Tuesday, September 04, 2018

What A Month On Jury Duty Taught Me - Part III: Deliberations

(Click HERE to read Part II of this three-part series.)

By the time we were ushered into the deliberation room, the prosecution had tied up the the case with a nice, neat bow, and presented it to us on a platter.  The defense, on the other hand, had lobbed the equivalent of a sloppily-written "dog ate my homework" note at us, and didn't even make the effort to make sure it was even crumpled tightly enough to reach the jury box. 

After discussing what a shit-show we had just witnessed, we chose a foreperson and started the work of parsing the evidence.  Some jurors were already ready to enter guilty pleas for all charges so they wouldn't "be there all week," but others of us were NOT. HAVING. IT.™️ and reminded them that we ALL had things to do outside of court, but that lots of lives would be affected by our verdict, so they needed to chill the fuck out, posthaste.

(Said nicely, of course, because it was day 1, hour 1 of deliberations, and we were still being polite-ish.)

We soon learned that no matter WHAT we thought, the law would be the arbiter of itself because of the way that some laws worked in tandem with one another.  I know that this is confusing, so let me give you an example:

If I rob a bank and only plan to threaten the teller by waving a gun around, but I end up shooting the teller (who dies), I am now guilty of robbery and first-degree murder.  Second-degree murder is not on the table, even though the murder was an accident.  Why?  The law says so.

AND if you and I planned the bank robbery together, then YOU, as a co-conspirator ARE ALSO GUILTY of robbery and first-degree murder, even if you were still at home in your jammies.

Huh??


Exactly.

So half of us sang seven choruses of "What the fuck?/ This isn't fair!" A fourth of us didn't seem to have an opinion that wasn't given to us, and the remaining fourth seemed to be interested in controlling the narrative so that they could return to their 'real' lives.

The gloves came off. 

Remember the tagline of the grandfather of all reality shows, "The Real World": 


"What happens when people stop being polite and start being real?"

Oh, it was REAL.  I had to turn down an acting job that I really, really wanted because I was serving on this jury, and dammit, I was ALL-IN. I rarely get headaches, but I got them frequently during this case, and had one every day after deliberations.  I didn't have the bandwidth to return calls, emails, or texts.  I forgot to call my dad for 2 weeks, and remembered when he sent me a text asking if had been put in jail. I apologized profusely, and once I gave him an idea of what was going on (because I couldn't talk specifics), he absolved me.  I'm an introvert who is NOT TRYING TO BE CLOSED UP IN A TINY-ASSED ROOM HAVING TO ENGAGE WITH 11 STRANGERS.  YES, I'M YELLING.  That shit wore. me. out!  One day after court, I lay down for a nap and slept for twelve hours straight, then woke up in time to get ready to go back to court...  It was extremely stressful, and the only way out was through it: 


we all had to agree on whether the defendants were guilty or not guilty of the given charges.  

The first charge for defendant #1 was a simple point of deliberation and we all agreed on it right away, by secret ballot (i.e. "little slips of paper tossed into a bowl.")  After the 12th "guilty," one of the jurors clapped and cheered, as if we were issuing prizes instead of life-altering verdicts.  Another juror reminded her of the gravity of the situation, and her attitude sobered up for about five minutes.

Erroneous assumptions abounded, often fueled by lack of cultural understanding.  Slang being misused.  Nicknames being called "gang monikers" until I explained that one defendant's nickname was actually a common nickname in the black community.  

Her: "Oh - I never would have known that."  
Me: "That's why diversity is important."

People saying that posing with money and having tattoos were indicative of gang activity, not realizing that, in certain circles, when you aren't USED to having ANY money, getting some is all you think about (Thanks, capitalism!), and when you get some, posing with it is how you show others that you are now "successful."  There were a few of us who were able to shed some light to the others regarding either common goings-on in the black community,  or gang activity.  Two of us were black (my female self and a male), one was a latina who had grown up in South Central, but now had several markers of affluence, and one was a white, female schoolteacher who had taught in South Central for many years.


How can you judge a culture that you don't even understand?

Turns out that none of that mattered in the end, because, as I stated previously, we had no wiggle-room for variable degrees of guilt, and since the defendants were both guilty of portions of the crimes committed, we had no choice but to find them guilty of everything.

Hear me again, please:  


We had no choice but to assign blanket blame, 
even though not all parties were guilty of everything. 


What part of justice is this?

I reminded myself of the judge's admonishment to decide this ONE case and not try to solve all of society's ills.  It was something akin to holding my nose and taking medicine as we sent two very young men to prison on charges that carry expected life sentences without possibility of parole. Had the prosecution sought the death penalty, then the defendants would most likely have received it.

They deserve to pay for their crimes; crimes that led to a family's brutal loss of their beloved matriarch.  Still, I feel like I was tricked into throwing away two more lives under the guise of "civic duty."  Maybe they'll find religion in prison, and/or rehabilitate themselves against all odds.  Turn their lives around, and become better men than they were when they went in, after all, they'll have LOTS of time.

If they couldn't do it while free, though, the odds are stacked high against them being able to do it while caged in a system that focuses on punishment and further enrichment of well-monied entities  rather than rehabilitation.

I don't know how they came to be where they are - associating with gangs, robbing old ladies.  I DO know how easy it is to end up on the wrong path when you are young, and there, but for the grace of God, go I.  If you come from a poverty-stricken area and are told by society that the only worth that matters is financial worth, then the message is "Get money." If your family is struggling, and you are told that to be a man means to be a provider, but you can't provide on $9 an hour from the local fast-food restaurant, then the message is "Get money." Desperation leads to terrible decisions.  Desperation coupled with not enough life experience to see beyond your neighborhood?  Disastrous.

To be sure, I'm not an advocate for robbing and/ or shooting people, nor errant gun-toting. To me, however, it looks like the crime began LONG before the decision was made to take the victim's purse, and that society may be complicit. Perhaps if we didn't find it so easy to throw certain types of people away, our youth wouldn't confuse fear and intimidation with respect, and wouldn't devalue themselves and others for a quick buck.

I believe in punishment that fits the crime, but in my efforts to make sure nobody got railroaded, I feel like the ensuing wreck was by design, due to a "justice" system in serious disrepair.  As a result, I ended up dragged down the tracks by the train. I may need therapy.  (I'm not joking.)

So, what now?  When I express my despair over the experience and decry the broken system, well-meaning friends and loved ones tell me to let it go.  "It's over." 

But I can't unsee what I've seen: 
the dead body of a grandmother shot to death for no reason, her family broken with grief.  The faces of the defendants' family members who love them, even though they've done wrong.  

I can't unhear what I've heard: 
the coroner describe the path that the bullet took through this woman, ripping up her organs in its wake.  The voice of one of the defendants calling his mother "Mommy" as he talked to her on a jailhouse phone line, and her telling him to "Just pray."

I can't unlearn what I've learned about our criminal *justice* system: 
that you may NOT be judged by a jury of your peers, that the process and laws are grossly unfair and inadequate, and that, apparently, only those who can afford competent representation deserve it.  


I've also learned that some people don't get a second chance, 
even if they didn't have much of a first chance.

As the verdict was read ("Guilty" on the major counts, "Not Guilty" on a lesser "special circumstance"), I looked around, surveying the courtroom and trying to commit the scene to memory.  


A day on which you send someone to prison SHOULD be memorable, shouldn't it?  

Members of the victim's family cried quietly and comforted one another.  I hoped that they could now begin to heal.  The prosecuting attorneys tried to keep their faces from betraying the sense of triumph emanating from their very pores.  The defense attorneys alternately looked at the jury and put their hands to their faces, as if they didn't see this verdict coming.  One defendant (Ron) stared straight ahead as he had done for the entire trial, but his profile had changed. He looked smaller than his already-small frame did, just moments before. Broken. Willie looked me in the eye, and I looked back at him for a beat longer than I probably should have.  I felt it fitting, though: 

If you send someone to prison for life, you should be able to look them in the eye, 
even if you aren't allowed to tell them why.

I held back tears long enough to get out of the courtroom, and began crying as soon as I got out into the hall.  I didn't feel like justice was served, because I felt like I was handcuffed by the law. Back in the deliberation room, everyone was silent.  The judge (whom I feel did an EXCELLENT job of explaining things and keeping order) came back and talked to us for about 10-15 minutes, answering questions, and explaining some things.  Then the clerk brought our "proof of service" papers for those who needed to show them to their employers, and, for our safety, police officers escorted us to the parking ramp through a passageway that we didn't even know existed.

That made me feel more unsafe than anything that had gone before.

I drove to Krispy Kreme, and sat in my car for a long time before going in and a long time after coming out. I was dazed.  I ate a couple of donuts, then went elsewhere in the shopping center to do a little retail therapy.  I let my agents, manager, and family members know that I was "free," drove home, started writing this immediately, so I wouldn't forget, ate, went to bed, and woke up, still dazed.  I feel emotionally injured.

When I arrived for jury duty, I was not prepared for all of this brokenness: broken systems, broken-body photos, broken people breaking other people, broken people mourning broken people, broken systems that break families, and the broken laws that have the potential to break jurors in exchange for $15 a day (which I have earned and will NOT be donating back to the court, thankyouverymuch).  

Even with all of this, when called upon, I will do it again.  

As broken as this system is, it's all that we have right now.  If I can bridge the gap from one group to another and provide even a modicum of understanding that gets us closer to "fairness," I will do so, and consider myself privileged to serve.

For now, however,  I will allow myself space to heal,
then figure out the best way forward, since I am no longer 
cloaked in the bliss afforded by my ignorance.

--Nicole

2 comments:

Mikki Brisk said...

Such a heartbreaking experience - all the way around. I wish I had answers or understanding for these sorts of failures in life, but I don't. Not a one. I guess all we can do, as individuals, is try to make room for our hearts to expand and our minds to grow. And then take that out into the world, to try and somehow better our little corners. Will it work? I have no idea. But sometimes trying is the best we can do. And we have to try, right?

Nicole J. Butler said...

Mikki - You're absolutely right. Sometimes problems seem SO BIG that we just have to commit to doing whatever we can, no matter how small it seems. The best we can do is the best that we can do.

Makes me think of this Helen Keller quote:

"The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker."