Alexis de Tocqueville was so impressed with American jurisprudence that he called jury duty a free school for learning personal rights and practical law. But for decades being summoned to jury duty taught me different lessons—how to game the system and how to avoid serving. I was the Queen of Deferments: I was self-employed, I was a single mother, I moved and left no forwarding address. I thought serving on a jury would be annoying and time-consuming. “When you go to court you are putting your life in the hands of twelve people who aren’t smart enough to avoid jury duty,” someone once told me. I agreed. When the United States District Court finally caught up with me five years ago and I went downtown to serve like everyone else, I learned more about personal rights and practical law than I ever wanted to know. Jury duty wasn’t just annoying and time consuming, it was haunting and heartbreaking.
In a normal week as a writer and a teacher my big decisions are small: sushi or salad, jeans or a suit, adverb or no adverb. Faced with a big decision, I like to compromise. As a juror at the United States District Courthouse in Manhattan I was asked to make a decision that could either send an innocent man to prison or let a guilty predator back out on the streets. Both of these seemed like bad choices. There was no compromise. The man in question, a burly young guy, wearing a drab, long-sleeved T-shirt and baggy pants, sat in court in front of his pretty, intermittently weeping mother. I knew enough practical law to know that jurors should not be influenced by the presence of a mother in the courtroom; easier said than done. Justice may be blind, but how can a mother ignore the suffering of another mother?
For four days we twelve jurors—schoolteachers, performers, retirees, a photographer’s representative—considered and reconsidered an ugly fifteen-minute encounter on the corner of Seymour Avenue and Boston Road in the Bronx on a September Sunday. There, in front of a closed fish market at about 5:30 A.M, a veteran police officer, whose normal job was policing quality of life violations, pulled his unmarked maroon Crown Victoria to a stop across the street from what looked to him like a crack cocaine sale. The officer got out of the car, and his encounter with the defendant resulted in a handcuffed defendant bleeding on the ground. The officer would testify that he had fished a bag of crack out of the back of the defendant’s pants.
On the first day, we all filed into the jury box to hear the prosecutors and the defense lawyer make opening statements. The prosecutor said that the defendant had sold the drugs. The defense lawyer told us to focus on the credibility of the witnesses. The officer testified that he had looked through the tinted windows of his Crown Vic and seen the drug sale, but he was hard to believe. In a room of suits, he wore an unraveling sweater, and his story began to fray under p...
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