Saturday, February 20, 2010

My Civic Duty

A few weeks ago I was called to perform my civic duty and show up for the jury pool. This was not the first time I had to do jury duty, but the last time was in a different state so I wasn't sure what to expect. I was not, however, looking forward to doing this. I know it is my responsibility as a citizen and I have family members who have benefited from jury trials and blah blah blah, but I had some misgivings (which I will discuss later) and due to factors outside of my control, I am almost a week behind in the classroom. I didn't need to be absent for another week throwing us even further behind on the syllabus.

When I got to the courtroom at 9 am, there was a crowd of people and I had to sit at the front of the room on the platform where the lawyers and judge sit which was okay by me because I could see everything that was happening. After waiting for far longer than I wanted, the judge came in and explained the full procedure to us. Then he called out the disqualifying categories for jurors and proceeded to dismiss half the courtroom! Okay, so you have to be a certain age and you can't be a felon. But then, the categories went on to include: if you are ill, if you are over 65, if you are illiterate, if you have a doctor's letter excusing you (so the first category was for colds?), if jury duty will create a financial hardship, if you take care of someone during the day, if you have to see a man about a dog. . . That last one wasn't really true, but it might as well have been. One man went up to the judge's bench three times! Finally, the judge excused him from duty. Probably in the category of Sheer Perseverance.

I suppose I could have used The Popcorn as an excuse as she does have numerous doctors' appointments that I must take her to in a given month, but I just felt like I would have to lie in some way or stretch the truth and I was just not comfortable doing that. One of my colleagues told me that I teach and that's reason enough, but I don't think they allow you to use that as an excuse anymore.

So, since I, as one character in a courtroom drama said, wasn't smart enough to get out of jury duty, I spent the day sitting in a fairly uncomfortable chair waiting for my group to be called into the courtroom.

I tried to think of this as a positive experience although I did not want to be there. When I did jury duty in another city, it was during the time I was planning for my wedding and I met my reasonably-priced wedding photographer who was also in the pool of potential jurors. This day wasn't quite as fortuitous, but it wasn't a total waste of time because I took care of some things I might not have had I not been there. I had lunch at a popular restaurant downtown that I have been meaning to check out for about 2 years, but never took the time to do; I learned some weight loss tips that may prove beneficial (we'll see); and most importantly, I completed two poems that I am trying to submit for publication and I started on a short story that I think will end up pretty nice. I'm really pleased about those poems. One of them I have been working on for quite a while.

When my number finally came up, we all piled into the court room to be questioned by the judge and the lawyers. I was hoping this would be a civil trial, but it was a criminal case and a murder case, to boot. The same judge from the morning came again with various categories for which we could be excused: can you all see? can you all hear? do you know any of the lawyers, defendant, witnesses, victims? Doggone it if I didn't still qualify! But I was praying to God that I would not be chosen.

As I said before, I had misgivings. The prosecution asked us if we had religious values that would prohibit us from sitting in judgment of anyone. Technically, I don't. I think my faith allows me to serve as a juror, but in my person, I just don't feel comfortable making such a significant decision about some stranger's life. What if I voted "guilty" and I was wrong? This poor man would be sitting in jail for the rest of his life because I made a decision based on viewing a snapshot of his life.

The prosecution also asked us if we could apply the law even if we did not agree with the law. Apparently in this case, although the defendant was being charged with murder, he was not the actual trigger man. He drove the trigger man to the victim's home and according to the prosecution, he was an instigator in the incident. I mean, the law is the law, but I don't think it's right for someone who didn't actually commit the murder to be charged with murder. Yeah, he should be punished, but imprisonment for murder? Unless he put events in motion that would not have otherwise led to the shooting, I just don't see him as culpable to that degree.

And then, as I looked as this poor young man--clean-cut, nicely dressed, fairly attractive (though his status as defendant mitigated his attractiveness for me), I wanted to cry. He could have been one of my students (and I mean that literally as I have had students arrested for murder). What happened in his life that made him go in that direction instead of in the right one? Did he just get caught up by life? I'm telling you, I was fighting back tears. I did not want to be the one to send him to jail.

But, if he was indeed a killer, I didn't want my sentimentality to allow me to put him back on the streets. You see, I did not want that responsibility.

Well, at the end of the day--and it was the end of the day (6:00 and the courthouse was closed; the guard had to unlock the door for us), the Lord was merciful and I was not chosen! And since it was so late, we were able to call in to the system from the courthouse and found out we did not have to return the next day. I almost danced a jig to my car, I was so happy.

I know jury duty is important (as the court officers kept reiterating) and that juries need thoughtful and fair citizens to serve on them, but I am just glad that I didn't have to serve this time.

Quick note: DH looked up the trial results. Apparently the shooting incident was pretty well-known in Biblebelt City--it had it's own media moniker and everything. The selected jurors found the guy guilty. If I had been the lone hold-out, those jurors would have been so mad at me . . . . As one of my friends says, "God is the best knower."


TKW said...

That's wonderful! Getting out of jury duty is the BEST. Especially when just thinking about it brings you to tears.

The Steel Magnolia said...

Wow, TD! My jury duty experience only involved sitting around a room reading magazines and trying to avoid chit chat.