This week I was summoned for jury duty. The case itself wasn’t especially interesting—possession of .02 gram of cocaine in a seedy lounge where the prostitutes hang around out back and a body was found about a month ago. The cop had one story, the defendant had another, but regardless, a parcel containing a controlled substance was found on the floor.
Though the crime wasn’t the stuff of TV drama, I found the process fascinating. The control of information was constant, and it was one of the few places I have ever been where the subtext was consistently as loud as what was actually said. I might as well have had two people speaking to me at once.
The day began with questioning of the jury panel–they call it Voir Dire–but in this case there was as much teaching as questioning. Like those “Guess-the-Magic-Word” classes we all remember, nothing was completely straightforward. Simple explanations were followed by a question to see if you were paying attention: “The law says that you must prove three things to convict. Now if only two of those things are proved, how will you have to vote, guilty or not guilty?” There were questions with extra information included so we would learn things that might move our sympathies: “Does anyone know the defendent? Do you know his friends or family sitting over there? Does anyone know his three children?” (Ahh, so he’s a father, not just a bad person.) There were questions with a moral lesson attached: “Drugs are a serious problem in our community. Do you have any problem convicting someone who is in possession of an amount smaller than one gram?”
Then came the trial. During a trial every question is “going somewhere.” Everyone is trying to steer the bus with their words, and as I sat on the jury I felt I was watching to see where we would all be taken. Sometimes there were surprises. Sometimes the person who seemed to be driving lost control for a minute and the testimony took a turn and we wound up in an entirely unexpected section of town, so to speak. You couldn’t listen without dissecting the spin. No one could be trusted. Everyone had an agenda. “Why are you asking this question, in this way, at this time? Why are you answering in this way? What are you not saying and why? What does it all mean?”
But if the process was fascinating it was also exhausting. The endless parsing of communication was wearisome. It played with your mind. It was irritating. We ended with a hung jury after a long day.
What a great relief to return to my normal everyday life: to ask a simple question and have it answered without wondering what was not being said. I’m glad we have this system of justice, but it is surely a strange way to look for truth.
There was one other thing that made the day a bit surreal. The local courthouse is a beautiful historical building, over a hundred years old and decorated with eagles, the Greek and Roman goddesses of justice, and America’s Lady Liberty. Nothing unexpected there, but on the third floor the courtroom door pulls are all Tiki gods—just like the ones you would find on a Polynesian restaurant or Tiki bar. Try as I might, I just can’t figure that out, but there has to be a story. Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to ask the judge.