In the days leading up to my recent jury duty summons, I thought a lot about what it means to be an American in this post-Trayvon Martin world. I thought about how rare it is that I’m in situations where my opinions and thoughts are truly given the same amount of respect and weight as the next person’s. I thought about my other potential fellow jurors, where they were coming from and how we all fit into the U.S. court system. I thought about my friends who are in law school right now, and how they deserve to have a well-rounded and diverse jury when they eventually become attorneys themselves. I thought about what it means to be fair.
Some of the common responses I received from friends when I told them I was selected as a juror on a State criminal case included, “Oh shit, girl,” “That sucks,” “Yuck,” and “Knock on wood, I hope I don’t get picked…” But the truth is, not only did I find the experience eye-opening and vital, I caught myself immensely enjoying the process and I highly recommend all my peers to willingly participate if they are chosen.
Being a juror feels a lot like being an audience member of a live-action and interactive theater. Our judge, the director of the production, would even take to scolding us like schoolchildren whenever we were tardy. We had a running joke between the jurors of referring to the District Attorney as “the tiny bulldog,” an alert petite thing who unabashedly objected to everything. The other lawyer, a rather impish and inarticulate woman, is someone I can only best describe as if the SNL Weekend Update character “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party” grew up to trade in cleavage tops for a Macy’s business suit. One of the witnesses, the victim’s older sister, never forgot to mention that her dog was also in presence at the scene of the arrest of the defendant, and she thought a “middle-aged” cop meant he was in his 30s. A security guard sitting directly across from our jury box always surrendered to naps, her head occasionally bobbing up and down like a yo-yo when nodding off to sleep. Fleeting moments of comic relief swept through like a refreshing breeze in the stale, windowless courtroom.
Then there was our motley crew, Kings County Supreme Court Breakfast Club 2013. I got to meet eleven other fellow jurors of varied backgrounds who I normally would not interact with on a day-to-day. There was juror Number Eleven, my beloved homegirl whose favorite show is Seinfeld (her spirit animal is George). The outspoken Number Seven was an older diabetic black woman who was always offering candy and asked a lot of concerned questions about my vegetarian lifestyle. Juror Number One was a white woman in her 40s from an affluent neighborhood who lives in a building amongst celebrities. Number Five was a feisty Puerto Rican father of a tween and wore jewel-tone button-ups. Other than myself, the other younger juror in his 20s was Number Eight who works up to 60+ hours a week as a 911 dispatcher, glad to accept being a juror if even for the break (“This is my vacation.”). Thoughtful jurors Number Two and Number Four were originally from Barbados and Jamaica, respectively, and they similarly mentioned anecdotes of emigrating to America. I was Number Three, easily one of the more privileged jurors who vaguely told the judge I work as a “freelancer” (I guess a more accurate description would be “Girl who is currently taking it pretty easy and works part-time”). And we, the twelve jurors, were to decide the fate of a 26-year old man who was accused of statutory rape of a then-12-year old girl.
The trial lasted for six days with two full days of deliberations. During deliberations, all phones and electronic devices are confiscated (and what a sensation it is to be liberated from outside contact!). And for many hours in our private room we yelled at each other, then calmed down, then reasoned, then came up with creative solutions to be more open-minded about the case. On the first day we had segregated ourselves “guilties” from the “non-guilties” and thought we wouldn’t be able to come to any kind of unanimous agreement. We even passed a note to the judge saying we were in a headlock and requested to be dismissed. She urged us to try again, that we were individually chosen in good faith to make a fair and collective decision. Otherwise, she’d have to bring in a whole new jury and go through the entire process again (it’s possible this case may have already gone through multiple rounds). On our second day of deliberation we decided it would be in our best interest to start fresh and we switched up our seating around the table so we weren’t segregated anymore. We stopped arguing verbally and instead took to writing our thoughts anonymously on pieces of scrap paper to be read aloud by a spokesperson. At the very beginning of deliberating, we were split five to seven. By the end we made incredible progress to come to an agreement on one of the eight charges, which we eventually found the defendant guilty on.
The final verdict was not what I had expected. It made me realize how even in a cosmopolitan hub like New York City I was living in this decidedly liberal bubble, oblivious to the fact that the majority of the jurors were not in that same bubble with me. I was surprised that on the second day of deliberation, many of the jurors admitted that the night before, they took to praying for the answer to this case. When it came down to being responsible for the fate of a young man, fellow jurors did not want to live with a guilty conscious of “ruining” the defendant’s life. I was surprised at even the jurors with children who thought that the 12-year old victim was lying. I was surprised at how many of the jurors were confused by the word “rape” and how they believed rape only occurs in acts of coercion and violence by strangers. Non-stop surprises. I hate surprises. In retrospect, I may have been unreasonably myopic in my own views as well. Perhaps I was too quick to assume the accusations of the defendant. I, for one, remained stubborn until the very end and thought long about if I was being fair or not. Six days and after many hours of reflection later, as cheesy as it sounds, I now have a renewed sense of what it means to consider things impartially and logically. I can try to better understand where varying degrees of conservatism stems from and how they’re not always from malicious origins. I keep thinking about our final verdict, how I personally wish it went down differently, but I still left the courthouse feeling respect for the other jurors, even for their reciprocated respect towards me. It’s a tricky thing to comprehend, this country, this city, its people.
I understand there are circumstances where my peers do not want, and cannot, be a part of a jury. It’s an inconvenience, sure, but I truly believe it to be an important duty. If you have a salaried job that covers your days on jury duty, take the opportunity to participate on a case. If you’re an independent contractor like I am, find the time (and get compensated for it) to serve as a juror. If even you find yourself in the unique situation to be representative of, say, a certain middle- to upper-middle class background on a jury, be that rep and don’t fight or lie to get out of it (quick cut to: Liz Lemon as Princess Leia). Still, with the haunting memory of Trayvon Martin’s injustice looming, I find it hypocritical when the same peers who had outcried about George Zimmerman being presumed innocent also complain about not wanting to be summoned for jury duty.
Here in my state of post-mortem, I’m disturbed by many of the things that were argued against me in the deliberation room. My other fellow jurors probably thought the same thing regarding my points, too. On the other hand, coming from previous jobs where I was always the bottom rung of the ladder, and where I’d always been told by superiors what to do, how to think, or being told how I’m incorrect in my thoughts, I’ve never had such a tremendous opportunity as I was as a juror to be so argumentative and respected simultaneously. It was liberating to speak my mind as a younger juror and have my opinions be considered fairly and thoughtfully as an equal with other jurors who have lived far more years. Yes, even though the verdict had a twist ending, I’m still grateful for the overall experience. It’ll be another six years before I qualify to be a juror again which, after such a stressful trial, is quite the relief. But when the time comes around in 2019, I will look forward to it, hopefully by then with an even more educated perspective about the immediate world around me.