Jury Duty Epiphany

I was a candidate for Jury Duty selection this week. It was the first time I actually went through the vetting process, and I found it very enlightening. Let me preface by saying I am 49 years old, and this is the first time I've made it into the Courthouse for possible selection. For the past twenty-five years or so I've received several post cards in the mail warning me that I might be selected for duty, but each time my group was dismissed before actually having to appear in Court. Better late than never right?

Now I don't know about you, but watching Twelve Angry Men, both the original and the remake lit a fire in me years ago, and I have been waiting a long time to have a chance to perform my civic duty. Therefore, I was very excited about the prospect of being chosen. Not because I have a desire to decide an individual's fate in a legal matter, but because I want to see for myself how the process is carried out in real life and ensure that the individual gets fair and proper service from the jurors.

As expected, the larger majority of people waiting for selection alongside me were not as enthusiastic about the process as I was. We were kept in a large room while we waited to be separated into smaller groups and I could tell from the faces, body language and occasional murmurs that most folks generally wanted to be anywhere but there. Understandably so in some cases where people were missing important meetings, work or having to hire caregivers for their children. For many it can be a perceived inconvenience; but is it really? I mean when you think about it, truly think about it, there is someone waiting to have their day in Court and doesn't that person deserve to have a willing and fully engaged jury of their peers to help facilitate those proceedings? To be part of the checks and balances needed for a fair and impartial trial? Well in theory anyway. We all know that is not always the case.

We were eventually broken down into groups of 50 and assigned a number before being taken to a Courtroom for the vetting process. For the rest of the day I was Juror number 28. When answering questions, we were to stand and hold out our number so the Judge and attorneys could make notes.

What I realized as I sat through round after round of questioning is that most people were simply doing their best to be excused. For a number of reasons, good or bad, they simply did not want to be there. In fact, at one point towards the end, the Judge even asked, "Is there anyone that just simply does NOT want to be here?" I looked around the room, and no one raised a hand, but by that point half of the group had already been excused so I will never truly know if anyone would have been bold enough to respond in the affirmative.

The questions were often very personal, and the fact that we had to answer in detail in front of a room full of strangers made me uncomfortable. Although I did not recognize anyone, I thought, was there someone here that might know me? I knew eventually the Judge would ask the question I had been most dreading, "Is there anyone who has been themselves, or who has a family member that has been convicted of a crime?" I sunk down lower in my seat and felt a warm flush come over me. Not because I was ashamed of my husband and our situation, but because I did not want to see the condemnation in the faces of those around me when I raised my number and gave my explanation. It doesn't matter how many years pass, you never grow accustomed to being judged negatively by others for something as simple as who you love and choose to support in their time of need.

Reluctantly I raised my hand, my Number 28 glaring above my head like a giant red beacon that seemed to scream out "Guilty as Charged". To my surprise as I looked around the room, about 30 or so of the others had their hands raised as well! That was more than half of those remaining from the original 50! I watched in utter silence as they stood one by one and disclosed the details of either their own prior convictions, or that of someone in their family. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouses, children, we had them all covered. I thought, if this isn't proof of mass incarceration practices, I don't know what is! When they reached my number I no longer felt uneasy about disclosing the fact that my husband was incarcerated. The people around me weren't staring at me with condemnation in their eyes. In truth, most were just nodding their heads in understanding and acknowledgement that they too were not the only ones.

You see, we are no longer the anomaly, the proverbial elephant in the room, we are now the greater majority in a category I wish we had no use for. Until our world embraces change and a true love for humanity as a whole, there will always remain such a group. The realization that so many individuals are impacted by incarceration filled my heart with sadness. So many in fact, that it no longer seemed to be a valid reason for dismissal from jury duty service. In the end I was dismissed after disclosing the nature of my employment oddly enough.

Perhaps next time.

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