Democracy in Action

Democracy in Action

Years later, I would tell my friends never to shirk their jury summonses. This is the most democratic experience you’ll ever have, I’d insist.

But when I first arrived at the Alameda County Superior Courthouse, located in what was the gritty area of downtown Oakland in the late 1980s, I had little desire to serve on a criminal trial. I simply assumed that no sane assistant D.A. would accept me as a member of a jury because I was a professor, a Berkeley resident, and a lifelong liberal activist.

Turns out I was wrong. The young assistant D.A., impeccably dressed for success, immediately established that I was a professor of American history at the University of California, as well as a liberal who had lived in Berkeley for decades. I was sure I would be home within the hour. Then, she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “If I can convince you that a person recklessly endangered people driving under the influence of alcohol, would you be willing to convict such a defendant?” I hesitated, thought about it for a long moment, answered truthfully, and said, “Yes, I would do that.”

Suddenly, I was serving on my first trial. As we listened to the witnesses’ testimonies, the evidence was overwhelming. The white-haired, elderly African-American man who now sat in the courtroom casually dressed in mismatched pants and jacket had left a party, driven his truck down a hill, careened across the street, and smashed into a telephone pole. Several neighbors had witnessed the spectacle. When the police arrived, he could not walk a straight line. The breathalyzer test made them wonder how he was able to stand upright. He wasn’t just driving under the influence. He was stone drunk.

As we filed into a stuffy, dim room to discuss the evidence, we sat around a long table that reminded me of the film Twelve Angry Men. But we were not twelve white men. The jury included ten individuals from ethnic and racial minorities. Half of us were women. One man immediately pointed at me and said I should be the forelady because I was a professor and probably knew how to do these things. The rest immediately agreed. I accepted, not sure I really knew “how to do these things.”

We met for two full days because four members of the jury wanted to return a vote of “not guilty.” We took straw votes; we asked the judge to repeat his instructions; we asked the bailiff for transcriptions of certain testimonies.

I understood and shared the moral anguish of the four. We all knew this was the defendant’s third conviction for drunk driving and that he’d likely go to prison. What we all wanted was for him to get help and become sober. But the judge, a warm, compassionate, Mexican American, had repeatedly instructed us, “You must not take into consideration the possible nature of the sentence, only the evidence that has been presented. You must only decide whether the defendant is guilty of the crime.”<...

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