Saturday, September 22, 2007

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.


Kit Stolz said...

I commend you for taking the time to serve, and congratulate you on your fortune to be allowed on the jury -- in my experience, writer types are rarely welcomed by prosecutors.

But you're right about "practiced" testimony. I was mugged many years ago and testified in a pre-trial hearing, but did myself no favors with attitude. Testifying is far more complex form of storytelling than it appears, and it's easy to get your back up over what appears to the witness to be a minor error, but what appears to others in the courtroom a fundamental inconsistency pointing to a larger truth.

Frida said...

I'm a human rights lawyer finally feeling brave enough to let her dream to write come out into the light. I enjoyed your observation about the court room as a realm of story-telling. It reminded me of Julia Cameron's obsrevations that many budding young writers are encouraged to become lawyers (as I was) since it is a profession of telling stories.

Jury trials are incredibly important, incredibly difficult and - in my view - very heavy responsibilities for jurors. Congratulations on fulfiling this important civic duty.

megg said...

It's so great that you were able to pull focus a little and realize how everyone was feeling and what how things were 'playing' out. Congratulations for being an important part of the process.

(and thank you so much for coming and visiting my blog. I love your writing and am happy I was able to thank you for the inspiration!!)

Hugo Minor said...

I was juror #11 also--just this week! I felt so horrible when we deliberated and decided on a guilty verdict. And because I was the last one in the jury room, they made me the jury foreman. I thought my hand would shake when I handed the folder over to the bailiff with the guilty form filled out, and my name written on the line next to my juror number.

gayle said...

Thank you for all of your kind words, everyone. I was so glad to be able to serve. How wild that you were also Juror #11, Hugo! Such a huge responsibility to be the foreman--I know my hand would have been shaking when handing over the guilty verdict, for sure...