of your school, to make you feel like you're back in school again. Whenever I mentioned that I had jury duty coming up to friends, they invariably suggested drastic means to avoid being conscripted. "Tell them you hate all minorites," one said. "Say that your religion forbids you to sit in judgment of other people -- or compels you to kill criminals," said another. In other words, I should act like their idea of the ignorant masses in order to avoid jury duty -- something truly for only the ignorant masses. But I didn't have a problem with serving on a jury. Of course, I'm busy right now, but since my schedule is relatively flexible, jury service would be far from a hardship. Also, I wanted an opportunity to see how our legal institution worked, the law, trials, punishment and democracy all being things in which I'm keenly interested. As it happened, I wound up intentionally getting excused, but that was accidental, due to the particulars of the case -- under other circumstances I'd be in court today.

If you've never been on jury duty, it's worth going over what happens. In Philadelphia they call jurors into pools by the hundreds, then sort them into panels of forty to sixty for both criminal and civil cases. Multiple panels are usually convened to form a jury, meaning that even in the least notorious jury trials, you need to interview at least 80 to 120 citizens to find 14 (12 jury members and 2 alternates) willing and able citizens to serve. You fill out a questionnaire detailing your prior experiences with the law (whether you've been a victim of a crime, if you have family members who work in law enforcement) and your philosophical stance towards the law (whether you're more or less likely to believe a police officer because of his/her job, whether you could comply with the legal standards required to convict, etc.).

Then your panel is brought into the courtroom, along with the judge, defendant, and both attorneys. You're given the details of the case, in order to determine whether you have knowledge of the case or any of the individuals involved. My case was right out of Chappelle's Show: there was a dice game in progress in front of a barber shop, and the defendant and two others were accused of robbing the game, shooting two people, and attempting to shoot someone else.

As it happened, the crime occured about a mile from my house, right down the street from the two auto shops I go to, not far from the Home Depot. I knew exactly where the barber shop was, and knew the names of some of the officers involved in the case.

The strangest moment may have come when we broke for lunch, and the defendant and some of his friends waited along with the jurors to take the elevators downstairs. Later, I went through security with two of the defendant's friends -- probably, I thought, his accomplices. I had already thought of the defendant as guilty. Also, I found myself angry that a violent crime had been committed so close to my house, in places I knew. I was angry when his friends mouthed off to the security guards ushering them in and out of the building. I was increasingly just angry.

When I was called to be interviewed before the judge, I was asked about my answers on the questionnaire -- various members of my family had been victims of crimes, and my house was robbed once when I was growing up. Also, my father had previously spent most of his working life working in the Wayne County jail in Detroit. I'd also had friends and family members who'd been arrested for crimes. Midway through the questioning, though, I told the judge that I felt uncomfortable with how close the crime had been to my house; that I was nervous about crime and criminality in my neighborhood, and the outside possibility of threatening or reprisals (I live a mile away, but I'm a pretty visible guy). I told him that I thought I would be disproportionately likely to convict the defendant based on these anxieties rather than the merits of the case. And then he excused me.

It was a strange feeling to leave the courtroom to which I'd been tethered all day. It had been 8:00 when I arrived, and 3:00 when I left -- almost the exact length of a school day. Right away I began thinking about everything I needed to do the next day -- shop for groceries, catch up on e-mail, wait for the DirecTV guys to show up if they ever would. It was a beautiful day, and when I was waiting at the train station, I thought to myself that I should try to come downtown more often.


jim c said...

I can only hope that all people don't take your approach to justice. The right to be judged by your peers began in England and has continued, as a constant, for over 800 years. The fact that you live in the neighborhood, know the area of the crime, etc. should be the reason you want to serve the other members of the public by doing your duty. Everyone on a criminal jury is frightened of the potential consequences when they live in an urban area. It is a hero who does what he is afraid of because he understand the consequences of not doing it.

Tim said...

Maybe I should rephrase this. Being worried about reprisals was only a small part of my anxiety about the case. Mostly, I found myself angry at the defendant and his friends, and convinced of his guilt in a way I would not have been had the crime been in another neighborhood. If I would have served on the jury, I would have been ready to convict him without hearing any evidence. I was very surprised by this -- especially since it suggested a kind of visceral racism and classism that I didn't think I had.

I think it's the difference between the idealism I had when I was younger -- without any commitments except to an idea of justice -- and the distrustful pragmatism that I have now, now that I'm more rooted in a community. But I still have enough of a sense of justice to know that defendants need an impartial jury of their peers and that I would not have been an impartial juror in that case.