The Third Third

A Salute to Jury Duty

No, I have not yet overcome my post-election despair, unless it’s by way of exercising my daily Trump administration angst and anger.  Never mind having grown up in the 60’s;  I now finally know what an existential crisis is, and I believe my America, our America, is in the midst of one.

I am distractible, though.  So here, in this post, I digress.  Jury duty on a Dallas County felony murder case recently gave me a huge dose of reality (rather than reality TV).  And it was sobering, indeed.  Is “the system" broken?  It depends, it seems, on exactly which “system” you’re invoking, and where one fits in — to this one, or that.  

The Jury System, for example, is as inconvenient and inefficient as it can be, especially as seen solely from the cattle call which is a jury pool with its hours of waiting around for something to happen or to be excused.  It is actually a remarkable and heartening process, however, once it gets to work.  Imagine any other enterprise where 12 perfect strangers are thrown together and duty-bound to understand, apply, and, yes, humanize the rule of law in matters of, in this case, life and death. I can think of very few groups — even among people I’ve known for years, or people with whom I have in common a faith or school community —  where common purpose was so evident, where citizenship and responsibility were clear governing forces, where respect for each other and our divergent views was invoked at almost every turn, where a discussion of our most intimate ideals and values was so open and honest.  Our differences were stark: educational, racial, cultural, gender, socio-economic, and the facets of our lives we shared reflected them.  But they did not get in the way of our collective pursuit of justice, and that was impressive to experience and behold.  

In the course of the trial, the Criminal Justice System, in contrast, was exposed, to have several strengths and many weaknesses.  

Take the legal system:  The prosecuting lawyers from the District Attorney’s office were well-prepared, well-trained, and well-equipped with evidence and technological resources,  presented their case intelligently, thoroughly, and effectively, and treated their witnesses with respect and care.  The court-appointed defense attorney, however,  appeared to have a very thin file for the case and to exercise very little effort.  

Then consider the police, another key component of the criminal justice system. They were impressive, too, both as dependable witnesses and highly professional crime fighters totally conversant with the law and with the communities they served. And — an aside, here — very buff!

The judge, too, though at times I worried he had lost interest and dozed off, ran a very fair and efficient trial clearly grounded in the process and the law. 

Which leaves the “Justice” part of the system where, it seemed to me, things began to fall apart. The law, as applied in this case, was clear:  the defendant had been charged with textbook felony murder and was, by this legal definition, guilty.  By law, the penalty could range from three to 99 years or life.  The prosecutors asked for life.  And the defense lawyer balked only insofar as to suggest that 25 years would be sufficient.  None of this took into account the obvious failures of all the systems in play in the life of the 21 year-old defendant.  Not the 17 different foster homes he had before age 8 after the Native American equivalent of CPS removed him from his alcoholic, negligent mother’s home.  Not the failure to address his own alcoholism.  Not the absence of any psychological care to address his (predictable) rage.  Not the absence of remedies beyond incarceration and probation when he first ran afoul of the law.  And even the total absence of hope that the prison system to which he was about to be committed might offer rehabilitative therapies, personal and workplace skills, a shot at emerging, at age 40 or so, as a productive member of society. This is not to excuse his heinous act, nor to say we could, as a jury, predict that he would — or would not — do something so senselessly violent and murderous again.  It is, rather, to say that with our sentence (We settled on 37 years after excruciatingly difficult debate — and no one was happy about it) we recognized the apparently total inability of our criminal justice system to salvage a life, even of a one-time Eagle Scout who had once shown promise.  As a result, in this case, two lives were lost, and that was — and still is — very troubling.

We like to say we are governed by the Rule of Law.  This is all good.  But there are times, countless times, I’m afraid, when the letter of the law somehow ignores the very human beings, or at least some of them,  it is designed to serve.  This was very clear to me in “my” jury trial, though I believe the jury itself functioned to humanize the criminal justice system.  It is also patently clear in the so-called “legislation” emanating from the Trump White House, particularly on immigration, health care and the environment.  And there you have it:  Even as all-consuming as my jury experience was for a week, it was not able to distract from so much as to confirm the disturbing machinations at work in our democracy today.  

P.S.  For further reading:  Andrew Guthrie Ferguson’s book, Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Constitutional Action. 

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