Profound Lessons in Juror Service

I recently served as a juror in a murder trial in Washington, DC.

Day One in the Court Room full of potential jurors, we individually before the judge at the bench and surrounded by the prosecution and defense attorneys were screened through the procedure called “voir dire” – truth telling, essentially to determine if one can be fair without prejudice to pass judgment given the circumstances of the case.  I was struck by the whole process and all those gathered and wondered if the defendant really fully appreciated the enormous effort of hundreds of citizens on his behalf gathered that morning and for the following week to give him the right and privilege of a fair trial.  Close to one hundred citizens of D.C. up early to arrive at the Court House, missing work and the normal routine of their days and lives all on his behalf.

I was struck by the obvious lack of similar consideration generally in the judicial system and the conduct of the Court House, of any provision and similar effort for the victims of crimes.  The setting of a Court House would be appropriate for an organized, well-run victim services branch along with the prosecution and defense arm.

I was deeply impressed and took very seriously our charge by the judge at the beginning of the trial, that our duty as juror citizens was solely to determine whether we believed the witnesses before us sworn to testify to the truth.  I was surprised to learn from the judge at the near conclusion of the trial in his instructions to us before our deliberations, and then subsequently observed from the lawyer for the defense, that in closing arguments the attorneys could falsely relate the actual testimony of the witnesses, and, it was up to the jurors memory to determine fact as the judge cautioned us at the beginning and end of the trial was our duty and charge – determine if we believed the witnesses on the stand.  It seemed incredulous to me that attorneys could invent statements and summarize falsely in an attempt to trick or confuse the jury, and try to lead the jurors into questioning their memory, all the while witnesses were at the risk of perjury if it was found they testified falsely.

Pictures of the neighborhood where the crime occurred and where all involved lived struck me, single family dwelling units on tree-laden streets.  Feeling enormous sadness for the lives of the young male youths in that neighborhood and now those in Court, not in their youths anymore, the products of misdirected, misguided lives of drug dealing and thuggery, aimlessness and little hope.  Remember the street corners several block away on North Capitol Street outside liquor stores where older men a generation before those in this Court Room, perhaps their biological fathers, stand around aimless, perhaps too tired to commit crimes of quiet desperation.  All this in site of the Capitol Dome, as are many neighborhoods in Washington.

Was the judge a role model to the defendants or to any of the witnesses?  Could they see through the thickness of his judicial robes to the life experiences and effort involved to sit in judgment and preside over a Court Room?

At the end of the trial, the judge thanked the jurors for their contribution for if it were not for the Jury doing our part, the judge told us, our U.S. Constitution which belongs to us all could not be upheld.  Walked home along the Mall, grateful for my freedom, over my shoulder the U.S. Capitol where members just voted to constrain Constitutional rights and abuse suspects, essentially not to provide the same Constitutional process where the defendant, the judge, and we jurors were participants in across the street.

On the Friday late afternoon of the first week of our trial after we were dismissed for the weekend, I walked across the street to the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art where the National Gallery Brass Symphony Orchestra was performing Sousa and Jazz in the beautiful surrounding of the garden and fountain.  Music and the arts soothe the soul, bring comfort to the heart, and lead to Peace in the community, yet I remembered arts programs are the first to be cut in school districts, the misspent product of which we were witnessing in the Courtroom across the street.

I am grateful that the District of Columbia does not have the death penalty, yet many states do – essentially state sponsored and sanctioned murder of the kind the defendant was accused.  What a profound responsibility and what a profound, wise, and magical system our founding fathers voted to ensure- twelve people from disparate lives, trusted as citizens to pass judgment on our peers, irrespective of education, experience – all equals.  And yet, in our experience and cohesion as jurors it seemed to work, leading to tremendous respect for my juror citizen colleagues.

Homes, streets, blocks were described as where so and so’s Mother lives, never the word parents, father uttered, lives of low level thuggery, aimlessness, lack of focus and direction, and little seemingly male role models and mentors.  Remember a recent television documentary and quote of a young male incarcerated for life saying that “if you have no father figure, you find it on the street.”  Amidst the seemingly desperate attempts of mothers, grandmothers, and sisters to keep their families, children together, we heard testimony of older females and males in amazement of the terror grown around them, maintaining their own dignity and respect.

Remembering the young women in the college where I teach whose entrance biographies describe these same neighborhoods and lives of quite despair, desperation, violence, abuse by the males in their lives – fathers, brothers, boyfriends, neighbors, acquaintances, classmates, much like the defendant and witnesses.  These young women hanging on to their books and learning with the singular focus to transcend the self-described infestation of drugs, crime, abuse, murder, hopelessness that they were escaping to make their lives better, with the hope of bringing along their younger siblings, helping their parents, giving back when they succeed in college.  Mostly, to get away from the males caught and portrayed in the microcosm of this Court Room.  These young women have survived their neighborhoods by burying themselves in their studies and their books, their motivation and sure vehicle to step out of their neighborhoods, avoid the drugs, the abuse the low achieving, the violence, mostly, the men.  Their wish to get an education to help their families survive and flourish too – parents, siblings, children.

The convicted defendant has at least three children already, sons, with nothing but a poor father image, I wonder if the accused fully realizes this.  Sad, mourn for the quiet desperation and patterns potential to repeat in another generation.  Where are the pastors and community leaders in the lives of crime, aimlessness, violence of these males?

The Church across the street from the corner where these desperate, directionless males hung, failed, the schools failed, the families failed, and the defendant and witnesses failed themselves.  Some of the incarcerated witnesses exuded a sense of peace while describing steps to turnaround their lives.  Other witnesses on the other side of jail, exuding well earned, tenuous pride in their accomplishments of holding down a job, employment, off substances abuse and low level crime, and now clean, leading lives of citizens such as their juror judges.

See the accused with at least three children and wonder what type of male role model do these sons have?  Are they destined to follow in the lives of violent desperation and nothingness of their biological fathers?  Yet, I see hope and pride.  Those witnesses who are in the struggle to turn their lives around, ceasing drug use, clean for years, holding down jobs, and exuding quiet pride to be able to testify to that.

I wonder about our D.C. school system.  Although the highest per capita student expenditures in the country, and having to show for it the lowest achievement rates.  Hear juror colleagues relate tales of police mistreatment of males in their experience in their neighborhoods, especially to black males.  I question why these males have so readily been sentenced to jail for marijuana use, thus, beginning their slippery slope into violence, instead of the community sweeping them up, embracing them, re-directing them.

At the end of the trial, I was overcome by the profound nature or our responsibility, seriously carried out and fulfilled.  We came to a guilty verdict, but there are no winners.  The case is very sad all around, for everyone, the victim murdered on a sunny Sunday afternoon for a murder committed the night before, the convicted defendant, his friends from the neighborhood who as one juror noted are now all dead or in jail.  A generation lost, what about the next in the community within site of the Capitol Dome, which you can see from most every neighborhood in Washington.

And, there is the culture of guns, acquired and access to at an early young age, yet the District has gun control laws – brought in from neighboring Virginia and Maryland passing through the U.S. Capitol housing legislators protecting gun lobbyists instead of neighborhoods, youths, and families.

I worry about the prosecution witnesses soon to be released from jail, and when released if back to their same environment, may end up the same as the picture of the murdered victim- lying on the sidewalk with their brains and blood oozing out of their skull next to them on the pavement.  Reports of death and maiming in Iraq seem so very close now.

Lives of desperation without hope, yet, having experienced this criminal trial as a juror, I see there is hope in the responsible judgment of our juror citizens, and, see hope in the dignity and peace and quiet pride of some of the witnesses who have turned around their lives, and in the authority of Judge Erik P. Christian himself and the dignity and conduct in which he ran his Court Room.  And always, there is the hope of the young women in college, who are educating themselves for lives of productive citizens, and, yes, all in site of the Capitol Dome.

Harriet A. Fields

Washington, DC

© Harriet A. Fields, 2016


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