I was selected for jury duty this week. We’ve all been there - we get the summons, blow off the first one and then get a sternly worded note telling us to show up this time, for realz and so we do. We sit around all day, running our smartphone batteries down (I brought the charger) and watch the wall clock tick down to the 2:30pm to be released, not unlike that last period class on Fridays in middle school.
Only, this time…we all got called into a court to fill out a jury for a trial. I had come this far before once, for a civil case involving injury liability and some insurance claim. I got out of it by playing up my father’s role as corporate counsel in many cases like this. The judge let me go with a well earned dirty look.
This time it was a criminal case involving a defendant accused of Battery, for allegedly striking a child. My name was like the 2nd one he called to begin selecting. During Voir Dire, the judge asked me if I had been the victim of a crime and I replied that I had been sexually assaulted at age 12. The idea of a grown ass man beating a child is upsetting for sure and the judge asked me if I could wait until all evidence is presented to arrive at my conclusion on this case. I replied “yes” and I was in the jury.
The charges of the case were that an adult male one-to-one aide who is employed to ride in the back seat with an 8 year-old child to and from school, did hit the child in the head in front of two witnesses. The boy is white, autistic and unable to speak clearly a lot of the time.
The defendant is black, male about 45-50 yrs old and heavy set. He is the only black person in the courtroom. Not too “jury of one’s peers” to my eyes.
I’m sitting there as we start and my mind is awash with strong emotions about how that boy could / would feel and how his parents could / would feel. I’m also looking at the only black guy in the room and wondering can I be fair? What role is racism going to play in my listening to all of this trial? Will some racist view I hold dictate my conclusions or the rest of this jury? Will I go so far out of my way to “check my racism” that I ignore evidence? Will I put race on trial, one way or the other, instead of the evidence and facts? Will I think of this crap instead of listening to the witnesses and examining the evidence?
In the opening statements, the state really plays up the pathos. They show the child, talk about how he was strapped into this vest / harness and beaten by the adult male. The defense points out that the vehicle was moving, windows are tinted and that the contact is was a mistake as the defendant lost balance in a moving vehicle.
Just to be honest here, my first impression was emotional and instantaneous: fucking big guy hits little kid. As we begin the trial, it occurs to me that it is precisely this view that I need to table during this trial.
So, the state starts to make their case. They called two witnesses, the school aides that work with the child every day for the last couple of years. They were very credible. The state introduced some photographs of the child, the child in the van in his seat and buckled into a vest / harness contraption for those rides. The van had tinted windows and was moving away from the witnesses when the incident occurred.
When the witnesses take the stand, it’s kinda slow going, bit by bit. Very credible, as I said and they are 100% sure that they saw a deliberate hit. The state produces the pictures and enters them into evidence. Then the state runs through demonstrating this harness / vest combination. The primary witness demonstrates how the harness / vest work by using a chair in the courtroom.
Upon cross examination, the witness says that there is only one way for the harness and vest to be attached and to work properly. 100% sure of that as well. The defence counsel flips the harness around upside-down and asks the witness if it will work that way and the witness says that the top hooks won’t work on the bottom rings and vice versa. The defence asked the witness if he knew that the harness was secured, to which he said ‘yes’. But, asked if he looked, he said ‘no’ and that ‘he just knew’ that it was secured in the back.
Second witness takes the stand and the prosecution asks this witness if the harness is in the same condition as on the day of the incident and she says so. However, I notice that the harness is upside-down. I made a note of that because, with these witnesses, my job is to ascertain if they are accurate reporters of what occurs in front of them.
So, we get done with them after and both sides make their closing arguments. We adjourn to the jury room with pizza, 12 photographs, a harness, vest and booster seat. Here is where it got interesting.
First show of hands has 2 ‘not guilty’, 2 ‘undecided’ and 8 ‘guilty’. I was one of the undecided. So, we go through it.
One of the jurors on the ‘not guilty’ camp said skip all the photographs and harness, the two witnesses who saw the same thing is compelling beyond anything else. He was the most articulate of the ‘guilty’ camp and made a solid explanation of how and why the two witnesses’ testimony outweigh everything else.
So, we lay out the facts:
- defendant and child were in a moving van with tinted windows, moving away from witnesses.
The witnesses were very credible, said the same things and seemed to know what they were talking about. I pointed out that the second witness said the upside-down harness was exactly the way it was on the day of the event, contrary to what the first witness said it was and would even work.
Then, in playing with the harness / vest, we discovered that the top and bottom hooks would both work if reversed. The first witness said that he was 100% sure it would not work that way.
We looked at the photographs and two of them showed the child, fastened securely in the chair of the van with the harness upside down, in the very fashion that the witness swore would not work. Some other photographs also showed the harness in the position sworn to as “correct” by the witness.
So, now we start our discussion and I share my thoughts. I tell the group that I have two distinct trains of thought here. I said, emotionally, I want this guy to be guilty. He’s a big guy, he doesn’t smile, the kid is small, can’t communicate well and was strapped down - plus I remember a lot of my own feelings about being abused. So, I tell the group that I really even think that the guy is even likely guilty. But, I said I have this other train of thought - I am here to decide one way or another, based on 12 photographs, 3 pieces of evidence and the testimony of two witnesses. I said that if the witnesses and the photographs and the hooks all supported each other, I’d skip my concerns about tinted windows and moving vehicles. But, I said I’m being asked to believe the accuracy of these witnesses who describe a single event in a moving vehicle with tinted windows, when they demonstrated in front of me that they can fail to accurately describe things in front of them that are not moving and behind no glass whatsoever.
Finally, I say that I’m saying ‘not guilty’ not because I believe he’s innocent, but because the state needed to give me evidence that left no reasonable doubt. Their own witnesses and physical evidence contradicted each other. I said, if I am being asked to pick and choose which statements of the witnesses to believe, then I cannot arrive at a guilty verdict. That leaves ‘not guilty’ as my only option.
After this, we went around to hear others’ views. The man in the ‘guilty’ camp speaks up again and says that it is significant to him that these witnesses made mistakes in front of us all. After describing his review of that very human ability to perceive things differently than they are or to speak with certainty, in error - he has enough doubt to also move to ‘not guilty’. In 10 minutes we had all arrived at ‘not guilty’ and notified the courtroom of our decision.
In that room for 3 hours, I experienced something unique in my lifetime. 12 strangers grappling with scant evidence, sifting through our opinions and reactions and different styles of reasoning and communicating - to arrive at a consensus view of how to judge the actions of a person through the language of the law and over the distance of months from the event’s occurrence.
I guess that justice was served in that this is how justice goes. I don’t know if the defendant hit the boy or not. I just know that we 12 strangers looked at the world together and gave the matter the best we had to offer. I actually do respect the law that much more. This experience gives me more reason to believe in the inherent goodness of humanity than any church sermon I have heard.