Our democratic duty

April 29, 2004|By Beth Drummond Casey

IN ALL OF the hoopla surrounding no-shows for jury duty in Baltimore City, recent media coverage implies that it's no wonder we're in such a pickle: Prospective jurors must endure endless and unproductive waits on the day they are called for duty, they are offered insulting pay in exchange for their time and both prosecutors and defense attorneys practice discriminatory selection policies.

But one significant issue remains undiscussed: Trial by a jury of one's peers is part of the foundational bedrock of our democratic society. Whether we like it or not, whether it inconveniences us or not or whether we are paid adequately for it or not, the right to an impartial jury depends completely upon a society's willingness to participate in the process.

This was never clearer to me than in the last week, when I served on a Baltimore jury for four days. Three defendants - two brothers and a cousin - were charged with five counts each: attempted murder, first- and second-degree assault and handgun violations. I began the week the way popular sentiment might have predicted: furious I'd been chosen, annoyed by my lost time at work and bored by the seemingly endless and intermittent delays.

But by 7 p.m. on the fourth evening, as our foreman read our verdicts, I was filled with emotions that had no connection to those that had plagued me four days earlier. My mind pulsed with the vivid imagery and detailed description presented to us expertly by the four attorneys on the case. My body ached with the exhaustion that comes from eight- and nine-hour days spent listening intently, thinking deeply and not discussing anything with my fellow jurors, or even with my family, as I collapsed at home at night.

But the effect on my mind and body was nothing compared with the effect on my heart. As I looked around our gathering table on Monday morning, did I have any idea that by Thursday night I would feel as one with these 11 strangers? Did I ever think I could listen avidly, sympathetically and critically to testimony that ranged from the absurd to the poignant, sometimes within the same minute?

When a hung jury seemed likely early on in our deliberations, was there even a hint of the myriad ways individual members would work their own particular magic, thereby melting even the thorniest of roadblocks standing in the way of consensus? On Monday, would I have been able to predict the intense welling of relief and love that would sweep over me as our 12th juror finally found her way to saying "guilty" just before 7 p.m. Thursday?

And what of our defendants? Yes, our defendants, for that is what they became over the course of the week, and that is how they will live in my memory and, I suspect, the memories of my fellow jurors.

From the first moments of the voir dire jury selection process, two of the three young men faced us, standing at attention each time we entered the courtroom. They stared searchingly into our faces and consulted energetically with their attorneys as the prosecution and the defense built their cases.

As our verdicts were read - not guilty on the three major charges and guilty on the two handgun charges - one man crumpled in tears and was caught in the arms of his brother. Together they stood entwined, sobbing what appeared to be tears of relief. The third defendant, a cousin, received the verdict the same way he had received the rest of the trial - with stern visage and no visible emotion, staring straight ahead, unmoved by events. Later, as we filed from the courtroom, the first brother held his outstretched palms to us and seemed to be mouthing "thank you."

By trial's end, none of the three was wholly innocent. But neither were they wholly guilty. And somehow that felt right.

What if I had not been selected for this group, had found a way to, yet again, finagle my way out of the jury room during voir dire? Well, I would have put in a full week of work, I could have fulfilled all my carpool obligations, I would have exercised several times and I most certainly wouldn't have shed as many tears.

But I would have missed a significant, truly awesome experience that too many of my peers have been deprived of. The framers of our precious Constitution knew what they were doing when they created the Sixth Amendment. More citizens need to understand this.

Beth Drummond Casey is the Lower School assistant head at the Park School in Brooklandville.

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