I had to listen to the recorded announcement on the telephone three or four times last night, before I could believe I’d heard it right. “All jurors summoned for Tuesday, February 7 at 8:30 a.m.—you have been relieved of jury duty. You do not have to appear. Thank you and have a nice and safe evening.”
I felt as I had back in school, when they announced a snow day.
But happy as I was to have the next few days freed once more for my own affairs, I wouldn’t have minded too much if I had been called. I’ve served on three juries in my time, and the third of these stints was one of the finer experiences of my life.
The first time I served, the trial was over in a day. The defendant was charged with having abetted the killing of a deer out of season. It was completely obvious the guy was guilty. Obvious, though, from the fact that he hadn’t provided any counter-narrative explaining his actions that would be an alternative to the one given by the state—and was that a valid legal argument against him? (“The world,” says Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons, “must construe according to its wits. This Court must construe according to the law.”) After all, as the man’s lawyer pointed out, the defendant doesn’t have to do one single thing to prove himself innocent. It’s the state’s burden to prove he’s guilty.
That was why it took us a while. But we found him guilty.
My second jury service was for a family dispute, the details of which I’ve mostly forgotten. The third trial is the one that’s most stuck in my mind; it went on for several days, and its more sensational details made the local newspapers. It made me rethink what I was doing as a university professor.
It was a little over fifteen years ago. A young woman, who worked for a lawyer in some sort of secretarial capacity, was charged with having stolen from her boss. The case was pretty complicated—“Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive,” the prosecutor intoned in her opening argument—and I can’t say the details are quite straight in my mind. What I remember most vividly is the jury itself.
A friend of mine, a professor like myself, once said to me, “They don’t pick educated people for juries, do they?” The implication was that we educated folk are too smart to see through lawyers’ tricks, therefore lawyers prefer we not be there. Well, there were two Ph.D.s on this jury, myself and a thoroughly brilliant woman who was chosen as foreperson. A couple of our fellow-jurors seemed to have very little formal education; most were in between. About halfway through the trial, a young high school English teacher who was on our jury said to me: “I think I’m serving with the ten smartest people in the county.”
(Ten, not eleven; she made one exception. I’ll come back to that.)
The juror who “cracked the case,” as they say, was a bus driver. She could hardly speak a grammatical sentence. But she knew very well how to read a text—in this case, a thick pile of telephone records—and draw from it the inferences that went straight to the heart of the defendant’s deceptions. Once she’d laid out her argument, all but one of us had no doubt we would vote “guilty.” This gave me pause. For years I’d taught critical reading of ancient religious documents in my university courses, and reasoned that I was training my students in intellectual skills they could use afterward in more practical contexts. That, I argued, was one of the benefits of an education in the humanities. But now, lo and behold, it appeared that no university education was necessary to do that kind of thing. All you needed was a clear and powerful mind. Our Ph.D. jury foreperson had that—she demonstrated it over and over in our deliberations. So did this bus driver.
There was one holdout, unpersuaded of guilt. This was the one whom the English teacher had made the exception to her “smartest people” rule. Her name was G_______. When we gathered on Friday morning, after a week that had left us all frazzled and irritable, our foreperson announced: “We’re going to take a half-hour and just listen to G_______. We’re not going to argue. We’re just going to hear her.”
G_______ spoke. “I’ve been praying,” she said; and her prayers had been answered. She now had the clarity she’d needed. She was ready to vote with the rest of us. When the verdict was read, and the lawyer for the defense asked that we all be polled, G_______ spoke her “Guilty!” in a voice as firm as any of ours.
The English teacher had misjudged. Twelve of us, not eleven, were the smartest twelve people in the county. Only, G_______ felt, more sharply than the rest of us, the immense moral gravity of declaring “Guilty!” about another human being.
The sentence having been read, and the judge having at last declared us free to go home and talk about the case, I stepped into a neighboring bank to get some cash for the weekend. G_______ was there. “Have a good weekend,” she said, and touched me on the shoulder. I never saw her again.
For that touch on the shoulder, I was glad to have given up my week to jury duty. I’d gladly do it again.