Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Jury Duty: The Courtroom

 The judge wants us to say good morning cheerfully and presumably in unison. All rise for the jury. All rise for the judge. Swear (or affirm!) to tell the truth and the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There is a lot of civic religion because this is the heart of American civic religion. The belief that a jury trial is the heart of justice in America is unquestioned in many places. It is certainly unquestioned in this trial.  

When I did mock trial, every fact was a battleground, every sentence from a witness was painstakingly extracted. That was as much a fiction as Law and Order, where this is mostly…. Routine.  A common phrase is, “Would it refresh your memory to look at a report”. These events happened two years ago. I am struck by the role of police as, mostly, report filers. How will you know these events happen unless you file a report? How will you remember what happened two years ago until you consult the report? The report exists to refresh your memory in court. This works great for the police. It works less great for the victims or the defendant.  

There are struggles  in getting pictures to display and video to play on the courtroom TVs.  

A number of people are trying to get work done in the ambiguous "15 minute" breaks (sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes an hour) we are required to have. We talk a little bit about whose work is giving us paid leave and whose isn't. Those of us with nice, cushy professional tech jobs are paid. The rest of us...

The amount of work and rigor we are expected to display as jurors seems immense. And the pay is terrible: a $10 per diem. We have an option to donate to onsite child care which I take – but I'm not sure if the child care is actually open to me as a juror. Regardless, it would have been more difficult than keeping my kids in their existing, expensive, private day care. The bailiff says at least we get free sandwiches and free parking.  

The only person to look at the jury while testifying like I’ve read about in cheesy novels got called on it by the defense. “You were trained to do that, weren’t you?”  

In the elevator at the end of the day, me and 2 white women are wearing juror badges. A black woman looks at us. “Do they ever have black jurors? Because I’ve never been called”. I am so glad to be wearing a mask so she can’t see how happy I am that she has let me in on her suspicion. There is, in fact, a black juror in our case, but her suspicion also reminds me of the ridiculous "White people in Seattle can't be racist, we work for Nordstrom's and receive corporate sensitivity training!" argument I heard in voir dire. 

What’s funny is no one ever explains objections and sustained /overruled. No one explains “marked for demonstrative. Everything I know about this still comes from Law and Order!! We are told very clearly and repeatedly not to discuss the case among ourselves - that’s clear - and there are posters everywhere. Less clear is the single poster saying we should be proud to execute our civic duty.  The law is not explained to us until the absolute last minute. We are meant to be perfect blank slates. Yet we can't be, because we've all seen Law and Order. We all have some, likely mistaken, impression of what is going on around us. No one will correct our misimpressions. No one will even explain the reasoning behind the rules, the reasoning for why we can't discuss the case with other people, the reasoning why all evidence has to come from the courtroom. I personally understand the reason, but that's not a guarantee everyone else does. 

The question I come back to is, who does this serve? When the defendants grandmother is called to testify she is dismissed. She then gives a brief statement thanking us for helping her grandson. The judge dismisses her again. The prosecutor objects to her statement of thanks. She asks why. The judge dismisses her again. She doesn’t understand the rules and frankly neither do we. They aren’t explained to us or to her. We will make a ruling of guilty or not guilty but the victims are not asked. They showed up once to testify, mostly failed to identify the defendant, and disappeared. They have not said “this will help me heal”. “This will make me whole”. That's not the objective of this court. The objective of this court is to determine if a crime occurred, and then to dole out punishment. To what end? That's the unasked and unanswered question.   

The defendant testifies. He recounts his childhood trauma of seeing his father killed in front of him, in their house, by machetes, when he was five. He recounts growing up in a brutal refugee camp. A mental health expert testifies he is schizophrenic and his auditory hallucinations specifically directed him to not speak about his trauma. Yet here he is directly recounting his trauma, in a court, for strangers, to lessen a potential prison sentence.  He is homeless. He went to prison previously where his cellmate assaulted him for having nightmares and screaming in his sleep. His previous conviction was for car theft. He is currently charged with car theft. He admits to stealing the car. Clearly, sending him to prison didn't work last time. He's clearly guilty of a crime, and also, he's in front of us to be sent back to prison, with untreated PTSD and untreated schizophrenia, again.