Jury duty? Really? It is the first warm day of the season. My Alexa app says it will reach 90 degrees and I will be stuck inside doing my civic duty. This is my third time being called in the 40-plus years of my adulthood. Previously, I sat all day and was dismissed without ever having been interviewed as a prospective juror. But I am here again today, ready and willing to serve.
We are ushered in -- about 150 of us -- at exactly 8 a.m.. I take one of the few seats at a table in the back so I might work while I wait. And wait we do, a crazy cross section of Americans, ranging in age from the early 20s to about 75, with mullets and Mohawks and rainbow hair or none at all. Finally at 10 am a woman stands at the front of the room and introduces a patriotic video made by a sheriff who elaborates on the responsibility and privilege of trial by jury.
He tells us that while we are in the building, "if we see something, say something" and reassures us that bomb-sniffing dogs have already surveilled the place. Very comforting. I hadn't even thought about that.
At about 10:45 a.m. the woman returns and reads off a list of names and instructs those of us called to follow her. We enter the courtroom and are directed by an officer to seats in the back. We are told not to talk. It is frigid in this room. Like sitting in a meat locker. The judge is conversing with the lawyers at the front of the room. There are already seven people in the jury box, waiting, for their second day.
The judge addresses us. He reiterates the responsibilities and informs us that this is a criminal trial and will probably run two weeks and everyone must be able to commit to that time. And then he drops this bomb: This is a case of accused sexual assault. On a child.
He reads the charges in detail and the reactions are audible. Gasps. Mouth-clicking. Sighs. People sit up straighter. Heads pivot from the judge to the accused, who stands there impassively. It is a sickening litany of acts that this non-descript middle-aged man is being accused of committing on an 8-year-old boy.
The judge then explains we must fill out a questionnaire that he will walk us through. We are to answer every question with a Yes or No, as truthfully as we possibly can. Most are easy: Do you have relatives in law enforcement? Are you physically able to serve? Can you read and understand English? (A trick question, I think.)
And then the kicker: An indictment is not a declaration of guilt, he reminds us. Can you hear the indictment and still be impartial?
Impartial!? I am nauseated by the charges that have been read aloud. The man's mouth on the young boy's penis. Forced masturbation. Multiple occurrences. The very image is so disturbing that I am caught in immediate, uncomfortable dissonance.
"Presume Innocence," I instruct myself. An impartial jury of peers. I don't think I can, a voice whispers. The charges are too graphic. Who would invent them? What reason would someone have to falsely accuse?
Now I understand why there are only seven jurors in the box and this is day two of trying to find 12 impartial people. How do they find 12 individuals who are not so taken aback by the charges that they can sit in judgment and provide a fair hearing? I look at them and wonder how they are able to detach. How can what they heard not influence how they feel? Or perhaps they don't feel about this. Perhaps they can patiently, impartially, await the facts that would place this man far away from the child in question at that particular time. Or facts that would place his mouth on a sandwich, for instance, or a donut, or a toothbrush at the time the indictment indicated. I give them credit. I cannot do it.
My turn comes and the judge calls my name. He reviews the questionnaire with me. "I see you answered 'No' to number21. You can't be impartial after hearing the indictment?" I tell him I am sorry. I am a teacher and have two sons and a grandson. I am biased, emotional, unable to separate. "Dismissed," he says.
Two months later, I still can't strike the image from my mind. I have failed at jury duty. I must confront a certain prejudice I hold, a bias, that if a man is charged with sexual abuse against a child, there must be a shred -- just a shred -- of cause. I am not proud of this belief and I am still searching my soul to see if I might find a way of reconciling this for myself. As the fair, rational woman I believe myself to be, I have fought for the underdog, the wrongly accused, but I still can't find neutral ground here. Can the 12 members of the jury finally selected be so free from judgment? For the defendant's sake, I sure hope so.