Sunday, May 16, 2010

Civic Duty

I was eager to take part in an “important civic responsibility and opportunity to participate in the American judicial system.” It was my first time to be called for jury duty. What I knew about the American jury system, I learned from movies like “Twelve Angry Men” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.”
The eligible citizens, a mix of Manhattanites of all ages, races, and ethnicities, gathered in the jury’s room on the 11th floor of the Manhattan Court House. They were dressed in Wall Street, hip-hop, Madison Avenue Prada, ethnic African, and work out attire.
To most, their contribution to democracy seemed an inconvenient burden. They slept through the instructional film, tapped furiously on their blackberries and laptop computers, and negotiated real estate deals over the phone. Some hid out in the TV and PC rooms. Free Wi-Fi tranquilized the majority of them. I brought along a thick novel and spent the morning reading and waiting. A panel of sixty people was called after three hours, but I wasn’t one of them.
“This is the golden age of Manhattan trials,” a court employee said. “Crime is so low that we have very little to do for you.” How reassuring. At 3:30 PM, another panel of jurors was called. At first, I didn't react when my name was called. Even after thirty years in New York, mispronouncing my name ÄNNA STIEKMÄHN, made me feel they're looking for someone else. “Good luck,” the court employee said. “Remember, you are the one standing between civilization and anarchy.”
We were invited into the judge's court room. A criminal case, I thought, I hope it's not murder. Horrid images of Truman Capote’s “In cold blood” ran through my mind. The judge introduced the defendant, a middle-aged white man, accused of selling cocaine to an undercover policeman. He explained the reasons one might not be able to serve as a juror, i.e. being a Jehovah's Witness who are not allowed to sit in judgment of others. He invited potential jurors who might be excused from the case to speak to him individually. Once outside again, a long line of people formed with issues that might prevent them from serving as jurors.
By 11:30 AM the following day everyone had a chance to speak to the judge. So far, the experience had nothing of the tension and excitement portrayed in Hollywood movies. Twelve jurors and two alternates were selected. My name was called first; I was in shock. Those chosen sat in the jury box, the rest on the benches reserved for the public during the trial. We filled out a questioneer, and then had to read our answers out loud. Again, I was first. Soon we found out where each juror lived and who they lived with. Each disclosed their profession, their highest level of education, their partners’ profession and if they had family members in law enforcement.
Amongst us was an oncologist from the Upper West Side, a retired subway employee, a young girl who worked for Banana Republic, a plumber from Washington Heights, a fashion designer, a pianist and a CEO married to a medical doctor. We were a highly educated group; most of us had master’s degrees. The college educated read the New York Times; the high school graduates preferred the Daily News.
“Would you have trouble judging someone?” the judge asked. In my previous life as a social worker, I was trained not to judge people. “Would you draw conclusions about the defendant’s character knowing that he has a criminal record?” the lawyer asked. “How do you feel about the police, undercover police in particular? The young black man, who worked at Footlocker and lived in East Harlem with his mother, had strong feelings about undercover police officers. One of them had thrown him against the wall in this building and patted him down without identifying himself.
Most of us stated that we’d be able to judge the defendant impartially. “Innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” the potential jurors said.
“How do you feel about someone selling drugs?” the lawyer for the defendant asked me. I had hoped that someone else would answer before me to no avail. I have smoked marijuana and tried Ecstasy. Some of my friends and family members have used drugs. I worked as a drug prevention counselor and saw the devastation caused by crack cocaine firsthand. But I had no time to think about an answer. “Using drugs is a mistake. Selling drugs is a mistake,” I said sounding as eloquent as a fourth grader. “Hopefully people will learn from their mistakes.”
We sat outside for another forty minutes. I remembered how the defendant scrutinized all of us in the jury box. His fate lay in our hands. Was I ready for this responsibility? I no longer felt excited about jury duty. I felt ill at ease, anxious about judging another human being. I thought about the unjust Rockefeller laws that might send the defendant to jail for a long time for a small amount of cocaine. The defendant with his pockmarked face looked frightened and dejected. He reminded me of my younger brother at his worst, in the thralls of alcoholism and mental illness. Would those feelings influence me? Could I be impartial? What gave me the right to judge somebody?
Finally, the list of acceptable jurors was called. I felt great relief that I wasn’t one of them. It would be six years before I was going to be asked to serve as a juror for New York State again, four before the Federal Court could summon me for duty. Enough time to come to terms with judging a fellow human being.
I felt lighter, going down the elevator. I didn’t have to become a Jehovah’s Witness to evade my civic duty after all.

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