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To Sit In Judgment Page 2

Equally wrenching was the cross-examination by the public defender, a young attorney, whose vocabulary alone made him a devastating inquisitor for a woman who said “pacific” when she meant “specific” and didn’t know what a diagram was. With a disobedient cowlick, wiry build and agile gait that made it easy to imagine him on a tennis court, the defender focused on inconsistencies in the woman’s testimony: Initially, she reported the incident to the police as an intrusion by an unknown burglar, then later said the defendant broke through the door. In still another rendition, she kissed the defendant when he arrived that night. Through a series of detailed questions about dates, signatures and work history, the attorney established that the woman had lied about her income on her public assistance forms. He asked too about a previous incident in which her parental rights had been temporarily terminated because of an alcohol addiction. Was it possible, he pressed, that the bruises in the photographs resulted from an intoxicated stumble the day before the incident?  The woman sunk her forehead into her palm and adopted a rhythmic mantra of  “I don’t remember, I don’t recall,” even to queries about the size of her apartment.

By this point, I began to appreciate the judge’s admonishments not to form or discuss opinions about the case. We had frequent breaks, and I was happy to spend them on the payphone, returning work-related messages and trying to find a bakery that would put a horsie on a cake for my stepdaughter’s ninth birthday party. Over the weekend, my husband and I discussed the headlines and which shade of green to paint our living room. The courtroom scenario of my weekday hours seemed to take place in a separate world outside my own. It was clear that a tragedy had occurred between *Dinky and Duke, as they had once affectionately called each other, yet I found myself -- with a tolerance for television violence lower than that of the average fourth grader -- curiously unshaken.

That illusion lasted until Monday. However, it was not the graphic descriptions of the alleged crime that unnerved me, but those of the slow disintegration of what had once been a family. We heard from nine other witnesses, including the woman’s supposed “best friend,” a neighbor who seemed eerily reluctant to testify. We heard about Dinky’s part-time job as a janitor. We heard from the police officer who had taken her report -- her third attempt -- through a plexiglass window in one of the city’s busiest stations. Dinky had married the man whose phone number had been on the table the night of the incident, but he was a muddle on the stand -- seething at the defendant, defensive about his felony record and unable to stifle a disconcerting tendency to lapse back thirty years to Vietnam where his helicopter was shot down. The defendant’s mother, a self-possessed woman who worked for the school district, was obviously shattered by the tragedy between her 35-year old son and the woman who had produced a grandson and was once “like a daughter” to her.

The defendant had pled not guilty to all six charges, but at the trial, we heard his voice only once -- in recorded phone messages to the mother of his child. His movements, however, were far from silent. A cheetah pacing a cage, he shifted often in his chair, looking small in a shirt provided by counsel and still creased from the package. His indignant sighs and agitated pencil-tapping made it clear that he considered himself unjustly accused, though his version of the incidents I was not to hear until after the trial. Hurtled face-first into the most difficult of the judge’s instructions -- not to draw any inference from defendant’s decision not to testify -- we jurors were left with essentially this: life-size, color photographs of  the woman’s bruises and the defendant’s complete denial of having caused them.

As the trial progressed, it was increasingly hard not to talk about the case to the other jurors. My neighbor in the jury box was a man in his mid-thirties who made pesto from his garden and read books by Borges. I rode the bus sometimes with Juror#2, an art dealer in his twenties with a clipped beard and dry humour. Ever derailing an urge to discuss the forbidden subject, I grew to appreciate the power of conversation as a conduit of thought and dispeller of tension. At home, it was peculiar not to talk to my husband about such a weighty concern; our treasured bathtub conversations sometimes fell silent. My sleep grew restless; my dreams featured erotic episodes with the bailiff.

When at last we entered the jury room, I didn’t know what to expect. A friend of mine had served on a civil trial in which a juror opened deliberations by announcing that she hoped they could “make it snappy.” A neighbor had served on several criminal trials and was known to declare, “I fry ‘em good.”  Fortunately, our gang of twelve was more than admirable. We did not rush through anything or grow impatient with ponderous, thorny discussions. Explicit descriptions were not a problem; when examining the finer points of rear-entry penetration and whether or not a man can sustain an erection while enraged, we strangers got comfortable with each other quickly. It was far more difficult to deal with the subjects we were instructed not to discuss. Our job was not to empathize emotionally, but to evaluate the credibility of testimony and decide if the evidence supports the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. We were not to be influenced by pity or prejudice, conjecture or sympathy. We were not to consider penalty or punishment. In retrospect, this meant: try not to imagine the degradation and brutality of this woman’s daily existence if her son’s father has raped and beaten her, but we lack the certainty to convict. Try not to imagine the degradation and brutality that will plague this man’s daily existence if we do have the certainty to convict. Try not to imagine a boy starting pre-school with Dad behind bars for allegedly beating and raping Mom; the half-sister in first grade, not wanting to elaborate on How I Spent My Summer Vacation.

Jury service can be a monastic experience, involving a concentrated mental diet designed to purify the mind of all impediments to disciplined thought. Conversation is determined by the hour, restricted first to The Topic (in the jury room), then, to all but The Topic (at lunch and in the hallway). Conscripted for service, a juror is addressed by assigned number, travels by police escort to group meals and is an individual only to the extent that his/her thoughts and utterances are of interest to the state. Vocational pursuits and individual accomplishments are temporarily  suspended. Time becomes irrelevant in the jury room, a compact, windowless  chamber as austere as any spartan retreat, noticeably free from telephone rings, computer bleeps, crowd chatter and background music. My initial musings as to which juror would be the Jerk of the bunch (unless it’s me, I never found one) now strike me as cynical. To the contrary, that a random selection could produce a diligent, harmonious group was an unexpected plus.

*not the true nicknames



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