I’m fresh off serving on a jury in a criminal case and there are more things lingering in my mind than the knifing and vicious beating captured by the security camera that recorded the crime. I’m hoping those images will leave me soon, because it wasn’t even a TV show or movie I would have chosen. But I hope the positive aspects of serving on the jury stay with me for a long time to come. I see these benefits as falling into three categories: the judge, the jury, and the justice.
First, the judge. I’m sure all judges aren’t like the one I had a chance to observe for four days, but this one was everything you think a judge should be. Calm but firm. Just as respectful to the defendant and the jurors as to the young attorneys before him. Able to treat every human being in that courtroom with dignity, and rightfully expecting the same respect for himself, his staff, and his court.
I know the old image of God as judge is narrow. Judgment is only one of the ways that God relates to all of us. He is so much more than judge. But as I observed the judge in this case, the thought crossed my mind that God sees all His people in much the same way. Equally valued. Equally heard. Blessedly, God also offers forgiveness and love with equanimity, but that’s a story for another time.
Second, the jury. What an amazing sociological experiment it is to take 12 people who just met, put them in a small room together, and ask them to make a very complex and serious decision together. We were men and women of all ages and stages of life. The judge instructed us to look at the facts and just the facts, but with an eye to our personal life experiences as well. Common sense was not ruled out.
Tentatively we began to get acquainted. Over bathroom breaks or when waiting for our Jimmy John’s lunch order to arrive, we shared stories about jobs put on hold, children needing to be picked up at kindergarten, past jury experiences, etc. Getting to know one another on a personal level made it easier to understand the position each person took on the verdict. Initially, we were split 9 to 3, and held to that divide through part of one day and most of the next. It was frustrating and time-consuming, but our charge was to come up with a unanimous decision.
So now, the justice. When it seemed all our active listening and reasoning skills had been exhausted, and we were still at a stalemate, we sent a question to the judge asking, “What constitutes a ‘hung’ jury?” Soon he beckoned us back into the courtroom. As with all our other appearances, as soon as we were at the door to the courtroom we heard, “All rise for the jury.” As juror number one I entered first, trying to convey a confidence we weren’t feeling at the time.
The judge kindly repeated key instructions to us, reminded us that it was our charge to come to a decision, and then dismissed us. When we were back in deliberation, a young mom with two preschoolers exclaimed, “I think we were just sent to our room!” And in fact, we were. I don’t know what changed. Insightful statements finally heard. Emotions analyzed and set aside. Respect for the judge fresh in our minds. I just know that we were able to agree at last, and we notified the court that we had a verdict.
Once all was said and done, the judge visited us in our room to thank us and give us certificates. He reiterated how amazing the criminal justice system is in the United States, and how very few countries hold trials giving the accused a jury of his or her peers. “As cumbersome as it seems at times, it works,” he stated. And at that moment we all agreed wholeheartedly.
Full confession: if I’d had a good excuse not to serve, I probably would have offered it. I didn’t want to cancel my plans for four days any more than anyone else did, but now I’m glad I was chosen. I encourage you to “all rise” to the occasion, too, if you are called. Once you serve, you’ll stand a bit taller and feel a bit prouder of the justice system in this country we are blessed to call home.