The jury summons arrives in the mail – printed in imperative red and cyan blue: You are required to appear. Few of us answer with enthusiasm. We have work to do, kids to schlepp, schedules to keep. We would rather not report at 8:15 a.m. on the appointed Monday to the jury assembly room in the basement of the Hennepin County courthouse, with its dreary collection of jigsaw puzzles and outdated books. Ellery Queen, anyone?
In 2007, 22,000 Hennepin County residents were called to dedicate two weeks to the work of justice. Nearly 10,000 served, receiving $20 a day and mileage. Surely most of us grumbled.
Last month, after 36 years of living in Hennepin County, my turn finally came. Jury surveys show that my experience is common: I dreaded it, but came away impressed. For six days, I served on a jury in a rape case, where the most intimate details of two people’s lives were laid out in court with clinical precision. Judge, prosecutor and defense lawyers did their jobs with efficiency and care. So did we, the jury.
Twelve ordinary strangers
Jury duty is the time when Lady Justice reaches down and hands her scales to the bus driver, office worker and computer geek. Twelve strangers gather in the jury box to hear evidence, sort through exhibits, gauge the weight of reasonable doubt and determine a person’s guilt. The law requires judgment. The Constitution guarantees judgment by a jury of peers.
Reality is more tedious than “Law & Order” or “Judge Judy” make out, and brandishing those scales is more solemn. We sat in the hallway a lot, waiting for the judge and lawyers to work out details. We were uncomfortable that the defendant’s mother and sister sat nearby, aware that our decision would affect their lives profoundly.
We learned that evidence is not absolute and that lawyers’ assertions must be carefully sifted from demonstrable facts. We found that reasonable doubt settled differently on each of us. The food scientist on our jury lost sleep, uneasy with the responsibility of deciding a man’s fate. A man who fixes potholes for Minneapolis was happy to be inside.
Our case involved a middle-aged man and woman who had known each other for decades. His sister was her best friend. Then one night last October, the man knocked on her door, said his truck had broken down and asked if he could stay until it cooled off.
The prosecutor claimed that after a few hours and a couple of requests that he leave, the man hit, choked and raped her. The defense asserted that the sex was consensual, but the woman furtively called 911 and the man hit her when cops suddenly knocked on the door. The man fled but was caught quickly. Through it all, the woman’s severely handicapped 16-year-old daughter lay in a hospital bed in the next room.
For four days, we listened to testimony from the victim, cops, sexual assault nurse, BCA analysts. We heard the 911 tape and the lawyers’ arguments. We took notes but were forbidden from discussing the case with anyone, including each other. By Friday, when the judge read the charges and the law and gave us the box of evidence – clothes, the recorded 911 call, photographs of the victim’s bruises, sexual-assault kits – and sent us into the jury deliberation room, our questions broke like a logjam.
A yearning for answers
We craved the sort of detail a novelist could supply: Was the car really broken down? Why didn’t the cops check? Did the defendant have a criminal record? What happens to a woman who loses her best friend?
None of that mattered. We had to judge guilt based solely on the factual evidence presented and compare that to the charges and the law. Were the differences in what the victim told various cops significant? Did the bruises on her neck indicate that she feared for her life? We listened hard to the muffled 911 call and decided that whatever was happening, it wasn’t consensual sex.
Judges instruct jurors to use their common sense, and we did. “I used to wrestle with my brothers a lot, and we never left bruises like that,” said the website manager. “My brother was choking me once, and it was terrifying,” the accountant said.
In court, the foreman handed our guilty verdict to the clerk, who gave it to the judge. Then the judge called out our names and asked if we concurred. In the hallway afterward, there were hugs and a few phone numbers exchanged. Some of us accepted the judge’s offer to answer questions in her office. Learning that the defendant had a long criminal record reassured us.
I was glad to get out of there and glad that it will be at least four years before I can be summoned again. But I’m grateful for the experience. I better appreciate our constitutional rights to a strong defense, to face our accuser, to be judged by our peers. I better understand what denying those rights to prisoners in Guantanamo has cost us in world opinion and the image we have of ourselves as a nation of laws and fairness.
I know that laws – for all their precision – are not crystalline, and that evidence is rarely absolute. I want to know more about the judges we elect to jobs of such quiet power. And I’m glad I served.
Lynda McDonnell is the executive director of ThreeSixty, a youth journalism program based at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
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