Jury Duty: An Honor

by: Joanne Meehl

Usually I write about careers and job search. But this time, I have to write about doing jury duty, an experience that interrupted my regular life and which ended today when the jury I served on reached a verdict. I'm grateful for the interruption.

As part of a jury that just reached a decision to acquit the defendant on two felony charges, I can't help but think about both the person critical to the state's case as well as the defendant. The state's witness is no doubt disheartened or even devastated by our decision, reached after the 12 of us decided the state's case just didn't present evidence that made it clear that a crime was committed. And there's a young man who's having dinner with his family instead of preparing for another court appearance when he'd be given his sentence.

Juries in Minnesota are instructed: "You are the judge of the facts, I am the judge of the law", said our judge as he was instructing us before we began deliberations. "Make the decisions on this case based on the facts, not what the penalty might be." So one cannot "look it up". Only now, now that the case is behind us, can we search for any information about it: what was the prosecutor's background, what's the info about the defense attorney, what's the judge's history, what were the news reports at the time -- but the first thing I looked up was the possible sentence.

If we had convicted the accused, he could have been imprisoned for as long as 20 years.

Our jury system, which has roots in English law, is the cornerstone of our civil society. According to VermontJudiciary.org,

The right to trial by a jury of one's peers became a symbol of the overthrown power of the king. From that time to this, the jury has become the central tenet of American law. Our ideal of equal justice for all probably could not have evolved without this strong belief in the wisdom of the jury.

This legacy was not lost on us. Once we were chosen for the jury, and we entered the courtroom for the first time, every person in the room, including the judge, stood when we came in and until we were seated. And it was the same when we left the room, even for short breaks: everyone stood until we were all out of the room.

Wow. What a way to say "What we do here is centered around the 12 of you." Because the system is centered on this.

It's understandable when people want to avoid jury duty. It takes time away from one's regular work, and it means you have to shut off your phone for most of the day, and you can't talk about the case until you've decided on a verdict and delivered it, you can't look things up, and you can end up arguing with one another -- people you barely know -- over how obvious it is that your opinion is the right one.

But all of that is temporary pain compared to how your decision -- the verdict -- will affect others' lives, forever. You realize that both sides of the case are not perfect. But you make a decision with the information you have, and you ultimately listen to one another's reasoning. Then something slips into the right place, it clicks, and you know you all agree.

Were we a wise jury? Perhaps we'll never know. But there's something special that happens when you put together people from all areas of American life, all ages and backgrounds and personal histories, and they apply what they know to the facts and reach a conclusion. One thinks of a cable, made of many threads of wire, which are then woven together into bundles, which are then woven into a cord that is almost impossible to break.

When the court clerk announces your verdicts in the courtroom, not guilty, and not guilty, you're not sure where to look: at the prosecutor, who at this moment is frowning and deeply disappointed? At the defense attorney, whose smile starts to appear as he hears the words? Or at the defendant, who in this case, stands and thanks us over and over again, his mother sobbing loudly and thanking us from a row of empty chairs at the back of the courtroom? You simply take it all in, a little stunned at your power, now delivered.

And you realize: 12 ordinary people have been part of our system continuing on. It works.

May it always be so.


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