Doing our civic duty in city's uncivil court

City Diary

December 17, 2003|By Dan Buccino

SINCE WE MUST live among others, civility is required as we give of ourselves to shape and be shaped by the city. My five days of service on a Baltimore jury in an attempted murder case that the judge predicted would take three and should have been finished in two provided a refresher course on civility in the legal system and the city.

The complete unpredictability of the trial schedule was maddening. In my case alone, it caused the loss of thousands of dollars in billings, the canceling and rescheduling of dozens of patients - some of whom are in treatment specifically to avoid their own visits to the courthouse - and tremendous inconvenience to family and colleagues.

Multiply these indirect costs of bringing a case to trial by 12 and it's clear why so many are so reluctant to serve. The paradox revealed itself as I realized this was one team I didn't want to get picked for. The $15 per diem is barely enough to pay for the bus and lunch. Jury duty can only be seen as a charitable contribution to civil society.

Despite a patina of deference and formality in the "Yes, ma'ams," "Your honors," "No, sirs" and other courtroom etiquette, the most corrosive example of incivility was the blatant disrespect for anyone's time. Twelve people spent eight hours a day for five days being held hostage by the inefficiencies of an overburdened justice system.

If one's time is not respected, one learns to disregard others' time and, in a rapid cascade of events, no one is punctual for anything and self-respect and respect for others deteriorates in turn. Nevertheless, the jury must always "hurry up and wait." The week was a constant reminder of the necessary burdens of citizenship and the restraint on self-interest of civility.

The case itself was one of the countless human tragedies that are embedded within the everyday mayhem on our streets.

The crime took place over three years ago and involved alcohol, a jostling on the sidewalk, reciprocally provocative efforts to save face and at least two unlicensed, concealed handguns. It resulted in a serious gunshot wound to the abdomen.

The state's best witness appeared to have been a long-standing police informant and a long-term heroin addict who was likely stoned out of his mind at the time of the shooting and in withdrawal at the time of his statement to the police. He later recanted everything on the witness stand. The victim couldn't identify the shooter and couldn't come to court, as he is now terminally ill with a disease. Other witnesses had never been found for questioning, and those who did testify either didn't see anything useful or contradicted others' testimony.

Though it is important that the jury remains insulated from certain facts, I had to wonder why, in an overwhelmed court system, this case was even brought to trial.

Despite being reminded by our exceedingly professional judge that the defendant was "cloaked in innocence," he hardly appeared an innocent, bearing the telltale teardrop tattoos of the streetwise. Though there was some obligatory post-O.J. smoke and mirrors around careless police procedure, what appeared to be some subpar preparation by the prosecutor and the see-through theatricality of the defense attorney, the case fell apart on the witnesses. They underscored Baltimore's Golden Rule of the Streets: "Don't start none, won't be none. And if there is some, I don't know nothin' about it."

It's tough to convict as that uncivil culture collides with civil society.

So while the courtroom sheriff napped in the face of the relentless, senseless violence, our own captivity as jurors turned to passivity as time stood still. We were herded more than heard. Such is the inconvenience of democracy.

Yet all 12 deliberated diligently and fairly and considered all the evidence and options despite our diverse ages, races, genders, education levels and occupations. After all, as Stephen Carter has said, "Civility is the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together."

It's not about how others behave, but who we are. We stay civil not because others are, but because we are.

Today's writer

Dan Buccino is a Baltimore psychotherapist who is on the clinical faculties of the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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