I enter the room and quickly scan the row of pews. It’s a little dark and the room is crowded so people are sitting shoulder to shoulder. I instinctively look for someone familiar, though I don’t really expect to see anyone I know here.
I slide into an open space in one of the pews, next to a red-headed woman with polka dots painted on her pink toe-nails. I am hugging the end of the pew, the way I used to do in church. But this is no church, though judgments and prayers have undoubtedly been heard in this room, in this courthouse.
I finger my badge–juror 76–and look at the crowd assembled here. I see a disheveled young man who looks like he just woke up, a few beer-bellied men, an elderly woman engrossed in a book, and a mix of other people from different backgrounds and races.
I sit quietly, avoiding the shoulder of the woman next to me, and make room for latecomers to squeeze in past me. By nature, I am an accomodating person. Except for when it comes to giving up the end seat in movie theatres and in churches. There’s something about being squeezed in next to strangers in situations where I feel vulnerable–churches, airplanes, courtrooms–that I don’t like.
I feel safer perched at the end where I can turn my body away from forced intimacy.
I sit quietly observing. I recognize the bald-headed man, the bailiff with the badge, when he enters the room. I had seen him earlier near the metal detectors. I had to walk through the detector twice, probably because of the silver cuff bracelet on my arm. If it wasn’t my jewelry, it was probably the tiny, ornamental spike on the heel of my black, lace up combat boots that set it off. I wore my combat boots today because they make me feel strong.
I don’t like being here for many reasons. I’m not opposed to doing my civic duty; I just don’t want to have to be responsible for someone else’s fate.
The attorneys arrive and a middle-aged African American man in a red, white and blue striped rugby shirt moves from one of the pews up to the front of the room. He is the defendant in the case.
I watch him periodically, and notice he is not making eye contact with the room. His leg is shaking underneath the table. I look, and honestly search for areas of commonality. I shake my leg too when I’m restless. Is he restless?
I am in the first batch of potential jurors to be interviewed. Like the others, I give my name, my occupation and answer basic questions. It becomes apparent soon enough that both the prosecutor and the defense attorney have specific pieces of information they are trying to mine from our responses. It feels like a cat and mouse game, and I’m thinking we’re the cheese.
The stakes are high after all; this is a criminal case.
I continue to answer questions, even the difficult ones poised to our group. The prosecutor at some point asks,”Is there anyone here who has any hesitancy about judging, for any reason at all?” I sit quietly for a moment, shift in my seat, and wince. The prosecutor notices. “You look like you have something to say,” she comments.
I take a deep breath and with a shaky voice, I confess my fear to the prosecutor, to the judge, to the defense attorney and to the defendant at the front table. “I understand the importance of all of this,” I say. “I am an analytical, thoughtful person, and I will certainly do my civic duty, if called upon. But I really don’t like the idea of judging someone. It’s really going to be hard.”
The judge then explains that I will not be judging a person. He goes on to tell me that it is no one’s place to judge another person, and clarifies that jurors are here to judge evidence. “You are here to judge the facts of the crime,” he says.
The prosecutor looks me in the eye and asks, “Can you do this? Can you judge the evidence?”
I nod. Facts, not people, I say to myself. And then I reply honestly, “Yes, I can.”
At the end of the questioning, I am one of six people selected from this panel to serve as a juror.
The red-headed woman with the polka dotted toenails is also selected. Ah, a familiar face now, a companion for this unexpected journey.
The six of us are directed back to our seats, and as I watch the attorneys interview more people, I wonder what the trial will be like. And I shift uncomfortably on the hard pew and begin to pray.
(This essay is part one of a two-part series.)