Chosen by Default

Chosen by Default

I had been called for jury duty before, and the results were always the same: everyone in the room where the lawyers questioned prospective jurors would laugh when I said that I worked for the Democratic Socialists of America or I would raise my hand when asked whether anyone had a problem with New York State’s mandatory-sentencing drug laws. Either way, I was out of there. Even though now I worked for a magazine that didn’t have the “S” word in its title, I thought Dissent might get the same reaction.

Truth to tell, I wasn’t eager to serve. Each trip to the courthouse had depressed and infuriated me. There were the dreary halls, the bored bailiffs, the sullen and scared prisoners of color (were the white criminals all in civil court?). And almost every case seemed to involve a police officer buying drugs from an alleged dealer. Surely, I would huff to my friends, there were enough crimes being committed that the police could find better things to do than create them. The only inspiring aspect was seeing the mix of people called for jury duty.

We filed in to be questioned—a group as varied as the population of New York City, minus many immigrants. The crime described to us by the judge was common: young white woman alone on a side street; young black man with knife demanding money. The site was different from my own mugging in the vestibule of my building almost twenty years before, but the situation was not. Although I knew I could be fair, I couldn’t imagine that the defense would let me sit on the jury. But when we were asked how many of us had been victims of crimes or were related to a crime victim, every member of the panel had a story, most worse than mine. No matter. The defense attorney took us at our word that we could be fair. I was on a criminal jury.

The defendant sat at the table, wearing a hooded sweatshirt similar to one that the victim said her assailant had worn that night. What kind of a lawyer lets his client wear the same outfit to court in which he allegedly committed the crime? I thought. I’m not a lawyer, and Perry Mason had been off the air for some time, but I wondered how well this indigent defendant was being served.

Earlier in the day, I had stuck my head into the television room, where many jurors sit before they are sent to a courtroom, and I had seen glimpses of the O.J. Simpson trial. Now there, I thought, was a juror’s nightmare—a case that would keep you tied up for months. I muttered my sympathy for the jurors in Los Angeles only to be corrected by a woman who said, “But this is the crime of the century. I’d love to be on that jury.” What about Leopold and Loeb, the Scopes Monkey Trial, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys? I decided to keep my mouth shut.

Downstairs, our defendant’s lawyer was no Johnnie Cochran. And he had a lot less to work with. The victim had been mugged under a streetlamp, which gave her a good look at her ...