Several years ago I was called for jury duty. I would love to say that when notified, I felt proud and eager to serve my community, but I didn’t. I completely dreaded it. When I got the slip with the date to report, I winced and tried to forget about it. I told myself it would be O.K. I would probably get to go home. They always call too many people, right? When my husband was called he only stayed half an hour and then was free to go. Surely that would be my fate as well.
This was my first experience with jury duty. The closest to a trial I had ever been was Perry Mason or some modern version thereof. The whole thing overwhelmed me – working out childcare, getting downtown and managing a parking place, going through all the security and intimidation of the courthouse, sitting with strangers waiting for my number to be called. But my day came. I was expected to report for duty. There was no getting out of it.
Of course jury duty fell when my husband was traveling. I managed childcare and getting there well enough, although I did, once again, have to relinquish forever an excellent pair of tweezers and nail clippers. I always forget that these are now considered deadly weapons to security staff. I found myself wandering through a maze of corridors in the most unusual sea of people – some there to serve and some to be served. When I reached the room assigned for jury duty selectees it was full to over flowing with candidates. I was thrilled! Surely this was a good sign.
As the process of selection started, five or six groups were assembled – all assigned to more minor issues. I was delighted to be passed over. Surely I would escape as the need dwindled and the supply of jurors was still plentiful. Next, they called those selected to serve on a murder trial. I was shocked – somehow this possibility had escaped me. I had no idea that we might be asked to serve on a murder trial. I was expecting civil cases, a robbery maybe, never had I even considered a murder trial – it was just too “O.J. Simpson” to consider. Still reeling from the thought of it…I heard my number called.
Before I knew it, we were being escorted down a hall and into an elevator, broken into smaller groups and lead like kindergarten children to the principal’s office. There were officers leading and guarding us. In a matter of moments the entire atmosphere had changed. Where before, my biggest concern was getting a parking spot, now I wondered what I was about to hear and see, and if I had what it takes to make a decision that would forever affect someone’s life.
After the initial process of weeding out jurors, the remaining twelve of us were left in a room together to wait. I slowly began to size up the group, listening to conversations and watching behaviors. Like in any group, pecking order was quickly established and leaders determined. We were a surprisingly typical mix of America – black, white, Hispanic, men, women, young, old, teachers, students, businessmen, cashiers, career people, mothers, fathers, privileged and wanting. We sat together quietly, some nervous laughter and chatter, but overall the mood was somber.
It wasn’t long before we were sworn in as jurors and began to hear opening arguments. I quickly came to realize that we were there to decide the guilt or innocence of a boy – a boy who, now 17, was 15 when he was arrested for the shooting death of a local man. My heart fell to the floor. I am a mother. This was just a child in my eyes, but he was being tried as an adult. In the courtroom sat his tearful mother and other family members. I was shaken. My petty worries paled in light of the sobriety of the moment. I remember praying that it would be clear – very clear what the truth was. I did not want to feel any uncertainty if we had to send a 17 year old boy to prison. I was also never more aware of the reality that a jury holds a person’s fate in their hands. This was not the judge’s decision, or the attorneys’ decision…it was ours.
The trial took three days. After all the evidence had been presented, testimony was heard and the arguments were concluded, we were excused to deliberate. Having spent three full days in the same small room with the other jurors, I was still unsure if we would all feel the same way. Such different backgrounds and life experiences would surely lead us to different conclusions. How could twelve unique people ever see things the same I wondered. I hardly see things the same with the people I know and love.
As the deliberation started the most amazing thing happened. Slowly people began to discuss the case. Little by little I could see what was invisible before. These people cared. They wanted to do what was right. They wanted to find the truth. It was at this point that I realized in a new and profound way how important it is to preserve Goodness – especially in America.
We went over things together – detail by detail. No one rushed or pressured another. We watched and re-watched tapes and evidence in the case. We listened. We were careful. Despite our vast differences in education and social prominence, despite our wildly different views on faith and life in general, we were one on this. We all wanted to do what was right – what was true and just. The Goodness stored up in each heart was evident in that moment. This Goodness had been worn close to the vest before – kept concealed as is too often the case these days. It was powerful to watch it revealed. It was powerful to see people wrestle – as they should – with a decision of this magnitude. The truth was that we held this child’s fate in our hands. In the end, it was a video-taped conversation the boy had with his own father that settled this issue for everyone. His own words indicted him. It was painful to do, but we had to convict. The scales of justice required it.
I am sharing this story with you because I want to encourage you to remember that Goodness cannot be taken for granted. It must be cherished and preserved. It must be instilled in the malleable hearts of our children and reinforced in every beating heart. We need it to ensure that truth and justice prevail. We need it to remain a nation that honors things like, “innocent until proven guilty,” and “a fair trial by a jury of your peers.” There are thousands of other reasons as well, but any of us might find ourselves unexpectedly in a place where we must depend on others to decide our fate. In that moment you will hope for Goodness in the hearts of your peers. Let’s work together to make sure it will be there – for all of us.
Foster goodness in your own heart and in the hearts of others. You never know when you will need it. See this story about my experience as a juror on a murder trial.