To sit in judgment: What jury duty taught me about justice, conscience, and the American way

The jury summons. November 2012.
"Madame Foreperson, have you reached a verdict?"

The court clerk was staring at me. I stood up, sealed envelope in hand, and answered on behalf on 11 other people, "I have." I handed the envelope to her. She handed it to the judge. The judge wrestled with the seal for a minute, pulled out five papers that had my signature on them, and began to read.

"One count of robbery: guilty. One count of robbery: guilty. One count of abduction: guilty. One count of abduction with intent to defile: guilty. One count of statutory burglary: guilty."

Each "guilty" dropped like an anvil in the center of the courtroom. I didn't look at the counsel, the victims, or the defendant. I just kept my eyes trained on our calm judge, for whom putting people away was routine.

I, on the other hand, was ready to hurl all over the scales of justice.

The jury summons had come a month earlier. It was the first summons I could actually fulfill, so on the appointed day I bounced into the Arlington Circuit Court overflowing with civic pride and expectations of Law & Order.

I had a feeling somewhere deep in my fate barometer that I was destined to serve on this jury. So when my name was called to join the juror pool, I did my utmost to demonstrate the integrity and impartiality I hoped was in there somewhere. The vigorous nodding and laser eye focus did the trick; within a couple hours the trial had begun, and I was in the jury box along for the ride.

It was a criminal case. An African-American man stood accused of breaking into the Best Western Pentagon and robbing two older Canadian tourists (a mother and a daughter) on one of their regular road trips through the U.S. The Commonwealth of Virginia was prosecuting on the victims' behalf.

Evidence was circumstantial at best, resting largely on the eyewitness testimony of two women who'd been covered with hotel blankets most of the time the robbery took place. Security camera footage was fuzzy. Paperwork was patchy or inconsistent.

Though the prosecutor was polished and dramatic, his theatrics couldn't gloss over the thinning facts. And the defense, though they had several opportunities to highlight that, seemed to favor distractions or red herrings.

By the end of two days, with approximately 10 witnesses and lots of counsel posturing to absorb, I didn't feel much clearer than when we started. The concept of "beyond a reasonable doubt" kept replaying in my mind:

The standard that must be met by the prosecution's evidence in a criminal prosecution: that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

The prosecution hadn't convinced me this man had done it. I could still think of a few other logical explanations. And I wasn't about to convict someone on "likely" or "probable." How could the other jurors feel any differently?, I thought. Surely deliberations would take 30 minutes.

With that, the judge dismissed us, and we headed back to the chilly jury room.

We were a group of 12, with nine men and three women. Most skewed 40 or above. A couple of us were around 30. We were lily-white save for two Hispanics. Everyone struck me as well educated and pleasant.

The clerk instructed us to choose a foreman. The other jurors clasped their hands and looked around expectantly. No one stepped forward. I, ever abhorrent of a vacuum, raised my hand.

"I haven't done this before," I said in an attempt to set reasonable expectations, lest I derail the entire legal process while on a learning curve. "But I'll do my best." Everyone nodded and smiled. It was time to begin.

Contrary to my confident assumption, we were split as a group: six convinced that the circumstantial evidence was sufficient and the eyewitness testimony reliable, and six convinced that the case hadn't been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Open and shut it was not.

I started covering the white board with notes and lists. People wandered around the nippy room clutching coffee cups. We watched the surveillance footage on a locked-down laptop. We discussed different styles of skull caps and debated about what warranted "suspicious behavior." I noticed a few people had tendencies to veer into procedural-drama-type speculations, as if we were playing at CSI.

Everyone stayed fairly calm, except for a tense moment when one juror erased half of a discussion list and another juror chewed him out. I rewrote the list. The first juror apologized. The second one stewed. And on we went.

After two hours and a lunch break we were split 9-3. After two more hours, we were 12-0. Unanimous. Ready to rule.

The clerk brought in the verdict forms and handed them to me. Each required me to handwrite in our decision and then sign it on behalf of the group. I spread out the five forms in front of me -- simple Word docs that had been printed off in a back office and were now about to alter the course of a man's life.

We voted around the table once more on each count, just to make sure we were all in agreement. The chatty group lapsed into a sober silence. The only sound was my pen scratching. I thought about the weird fact that these forms would probably go into a vault somewhere until fire or the march of time destroyed them, and that my signature from this point/day/moment in my life was forever linked to them.

The pit in my stomach went 10 feet deeper. A terrible rush of adrenaline surged through my body. My vision swam for a split second, and my hands turned to ice. I knew in that moment this was a power trip I'd never wanted to have and wasn't relishing now.

Still, I finished signing them. And out we went into the courtroom to reveal our decision.

As the prosecution presented immediately following our verdict, the defendant did have a prior criminal record -- gun possession, sexual assault, robbery, just to name a few. He'd already been in jail a few times too. I could feel some of the burden lift from the jurors' shoulders (or maybe it was just mine?) at this reveal, knowing that his record increased the probability of his guilt.

Ultimately, we sentenced the defendant to 95 years. (Full story and ruling here.)  Then we packed our bags, put on our coats, and headed our separate ways.

Only then did I realize I'd never learned everyone's names. We'd been unintentional yet complicit partners in anonymity, sharing these three days, this major decision, and nothing more. I felt a little lonely as I headed toward the metro. Who else would understand?

I know now why we have so many law dramas depicted on film. Where else is human nature on such bald display? What else so well encapsulates our hubris, missteps, hope, desperation, fear, elation, and indecision? Even with a "lesser" crime in judgment, I felt swept up in the victims' emotions, the prosector's intensity, the judge's soothing oversight. Imagine what happens when even more is at stake.

But what's really been gnawing at me since the trial ended is this question: How can we ever really know? How can we as humans really sit in judgment of others when we weren't present, when we bring our own prejudices and experiences to the table, when we are expected to reach decisions with a set number of other strangers?

Moreover, why am I feeling guilty for assigning guilt to someone else? The defendant had the same moral choice that any person does, and he chose to break into a hotel room and rob two little old ladies. Had he chosen differently, none of us would have been at that trial for three days. So why am I reluctant to put him behind bars for a decision he made?

I've determined it's a matter of transferred conscience -- that because this man's conscience failed him at a critical moment, I had double the responsibility to follow mine in this moment. I had to do my utmost to set personal opinion and bias aside and rule strictly on facts. I had to rely everything I've ever learned about values, societal expectations, and our legal system's checks and balances, and let it guide a fair decision. (Or one as fair as is possible.)

We could get into a whole discussion here about why we as society choose to levy justice, or why justice might be best left to a higher, more final authority, but all I know for sure is how my stomach felt when I signed and handed over the verdict forms. My entire moral education came to bear at that point. I think I made the right decision. I hope I did.

Prayer #231: Judgment Day

If I'm ever asked to sit in judgment, Lord, let it be with full faculties, deep humility, wide discernment, and a firm grasp on my own imperfection so that I understand the impossibility of sitting in judgment at all.