Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Theoretical Justice: Waiting in the Jury Pool

The small village courtroom, with "Village of Washingtonville, est. 1731" painted proudly behind the judge's counter, and the sound of traffic from just outside the door, is crowded with plumbers, students, an anxious defendant, and housewives like me. The counter holds a box of Kleenex and a plaque with the judge's name, and is the same counter at which other mothers and I elbowed each other last winter to sign our children up for the over-subscribed Toddling Toddlers program.

I feel sorry for the defendant already, and wonder what he's here for. A village court will hear cases only of minor driving misdemeanors and the like, but still he looks nervous. He's been sitting at his table for over an hour, shifting in a suit he's possibly unaccustomed to, and skating quick glances at the prospective jury pool as we enter from the front of the room with coffee, books, and Sudoku in hand.

The woman next to me has exhausted her entertainment, having filled out a popular culture crossword in the local paper. As time wears on she begins swearing quietly under her breath and snapping her chewing gum. I peer at what everyone else is reading, a very nosy and unshakable habit: Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, Black Justice in a White World, Anita Shreve's Lovely Bones, and my own Brother Cadfael mystery novel. I find the 12-century Benedictine monk's fictional life as good an investigation of true humanitarian justice as philosopher John Rawls's Theory of Justice, with Cadfael playing Rawls's own "impartial observer."

It's hard to tell what people are thinking in these situations, brought together for the purposes of dispensing justice. So many of them look bored, or annoyed, or resigned. A few, perhaps, grateful like me to have a few quiet minutes to read a book. It's such a rare thing, undisturbed time. And even I am distracted into annoyance by the juror form, on which it would not be acceptable to mark 'yes' to 'employed?' because 'mother' is not considered a profession -- it doesn't qualify me for Social Security, so it must not count, a perennial grievance of my own.

The choosing finally begins, the first round of possible jurors chosen from slips of paper in a plastic bucket. The judge points laughingly to the seven chairs against the wall as our "jury box, such as it is," but it's better than the proper jury stand in Boston, where I served several years ago. At least here we can see everyone. There, a huge pillar blocked the witness box and half the judge from sight.

Jet-lagged, exhausted, thinking of my son with his molars coming in and the vacation we returned from only at midnight, I half hope to go home soon, so of course my name is the third one called. Someone somewhere either likes me or hates me: the timing of this duty is unfortunate -- I could use about six more hours of sleep -- but the truth is I love jury duty. If I could choose it as a profession, I would be a juror for the rest of my life. The pull and play of evidence and justice, lawyers' desires to win and the jury's frustration with their incompetence and lack of information -- it can be addictive, not to mention the microcosm of human prejudices, frustrations, potentials, grievances, and faith in the system that erupt when you throw several strangers in a room together and tell them they can't go home until they come to mutual agreement on some aspect of a complete stranger's life.

I try not to glance at this stranger, the defendant, don't want to form pre-judgments, but I can't help it. He looks tired and harrassed, bleary-eyed and skittish, easily pegged as "alcoholic," but maybe he's had a sleepless night of panic. I want to study his face to see: Will I believe what he says? Will I trust him? But I resist.

This is a DWI case, they tell us, and the potentially lethal image of cars combined with drunkeness hangs before my eyes, with the quick indrawn breath as my mother's heart squeezes in panic. It's an instinctive reaction to imagining our children in danger.

One woman is excused to care for a very ill child, another makes it clear she views drinking and driving a sin that manifests itself mostly in the irritation caused by people speeding by her Main Street house late at night. She's taken out of the pool, too.

The judge covers challenges and moves on to "reasonable doubt" until we're sick of it. But he seems intelligent, and patient, and reminds me of a good doctor I used to have. The defense lawyer is red-faced, looking sweaty and less competent next to the Assistant District Attorney in her heels and friendly smile. He, the defense counsel, looks a lot like the prosecution in my last jury trial -- an unfortunate initial impression of used car salesman, except his eyes are wide and brown and honest and innocent, as if he should have been a toy maker.

They all think their questions to us will ensure justice, or as close to it as you can get and still be human. They nix the NYPD police sergeant and the woman who admits to having a previous DWI conviction, but keep the man who was once hit by a drunk driver, and another whose friend died while driving drunk.

"Will you let that affect your judgment?" the Assistant DA asks him. "Can you hear this case fairly?"

"Sure, yes," he says. All sorts of questions like this, with the same reassurances from us. But I wonder if these lawyers have ever been in a jury room. Once that door closes, the personal stories come out. That man's pain and conflicted feelings over his deceased friend will spill over into this present case, and we will hear repeated details about the destroyed soccer career of the one who was hit by a drunk driver.

Neither of them can help it. We all draw on our personal experiences as if they're ingredients in baking a cake, all those big events and trivialities combining to help us form judgments.

The defendant looks a bit like Jude Law from the side, but straight on more closely resembles a former neighbor of mine, a pharmaceutical salesman with three boys and, coincidentally, an alcoholic wife. Already I am battling the conflicting prejudices within me: if he's a nice guy who made a mistake, I want to let him off, rebuked but relieved; if he's a jerk, I want to judge against him because maybe he's the kind who will never stop drinking and driving without fear drilled into him.

All these impulses rise without any conscious thought, as does the instant dislike when his lawyer mentions while questioning us that his client drives a black Ford Explorer. There were several questions regarding our attitudes toward alcohol and drinking, but nobody thinks to ask whether I'll feel unkindly to someone for driving a gas-guzzling SUV. For that, I'll happily take his license and tell myself I'm saving the planet.

Defendants wonder, I've heard, why the prospective jurors don't look at them, won't meet their eyes. It's because we feel guilty. A smile, even quick and tight, might deliver too much hope. A blank stare might discourage them. If jurors feel at all -- and most of us do, those who are not simply bored or annoyed at being there -- we have already judged ourselves as guilty for presuming to pass judgment on others.

Finally, there are six of us and an alternate, gazing obediently toward the bench and not meeting the eyes of the lawyers or the defendant. A graphic designer, a saleswoman for a hotel chain, the owner of a pizza parlor, a male nurse, a nineteen-year-old student, a stay-at-home mom, and me, the mother/writer/traveler/humanist. Six of us have to agree at the end of today, or perhaps tomorrow, on what we've heard and seen and how we understand it, an effort made possible only by the flawed laws that guide us.

In this little village, one man will see his mistakes cast up against him, and we will hear his own efforts at vengeance or regret. It will never make even the most minor news headline, but for this man -- overworked father, partying ex-frat boy, emotionally scarred fireman, he could be any or none of these, I have no idea -- our decision, shaped by our opinions and prejudices, no matter how we try to ignore them, will headline the next arc of his life.

We are here. We will never be ready. Let the trial begin.

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