“safe for democracy” . . .
I’ve been in a kind of time-out this week during the day. When I went in on Tuesday as a potential juror, I was surprised to be empaneled on the jury for a criminal case in the Superior Court of this district. The experience was a real eye opener.
First of all, there’s a new courthouse building with large high-ceilinged rooms and technology such as TV screens on which introductory videos were played for the jury pool. More important, there was a tone and approach towards us jurors from the get-go: which was a highly respectful and appreciative tone towards the privilege of serving as jurors, for our taking the time and paying the expense (driving and parking fees) for serving on juries.
We learned that the American jury system is unique in the world. And that visiting jurists from Europe and Asia are befuddled by how our system can get individual citizens to serve on juries on their own volition. We were shown that having a vote and serving on a jury are fundamental rights and obligations for our democracy to work.
A judge came to the jury pool to thank us all for being there and for being patient while the trial lawyers prepared to argue their cases. When we were empaneled, our judge did the same thing, thanking us and instructing us not to talk about the case with ANYONE, not our spouse, not by email, not to each other. . . until the deliberations were completed. We, the jury, complied. Most of the time that we were sequestered in the jury deliberation room when we were not in the courtroom, we were near silent, not much chit chat among ourselves. We were polite but kept our distance socially.
Our case was estimated to last for four or five days but yesterday, we returned our verdict at the end of the third day. It was a complex case and a serious one. For the first time, I understood that the Judge’s role was to ensure the judicial process was legally correct for all parties in order for us, the jurors, to hear what we were allowed to hear, to see evidence we were allowed to see and that was all. This “bubble” of information was what we were there to decide upon. The lawyers faced us when they presented their arguments and showed their supporting information. Throughout the trial, we were treated, as the Judge later said when he thanked us, as the “MVPs” of the courtroom. The guards who ushered us in and out of the various rooms openly enjoyed their jobs and showed respect, humor and dignity.
During deliberations, the twelve of us stated points of view and perspectives, some helpful and some not, in my opinion. A couple of people continually interrupted others and talked among themselves. There seemed to be confusion among the individuals about what counted as “facts” and only facts, rather than inferences made from the facts. Fortunately, there were one or two voices that clarified the confusion so that each of us could decide where we came down on the indictments brought against the defendant. We reached a unanimous vote on all four charges more quickly than seemed possible, given the disparate personalities who wanted to have their say.
I also learned how hard people’s lives can be, separate and apart from whether a crime was committed. As I said earlier, it was a time-out from the hurryup psychology of planning for the holidays. In fact, it came as a relief and provided a broader perspective to life, simplifying what’s truly important and what’s truly just fluff. A lot of it is just fluff, as it turns out.
In parallel during this same period of time with me at the courthouse from 9 to 4 pm for three days, G. and I prepared and submitted new information to the Planning Board in our town, opposing approval of a Preliminary Plan to develop a 20 acre parcel of land full of wetlands which had been defeated in 2003 and was now back again.
With the help of our Councilman, we were allowed to speak at the Wednesday night meeting (even though “public comment was closed”) in order to formally submit a historic timeline which illustrated there might be hazardous waste illegally deposited from the 1990’s and requested that the plan be denied until the legality of the fill was addressed. I’m told that in thirty-two years at City Hall, that it was hard to remember a preliminary plan being denied until this one was the other night. We went out and celebrated with scallion pancakes and soft shell crab at the Red Lantern restaurant afterwards. The defeat was timely because it now offers leverage for the City land trust group to negotiate a lower figure to purchase it as open land. A deal, if it can be reached soon, would be the best Christmas gift for the neighborhood which has been resisting development efforts here since 1986.
Today, I’m back and feeling much lighter about doing tasks that seemed to weigh me down before all this occurred. All that fluff, as it turns out. As a result of this week’s eye openers, I feel that we should count our blessings individually at this time of year and to help others. We can also stop to appreciate the kind of jurisprudence that our democratic system allows us all to live within. Innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s amazing that a collective common sense can emerge from a motley group of strangers who meet for a few days to make deliberations that determine the fate of people’s lives. It’s a serious responsibility and one much more sobering than what we see on television. It’s easy to take for granted living in a democracy. What I learned this week is that each of us can make a difference: and in our American democracy, that it’s essential to understand it as both a responsibility and a privilege.