This past week, I was impaneled with 11 other individuals to render an impartial verdict in a criminal homicide case.
Like most folks, a summons for jury duty is akin to a traffic violation; getting out of it requires an act of God, or proof of death. Endless humor with clever repertoire on the internet will keep you laughing for hours about people who try to get out of it. I joined fifty other people in a cramped room, wearing the equivalent of “I’m a Juror” button so courthouse security can ensure you find your way to the right place and keep you from slipping out the back door. We waited the requisite hours for the usual legal wrangling of compiling juror lists, asking questions like are you generally inclined to believe testimony of authorities or civilians, calls to the bench … crossing legs because bladders had objections overruled. I became juror number six.
I can’t speak for those impaneled in a civil case, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to becoming enraptured by the process, and mostly, the people. As a writer, we crave real-life examples of human behavior to color our fictional characters. Four days and long hours enmeshed with fellow humans from all walks of life, I wondered if the term “peers” made sense anymore.
The system loosely follows an ancient Greek process that utilizes a “Jury of Peers,” which implies a person who is equal to another in abilities, qualifications, age, background, and social status (Dictionary.com). Not too many decades ago, we the people, lived more or less in accordance to village norms. A degree of personality variation existed, but local life and town belief systems heavily influenced folks. Expression of individuality and behavior was best left in the privacy of one’s home.
Our villages are no longer local. Today, we live in a globally influenced, kaleidoscope of diversity and independent thought. Expression of individual core values is the new norm. I found no better example than serving with eleven fellow jurors. At first, I thought our consensus building similar to the 1957 classic, Twelve Angry Men, a film selected in 2007 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” (Source: Wikipedia). If I were to rename it for today’s times, it would be Twelve Diverse Freethinking Individuals, who viewed life from many contrasting perspectives.
During the trial phase, we listened and made notes. We’re not allowed to discuss the case until it’s over. Breaks and unscheduled recesses gave us time to get acquainted, learn about families, work life, hobbies, and opinions of current events, almost as if we were at a backyard BBQ, enjoying the company of newly made friends. Deliberation turned it all upside down.
Individual core values were challenged. Belief structures erected walls against compromise. Faces crimsoned. Tears fell. It went beyond the simple emotional range portrayed in Pixar’s wonderful movie, Inside Out. I believe we the jury, hit 95% of Ackerman/Puglisi’s table of contents with their Emotion Thesaurus of Character Expressions, each of us holding on to the flag of our convictions as if we were the last fort to fall.
The silence as we all signed the ballot felt as if each of us had lost a loved one. Some of us expressed sentiments of never doing it again.
When it was all over, tired from baring our souls to eleven strangers, we reconciled, shook hands, embraced, and went home, likely to not see each other again. I hate to admit it, a year from now, I’ll probably forget their names, but I will never forget their faces, or their passion. In my parting farewell, I told them it was an honor to serve on a jury with them, and that it had made me a better man for it.
What have I learned?
We are not peers.
We are freethinking individuals who see things with different colored spectacles, formed and cemented by diverse backgrounds, abilities, qualifications, age, and social status. We’re no longer prisoners of village mentality. At times, we have to set aside our sometimes canyon-wide differences to find answers.
Needless to say, I have enough cannon fodder to fuel characterization for several novels, and I mean it in a positive way.
Very few countries in the world employ a jury of civilian individuals in criminal cases anymore. Some countries that once had it, discarded the process as easily biased by external factors. Our American system of justice was founded on core principals of ensuring everyone receives due process not influenced by government authority. It hasn’t been perfect through the years, but it’s still best shot at fairness. Never thought I’d rally for the cause, given my own prior attitude at the inconvenience, but if you get the call to serve on a jury, take it seriously, and do your civic duty. A person’s livelihood or life may depend on it.
If you like this article, show the love and like it back. Feel free to let me know what you think about your fellow “peers”.