This week, I was juror #11 in a drunk driving trial--my first time on a jury. The timing was not the greatest; I start teaching next week (2 classes at UCR--my UCLA class starts the following week) and was planning to use this week to prepare, but I was glad to be able to do my civic duty. I got a little misty when the clerk swore us in; the American justice system, when used properly, is a beautiful thing.
In court, I realized that so much of a trial is about storytelling--who is the most believable storyteller? Who uses specific details to back up their story? So much of the legal language is about storytelling as well (the defense attorney said "Objection, narrative" when the officer responded to one of her questions with a story rather than an answer, and both attorneys asked the judge--who wore a different bow tie every day--if they could "publish" the evidence to the jury.)
I was very ready to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt even after hearing compelling evidence against her, but then she testified and the story she shared was full of holes. At one point, she said she didn't have anything to eat all day but a pastrami sandwich and fries at noon--later she said she also had pizza at her mom's house that evening. At first she said the officer didn't offer her a blood test; later, she said that he did but that he told her she had to go to jail to take it. She said he made her take the breathalyzer test 6 times, then 8, then 10. She contradicted herself left and right, and her attorney tried to keep the story straight, but her arguments ultimately were muddled and transformed over time as well. Meanwhile, the prosecutor and the arresting officer and the criminalist who testified against her were clear and succinct and backed up all of their points with specific detail (the scent of alcohol, the red watery eyes that wobbled as they followed a finger, etc.)
Of course I had to remind myself that these people were practiced witnesses, that they knew what to say, how to say it, that the defendant was nervous, inexperienced, that I couldn't let myself get swayed by the witnesses' eloquence (well, relative eloquence--the criminalist had quite a robotic delivery) or be biased by the defendant's inarticulate responses. The content was the important thing, not the form. I raised this point during deliberations (how cool to be in a room with random members of the community, to speak about law and justice with fellow citizens who had been given such a sacred responsibility together.) Ultimately, though, we determined the content itself spoke volumes (as did the fact that no one else testified on the defendant's behalf, despite a list of potential witnesses) and decided she was guilty on both counts of driving under the influence, plus the special circumstances of her high blood alcohol level.
Later, as we were leaving, a couple of the women on the jury (only 4 out of 12 of us were women) and I spoke about how we felt sad handing a guilty verdict to the judge, but we knew we had done the right thing, the lawful thing--what if the defendant had hit a family's car instead of driving into a ditch? Still, I wonder how this verdict is going to affect this woman's life. This woman who was born exactly a week after me (I was surprised when the judge shared her birth date. I had imagined she was several years older.) I thought about myself as a week old baby, her as a newborn, not knowing our lives would take us into this same courtroom 39 years down the road. I hope the guilty verdict will be a wake up call for her to make good changes in her life. I hope her sentencing won't involve any time in our over-crowded jail system.
During questioning, the defense attorney asked me if I'd be comfortable 5, 10, 15 years down the road with having made a binding decision in court. "I hope so," I told her. I think she could see that I have a tendency to be a bit indecisive, that making binding decisions is not always easy for me (especially when it comes to determining someone else's future.) I'm trying to learn how to be more clear and firm and decisive in my life, and I'm grateful that my time as a juror gave me an opportunity to put this, be it ever so briefly, into practice.