Imagine not being able to work for the next three weeks. Imagine putting everything in your life on hold: appointments, vacation, kids; and if you are self-employed, like me, imagine three weeks without an income.
On Monday I was a member of a group of eighty citizens selected to form a jury pool for a trial scheduled to last three weeks. For two days we sat on hard benches in the hallway waiting in turn to be called into the court room, one by one, for interviews by the attorneys and judge. The larger group was divided into three smaller groups, and scheduled arrival times were delayed on the second day which eased the situation a little bit. Still, there was the drive downtown through traffic, the parking, the walk, the security checkpoint, the elevators, and the crowds.
As we waited in the hallway, we got to know each other. We weren’t permitted to talk about the case or the questions put to us in the interviews, so the conversations centered on casual topics. One theme common to all conversations was how a three week trial would interrupt our personal lives. Imagine!
“If I am selected, then I won’t be able to …” was on everyone’s mind. And everyone had an excuse – a reason¬ why serving on the jury would impose a hardship. Those who knew they would get paid while they were on jury duty looked forward to having a break from work. But most people worked for employers that would not pay them for the time they were away from work.
One man was a high school coach. There are five games left in the season: he would miss the next three. A young lady had to borrow money from a friend to afford the train fare to the courthouse. Another woman had to ask a friend to watch her children after school. Very few people waited comfortably, without concern. Most wore expressions of worry, regret, and concern. Three weeks! It’s hard to imagine.
Twelve jurors and two alternates were selected yesterday at 5:00. The rest of us were sent home. The judge thanked us for our public service. In fact, he thanked us several times during the process. But as I reviewed the definitions of the words he used: duty, obligation, service, I had to reconcile his use of the word “service” with my own understanding. I had not volunteered to serve. I was summoned to a courthouse against my will. This was not service: it was servitude.
Jury duty sucks. The clear and obvious reason that we are summoned to the court is because people would not volunteer to serve on a jury otherwise. In addition to being inconvenient, jury duty thrusts each juror into either a criminal or civil argument between two or more parties. That can be very stressful and emotionally exhausting, especially when the trial is held over for days, even weeks. Who among us desires to listen to the retelling of someone else’s misery?
The jury was drawn from a pool of citizens living in the county. The demographics of the county are very diverse. While most of us choose to live in communities or towns that tend to isolate us from the diversity evident in a county-wide area, jury service places you in the same room as people you would probably never want to meet. It is a small crowd of strangers.
Usually jury service lasts only one day. You are selected in the morning and the court case is held in the afternoon. On this occasion, I sat with others for two days. You can get to know people in two days. Some people are more open about their personal lives, but in two days, even the most private people will reveal things they would not tell a stranger.
For some reason, people like to tell me the most intimate details of their lives. Within a half-hour of listening, I might learn of a person’s complete background, family history, names and ages of children, number of times divorced, and every detail of their immediate activities, schedules and responsibilities to others. People are friendly and open.
Moments before the sheriff would read off the names of the fourteen who were chosen to serve, we were drenched in dread as we sat quietly in the hallway. Within moments we would learn our fate. Our lives would be returned to us, or we would be selected to remain – for three weeks. I felt like I was waiting for the results of a medical examination that might reveal if I had a contagious disease. The heavy sigh of relief which visits those who escape a vile consequence does not belie the mountain of tension which builds up inside. Knuckles turn white, stomachs are lashed into knots, and muscles ache.
The door opens. The names are read. It is the lottery. Who will the next victim be? As each name is read, someone’s shoulders slump in submission as a breath of disbelief and regret – even disdain – slips over dry lips. Feet trudge forward carrying a heavy burden and an unwilling mind. The person slips into the courtroom and another name is read and acknowledged again. “Mary Williams…Todd Jenkins….Naomi Clark….”, one by one they emerge from the semi-circle of bodies huddled submissively around the sheriff outside the courtroom. And then we hear, “That is all. The rest of you come back into the courtroom so the judge can dismiss you.” It was surreal.
This morning as I type, I am mindful of those who are sitting in a courtroom listening to pre-trial directions, opening statements and the words of the first called witness. It truly is a service they are performing – a tremendous sacrifice necessary to ensure one of our greatest rights: the right to a trial witnessed and decided by our peers.
One crime committed is like a rock tossed into the quiet water of a lake. The concentric ripples reach out and touch everyone in our society – some more than others. Jurors are drawn from the distance edges of the lake, where the ripples are faint and unnoticeable – drawn closer to the center near the source of the disruption. If not for the single action of the crime committed, no peace officer would be put at risk, no lawyer would be called, no fee paid, no research would be done, no administrator would be needed, no form would be filed, no court date would be scheduled, and no heart would ache. No mother would cry.
On Monday I was drawn to the center. I was afraid. I have lived for too long away from the diversity. I have lived in peace, far from the chaotic noise of the city, or its traffic, or its crimes, or its garbage. I was afraid that I would not be able to perform the task if called upon. The attorneys and judge were wise. They sent me home. Those who remained – you could tell by looking upon them, they were more capable.
But now I am in reflection. I am humbled by what I experienced. I thought I knew so much, and yet, in the isolation of my chosen, distant corner of the lake, I have denied myself access to the knowledge and experiences that define and guide the lives of so many others. What I enjoy as a free citizen bears an obligation of service. Freedom has a cost, and although we are most often located far from the perils of our society, the cost must be paid. I only hope that had I been chosen to serve, I would have reconciled my feelings and accepted the task put to me. As I now think about those who were selected, I am certain they have reconciled their feelings and have accepted their responsibilities and the charge put to them.
I visited with many of them during the past two days. They are good people. Justice will be done.
(Edit: The trial was decided February 19, 2013. Read the story here.)