I recently completed a term as a grand juror four our county court system. This first opportunity I had to serve on a jury proved fascinating and enlightening. In spite of all the middle- and high-school classes intended to teach us the uniqueness of the American legal system, only serving on a jury brought home the reality that the jury--both the grand and trial versions--is the thing that keeps the United States from becoming a police state.
Without a group of peers--united only in the reasonableness of the common person--to assess the quality of evidence behind a charge, nothing keeps police and attorneys from trumping up charges against anyone they please and thereby ruining lives.
An essential part of this system which pivots on the jury is the character and quality of our police force. Ubiquitous human evil notwithstanding, I think our law enforcement does a good job of conforming to both the letter and spirit of the law. They of course put themselves in harm's way on a regular basis, and must be ready to adapt to a dizzying array of difficult and obscure circumstances, ascertaining how to uphold the law and guard safety within a complex world. I thank God that, although as far from perfect as any human system is bound to be, our police forces generally serve the rule of law and not the whims of personal gain or political party.
What surprised me most was the difficulty we reasonable peers had in keeping ourselves tied to the narrow task of a grand jury. Our mission was to determine whether the evidence presented serves as reasonable cause to believe that an accused person committed a crime. We were not to determine the guilt of the accused, "beyond the shadow of a doubt." We were not to play defense attorney (whose role was conspicuously absent from the proceedings), and decide what other evidence might be pursued to establish guilt or innocence. We had to limit ourselves to the evidence given and what it suggested to us reasonable people.
A few times among the twenty or twenty-five cases we heard, the defendant would choose to address us. I was surprised by how the testimony of the defendant polarized us. Some of us would hear the defendant and come to the conclusion that s/he was guilty. Some of us would hear that testimony and from it begin to second-guess the possible interpretations of the district attorney's evidence. We would begin to seek a "shadow of doubt" on the defendant's behalf. Neither of these pursuits fell under our job description. Only in the rare case that the credibility of witnesses came into play did a defendant's testimony change our course; but how easily we were drawn into the tempting work of a trial jury rather than a grand jury. How swiftly, it seems, we savor the opportunity to play the judge of persons rather than evidence! How often we wanted to say the final word in the case!
Drawing ourselves back, time and again, to our designated course we managed, I think, to do our job in good conscience. I would gladly serve again. In my case juggling jury duty and work was not impossible, though my time with my family certainly suffered deficiency during those four weeks. (Perhaps after my children are out of the house, or after I have retired from my primary employment, I could volunteer to serve as a juror more regularly.)
I believe with even firmer conviction now, however, that serving on jury duty constitutes one of our core obligations as citizens. If I were a defendant, rightly or wrongly accused, would I want juries that rubber stamp the opinions of district attorneys--especially those who bare their teeth quickly so as not to appear "soft on crime"? Would I want jurors examining my case whose first priority was getting it over with and getting back to their mundane routine?
I would rather make this valuable system the best that it can be, which means precisely being one thoughtful person, in a group of twenty-two, for ninety hours every six years. It's not much to pay for a better justice system.
And we twenty-two strangers, thrown together in the secret society of the jury room, bonded in small but important ways. We were generous with our coffee-making skills, took an interest in each other's stories, and one of our number even baked apple crumb bars to celebrate our last day of work together. I speculate that the combination of difficulty and value in our work served to bring us together. Most people I hear talk about getting a jury summons roll their eyes and sigh. I hope that now twenty-two fewer of us will think that way about our duty.