A juror hears her conscience and says, 'No, your honor'

February 22, 1991|By Margaret McCamp

MY NUMBER was up. Baltimore city had summoned me for jury duty.

I didn't want to go. I'd done my duty before, before the new "one day or one trial" policy. During that time, I'd sat on three juries. The last trial was very long, carrying into a fifth week. It was a nasty trial, a gory bludgeoning murder, and the testimony was long, drawn out and too graphic.

I didn't want to be stuck on another one of those, not with only one week between my summons date and preparing my students for their final exams.

Helpful advice from empathetic acquaintances flowed in:

"Tell 'em you'll set all the defendants free!" "Tell 'em you'll fry 'em!"

But the dreaded day passed uneventfully. As I listened to the orientation presentation, narrated by the late Jerry Turner, I began to feel . . . guilty? . . . for being afraid I'd be singled out of a pool of nearly 300 people to maintain our justice system.

I waited with my peers in the jury assembly room for our numbers to be called. At around 11 a.m., the first group was called. I lucked out. I graded term papers. A second group was called after lunch . . . another reprieve. I graded more papers.

By then, it was 3:30; one hour to go before dismissal. I was safe. At any minute they would give us our notes for employers, verifying our completion of civic duty, and would probably let us go early. After all, it was Friday afternoon.

3:50 p.m. A tap on the microphone. This was it. Early release for good behavior.

"Those jurors with numbers beginning with 224 to 275, please report . . ."

The judge was good-natured. He thanked us for our patience under the circumstances and commenced the voir dire -- the weeding out of jurors who, for any of a number of reasons, feel they cannot render an impartial decision. He questioned us about our familiarity with people involved with the case, our familiarity with police officers, our previous service on juries. He asked if we had been victims of a crime.

After each affirmative answer, he probed further, asking whether those circumstances would affect our ability to render an impartial decision.

This procedure is amnesty for any unwilling juror. "Yes . . . my brother is a city police officer, and the police are always right. So I can't give an impartial decision." Juror excused, no further questions, no blot on your record. Free.

It was my turn to approach the bench.

Yes, I was a victim of a crime.

"Did you feel the police and the courts were fair?"

"Uh, not really." This was my chance. I had the perfect excuse. No long and involved jury trial for me!

I explained how both my neighbor and I had watched a young man as he tried to break into my house and how the police had caught him after a brief chase, but how his lawyer had succeeded in winning the young man's acquittal. This wasn't fair.

"Would this interfere with your ability to render an impartial decision, based on this particular case?"

Trapped. I knew I could easily be dismissed. My stomach churned. . . or was it my conscience?

"No, your honor." Why did I say that? Who made me say that? It was pride. I still didn't want to sit on a jury. I had a week between that afternoon and final exams. I had other things to do. But how dare they presume that I was incapable of rendering an impartial judgment?

This attribute is one reason the jury system still works. Despite the lawyers' doing their jobs, despite legal technicalities and loopholes, despite so many people having better things to do, I believe the ordinary citizen -- the peer -- has an inherent desire to render an impartial decision.

I never got to prove myself. Fate intervened, and 12 jurors and an alternate were selected and accepted before my number was called.

I left the courthouse relieved. I'd done my duty, and I could plan my classes for the following Monday. We'd finish up "Oedipus Rex," and we would discuss pride as attribute and fatal flaw. Then we'd tackle "Trifles," a dramatized version of Susan Glaspell's "Jury of Her Peers."

Margaret McCampbell writes from Baltimore.

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