The Reverend Mr Ford’s Day in Court: Juror Number Four’s Tale of Theory & Practice

The Reverend Mr Ford’s Day in Court: Juror Number Four’s Tale of Theory & Practice November 9, 2018



Okay, I took advantage of the standard offer to put off responding to my jury summons. I had the opportunity to set it at a date that seemed without conflict. Well, assuming nothing untoward happened. More on that, anon…

Now, in the abstract I had no objection to serving.

(In theory)

Yes. I believe that race enters into who ends up being arrested all too often. We have a serious problem with structural racism and it seems as obvious as the nose on my face that racism infects our criminal justice system. As to criminal trials, I am haunted by that old New Yorker cartoon, “You have a pretty good case, Mr Pitken. How much justice can you afford?” Our adversarial judicial system favors those with money. Again, as obvious as that nose and that face.

In practice we humans have a profound sense of fairness, of equity, and an equally powerful sense of  getting a personal advantage. Or, to put it another way, we humans simply have not figured out how to rise above the fact that we are basically chimpanzees with clothing.

Our country is founded on an idea of a Commonwealth, a republic with mutual accountability and support. That the republic is more oligarchic than democratic seems to come with the territory of the clothed chimp part of the deal. I would it otherwise. But, again, I look around the globe and I don’t see a ton of people actually doing better. Some. And I am with those who want to make this experiment into something more genuinely equitable, more authentically serving all of us.

Now, in my fantasy world a court would be a place of seeking truth and bringing justice and mercy in equal parts to the project. And, not the world in which we live. Still. Our Republic, profoundly, terribly flawed, as it is, seems in fact to be not much worse than most other parts of the planet. Sadly, better than too many.

And, so, I am totally willing to serve on a jury. Not to nullify, or impose, but to do the work of justice informed by the call of mercy within the frame of the judicial system we have.

That’s the theory. How I see it, writ large. And, okay, I never actually expected to serve on a jury.

(In practice)

I’ve been called to jury duty three times before, with two I simply called in the day ahead for a week and was never called into the courthouse. The one time I was called into the courthouse I sat in the juror pool room for most of the day before being excused. So, as we humans like to extrapolate from insufficient data, I just sort of assumed nothing would happen.

And indeed I was excused for Monday. Then for Tuesday. And then called in on Wednesday. No big deal I thought.

The George Deukmejian Courthouse is an impressive newer building in downtown Long Beach. At two miles away, I could literally walk to it. Although I chose to take up Jan’s offer of being dropped off. I’d passed on doing the online orientation because, well, because I never expected to get this far. So, it was pretty early on Wednesday when I checked in and with what looked to be a pretty good gang, went through a straightforward explanation of the process.

Then I was part of a first batch to be escorted over to a courthouse. Maybe forty of us. Possibly a few more.

We were informed it was a criminal case. The judge read out nine counts alleging a High School teacher had seduced her fifteen year old charge after reading a paper where the student confessed having a crush on another female student. An affair was alleged, if that is the right term, affair not alleged, continued until the girl was nineteen. The girl, now young woman says she held this close until fairly recently when she reported this to the police. There was an arrest, and here we were now at the trial.

I thought oh, god, please let the cup pass from me. I couldn’t think of a more complex and unpleasant case to be called upon to assess guilt or innocence. Sadly, my prayer got the same answer as Jesus’.

Eighteen people were put in the jury box and other seats up by the box. And the process began.

The judge fairly quickly dismissed three people who had experienced sexual abuse. Over time two others admitted their prejudice against LGBTQ folk were excused.

After that they got into digging into who might be the jury. It genuinely seemed to me the judge was seeking an impartial jury willing to abide by the court’s instructions. The prosecution and the defense pretty clearly looking for people who would listen sympathetically to their perspective.

Wednesday passed. I guesstimated that as my name was usually called in the middle of the pack, and maybe just a tiny bit to the end of the middle, I might not be empaneled. Indeed not. But the pool steadily decreased. It passed on too Thursday. The morning ground on. Then into the afternoon. Then, finally, I found my name called. I was number sixteen. Which meant if no one else were excused I would not be on the jury.

I determined I would be as honest and forthright as I could be while making no attempt to wiggle out of the job.

When asked what my profession was I felt the simplest and based on being paid for it, honest statement was that I was a retired Unitarian (Universalist) minister. Based on the process so far I figured if they wanted more they could ask, buy they didn’t seem to be looking for nuance. Now, I’m proud of also being a Zen Buddhist priest and leading several sitting groups. It is near the heart of my life. But, as to date I’ve put vastly more money into it than I can now ever hope to get out of it, here in court my Zen work is avocation.

Shortly after the judge asked her questions but before being handed over to the gentle mercies of the attorneys we adjourned for the day. Friday the defense pulled up on his smart phone a copy of the Unitarian Universalist Principles. He read off a few, focusing on inherent worth of people, justice, equity, and compassion, and free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Under oath I affirmed I believed in those things. I noticed he didn’t go through the whole list. With a couple more small questions, he said he was done. The prosecutor had no questions for me.

Then there were a quick raft of dismissals. And before the dust settled I was juror number four.

We were sworn in and informed we would have until the following Friday off when the trial would begin. The judge stated she would be unhappy if the case ran through Thanksgiving. While I found her solicitous and respectful, and particularly conscious of people’s need for regular access to the bathrooms, I also came away with the sense one would not want to be the person who made her unhappy.

And, I have to admit, I simply did not believe I would be impanelled until after it happened. I’m a freaking minister, after all. As they say, forgiveness is my business. Totally not going to be picked. Until I was…

First, there was one practical personal consequence. Back to that noting consequences to my delaying going on jury duty. And that was the very Friday (today) the trial was to begin I was scheduled to fly out to Urbana Champaign, well, to Chicago’s Midway airport and then to Urbana Champaign where a dear friend and colleague was being installed as a parish minister. Me, I was to give the charge to the minister, a small but in our ministerial lives an important moment. And. Now. This was no longer going to happen. So, I had to take care of that (Fortunately, my words will be read by another colleague, in case you were wondering).

Second, I had to hold in my heart all the parts. I was glad that I would be there because that meant at least one person wasn’t going to be making judgments based on the sexuality of the defendant. I am strongly inclined to believe someone when they say they’ve been abused. And, while, I believe there are gray areas, the very charge of the person being a minor and the accused being at least ten years older than the minor, helped put that into a working perspective for me. And, and, I felt I could sit in that jury and work from the assumption I had to be convinced the charges were true beyond a reasonable doubt.

I thought a lot about that reasonable doubt in the ensuing days. In a system seeking justice, that the onus was on the prosecution made a ton of sense to me. The defense, in our system, has no obligation to prove anything. At least in theory. But a good theory, and something I felt I could comfortably work within and wanting to be practice.

So, there I was committed to being an honest juror.

And, wracked with a sense no matter how it turned out I would feel terrible. I was to be a midwife to the consequences of actions taken well before I even had relocated to Southern California. But, fortune had brought me into this place. And I felt a profound sense of obligation. And I felt a terrible fear of getting it wrong.

An interesting cascade of feelings, and thoughts where the theory of justice and its application met in my heart.

I write these words from my perspective. But, I was terribly conscious of how this was true in its own way for each of the jurors. And for the accused. And for the accuser.

The sadnesses of being dressed up chimps…

Then this morning we the jury arrived at the court. There was a delay and we were left standing in the hallway. Finally the judge came out and told us there had been a plea and that we were excused. She made a small speech thanking us. She also said the sentencing was set for the 30th. I don’t plan on going to the courthouse, but I will check the news reports.

And that’s it. Theory and practice. The abstract and the actual.

Do I feel good? No. Do I feel bad? Not particularly. But I do have a take away. This is not a good system. It has too many flaws. I will always wonder if the defendant’s decision was based on her being guilty, or that she was innocent but felt she couldn’t win the trial and could at least hope for lesser amount of jail time – there seems to me to be no chance there will not be jail time. Or, maybe she just plain ran out of money. And. I think of the accuser, now vindicated in her charges. Will she feel some kind of, what? Not closure. I find closure something of a nonsense term, at least short of the grave. But, some ending and the possibility of some beginning. But, she must feel other feelings, as well. What exactly the mix, I have no way of knowing, but it can’t all be good. And, maybe it never will be good.

And, someone, we have lurched along and maybe, probably, justice was served. As to mercy, who knows? A measure of that is in the judge’s hands, and she will deal it out on the 30th…

So, I don’t know.

But, I do feel as imperfect as the whole thing was, as hard as it is for everyone involved, my hard so much less than so many others, still, hard – it was all worth it.

About as good as a bunch of dressed up monkeys are going to be able to do.

And with that, I need a nap…


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