Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Justice and the System

I thought I would use this space to make a longer post about my experiences today being called as a juror.  Note:  I'm not going to give information about the case.

My strongest initial thoughts were about how little the system has changed (in some ways) since it was first instituted in ancient Athens.  While I don't want to go into the full lecture, here (which I did for class a few weeks ago), the rules of engagement may have changed but the basis of trial by peers still remains - the accused is made aware (in front of witnesses) of the charges, society is made aware of the charges, and the accused and prosecutor present a case and the jury votes on it.  In ancient Greece, both the accused and the prosecutor suggested punishments that would be delivered if the accused was found guilty, and the jury ruled which punishment would be given.

The court officials here in Dallas are friendly and make a great effort to be personable -- they have to, because on a daily basis they are confronted with a thousand or more people who have showed up and don't want to be there.  People who are putting their lives on hold and whose lives may remain "on hold" for a time in order to deliver a trial by jury verdict.  Great effort is made to explain the system and all the steps to everyone, and the system I saw today for educating potential jurors is  effective and interesting.

As with ancient Athens (where jury pools could be as high as 500 men), we started out with over a thousand people in the main room that was subdivided in groups of around a hundred and parceled out to the district courtrooms.  At this point, all similarity to ancient Greece pretty much ended.

We were given questionnaires to fill out that began to hint at what kind of charges were being brought (we were asked if we or if people we knew had any experience with being a victim of this type of crime.)  Then the 70 or so sub-sub group I was in filed into the next room and the First Act began.

It was an interesting line-up -- on the left, the prosecuting attorneys - young, white, slim, and looking as if they just stepped off the set of a courtroom drama.  On the right, the defense attorney (who - guessing from his name and accent was born in Kenya or another Swahili-speaking area) and a largish and young-ish Black man dressed in a white shirt, who sat hunched over (his hands may have been shackled together) and looking warily around.

The judge came in, introduced himself, introduced the members of this drama, and turned the event over to the prosecution team.  Although the lead prosecutor was a woman, her junior male colleague did all of the jury examination, and he used some standard group speaking procedures to "warm up the audience" -- making eye contact, spending time identifying each person by name, making occasional jocular remarks.  He started in on a very general overview of the case (at this point, I could guess the charges and began to have some idea of what kind of evidence they had lined up.)  People who spoke almost no English were allowed to leave, and people who had strong objections to sitting in judgement over others were noted.

The defendant sat with his shoulders hunched, with an occasionally nervous smile - and at times reminded me of a dog that had been caught doing something wrong.  At times I thought he looked scared and perhaps defeated (before you put too much credence in this observation, please realize that I am one of those people who has a hard time interpreting body language.)   At one point I answered a question about the impact and spoke strongly, saying that the effects of this trial (whether guilty or innocent) would hang over the man in the future -- that if innocent, there would still be those who branded him as guilty in the community, and if guilty then upon his release the label would be hung around his neck like an albatross (I didn't look to see his reaction to this.)

But it struck me that we were being called on to give a ruling that would strongly affect the rest of his life.  We were given the proposed terms of punishment (in years) should he be found guilty.

The prosecutor built a foundation (I recognized this... not sure how many others did...) that much of the evidence might be personal testimony and hearsay and that there might be a lack of much physical evidence.   It began to feel as if the trial were actually proceeding right there in front of the 77 potential jurors.

The defense spoke second, and started to lay a foundation of "doubtful identification" and later a "you as jurors don't HAVE to believe the 'expert witness'" - while this might have empowered some of the potential jurors, it irritated the dickens out of me.  I thought that his case might be fairly weak, even in the face of hearsay evidence.

During one of the recesses, a court across the way let out.  I listened as someone (who seemed to be a minister) came to speak to a group who seemed to be family members of the accused about redemption and programs and so forth.  At a later recess, the group boiled out of the courtroom in great agitation.  One woman shrieked, "Fifty YEARS!  How could they DO this!  It was his first time!  How could they DO this to my son!"

And there, in a nutshell, was the heartrending drama of the justice system -- acts that will follow someone for the rest of their lives and the heartbreak of the families who will also have the deed and the judgement hanging over them (no matter how the trial ended) for the rest of their lives, too.  Her son will enter a system that I'm familiar with (I worked as a volunteer advocate for prisoner families... trying to help them and trying to help make sure their loved ones were able to see them and to get medicine and were treated humanely.)

I also thought rather wryly to myself that if that poor mother had instead been the mother of, say, Oscar Pistorius, the terms of punishment would have been different.  But they were Black, and this is America, and nobody in that family had millions of dollars to bestow on a defense team (I am assuming that it was a homicide conviction that the mother was crying about, though it could have been something else.)

It's a sobering experience to be responsible for someone's future; to change the things that life will throw at them in the future because of what they've done.  To give them a label that will follow them the rest of their lives (Guilty One or Innocent One.)

I think that next year (after setting some things in order) I will step back into the advocacy group and see if I can offer some help to inmate families again.

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