I had jury duty last week. For those of you unaware of jury duty, it is when your local government authority summons you to make yourself available for possibly acting as a juror on a civil or criminal case. Two years ago, Los Angeles County asked me to appear for availability on any one of a number of pending civil cases, and I was not chosen, not even given the chance to be chosen as I did not make it to a panel from which I could have been picked to serve.
The county made me trek downtown last week and on Thursday I was chosen to be on the jury on a criminal case, and on Friday the case was concluded and we had made our ruling.
I was quickly nominated and chosen jury foreman because I had been on two other criminal case juries over the years when no one else had even been on one, and because I was articulate with my responses to attorney and judge questions during the jury selection process, a process that took three times as long as the case and jury deliberations combined. That was somewhat frustrating, by the way.
The case was about an ill, and somewhat intoxicated, homeless man who had harassed a lady sitting in her car at a 7-Eleven convenience store. He claimed he wanted a light for his cigarette and that was why he accosted her and reached into her open car window trying to grab the car lighter. She claimed he threatened to kill her and even attack her sexually as he tried to grab her where he shouldn’t and she was lucky enough to avoid his reach.
Because of the criminal complaint and the trial moving forward – why this wasn’t pleaded out we don’t know, the system most probably spent tens of thousands of dollars on a case that never should have gone to trial. All 12 jurors felt the lady overreacted and all 12 felt the man never threatened to kill her or sexually attack her. But it didn’t matter.
We had to follow the law. All of us without hesitation had to find the defendant guilty of the first count, that of a “criminal threat,” a felony, because of what we all agree he did, and because of the language of the law. We eventually all agreed to find him guilty of a lesser charge on the second count for “criminal assault,” a misdemeanor, because we didn’t buy the sexual aspect. By the way, an assault could happen even if someone doesn’t touch another person.
Although all of us kidded around a bit as we took our civic duty seriously and deliberated – much of it trying to assuage our discomfort regarding a case where we felt both affected parties needed psychological help, and where one could end up locked away from the world, I couldn’t help feeling bad about the whole thing through the rest of the day and evening.
Why did the case go to trial? Why couldn’t the county just help the guy? Both sides agreed he wasn’t well. Why did the lady insist on pursuing the case? What would happen to the defendant? Will he get help or be thrown in prison?
We did not know the defendant’s priors – perhaps he had a habit of bothering and aggressively scaring people and something needed to be done. Or maybe he had actually physically assaulted people in the past for which he had been found guilty and this latest would put him away for a long time, and deservedly so. Maybe he would be forced to get help he did not want, and that was why the case moved forward. Who knows?
But it all seemed much ado about something not so horrible. Even the four lady jurors, one of which worked with victims of violent crimes, felt that as women, they would not have made such a federal case, or in this matter, a county case out of the confrontation.
What I learned yet again in this greatest country ever to grace the planet, is that democracy is both powerful and fragile. And that I as one person or part of many can yield power, power to alter one’s life. Yes, we all do that in some ways. We are educators and construction workers and bus drivers and writers and whatever, and so, we in some way have an effect on society. Sometimes the power we yield is used in a positive way, other times not. My power last week was to possibly send someone to prison for a long time.
The defendant never once looked at the jury during jury selection and the trial, choosing to stare straight ahead instead. After the verdicts were read, and as the judge spoke for a few moments about the responsibility we jurors had as citizens and how we carried out our obligation with honor and diligence, the defendant looked at me, and me alone. I was Juror Number 1 and I was at a top corner of the juror’s pew.
I would not look away from the stare of the man whose fate, I, along with my fellow citizens, had just decided. I was unhappy but determined not to be intimidated if that was the man’s intent, or not be made to feel shame for our decision. I had power, and the convicted man had yet a newly added frailty.
This latest column of mine is a day later than usual because I waited for the first presidential debate. Boy, was I going to pontificate about why she said this and he said that and what they should have added or said differently. But after watching the verbal contest, I was more disgusted than usual at what this yes, greatest country ever to grace the planet did to itself. Did the jury duty make me even more jaded about this political season?
We have been given the choice between two incredibly flawed power-hungry egomaniacs.
One is a serious woman with a grasp of the issues, but who has a non-record of accomplishment as a senator and very poor record as a secretary of state, as well as a sense of entitlement and selfishness that causes her to feel she is above the law as she pathologically lies and thumbs her nose at the people whose civic duty it is to judge her worthiness, those same people, any of whom would be sitting in jail had they done what she did.
The other candidate is a bloviating, exaggerating, thin-skinned showman, coarse and crass, ill-informed and ill-prepared, who probably ran for president as yet another way to massage his out-of-control conceit, a man who bullied his way through the primary season, personally insulting anyone who dared oppose him, as he defined downward what should have, even in heated political battle, held a certain dignity, the race for high office.
Yes, America, our democracy is both powerful and fragile. We have a responsibility to ourselves and the world and we must choose wisely and not poorly because one person, or millions, even billions, of people are greatly affected by what we decide.
In this most important election cycle, when the world is in such dire straits, with our created choices and those we ultimately anointed, we have failed miserably.
And so, we are found guilty.