Nobody wants to do it. I certainly didn’t, especially after enduring the first few hours of jury selection, a process (called “voir dire“) which is so insistently repetitive, so oppressively tedious as to produce a powerful narcotic effect in us trapped, helpless potential jurors awaiting the resumption of our lives. I actually heard someone say, “I never thought I’d want to go back to work this bad.”
I tried to be as upbeat and helpful as possible, answering thoughtfully and, I hoped, articulately. It’s hard not to want to fight against the feeling of facelessness, of unwillingly becoming an anonymous cog in a stone-becolumned Mechanism of Justice. Who, after all, doesn’t want to be “Oneself,” rather than a mere “Juror #5”? And the hour or three of attention attorneys and judge pay to jurors during the selection Q&A plays to that narcissism well, suggesting that someone actually cares about our livelihood, our marital status, or our views on gun control laws in America. They don’t, of course, except insofar as these facts do or do not render us effective, oiled gears in The Machine.
This isn’t exactly what I was thinking as I answered questions about what kind of PI work I’ve done, whether I’ve taken a drink in the past year, or whether my having friends who’ve been victims of sexual assault might make me unable to consider the guilt or innocence of the defendant without bias. I’m not sure I was thinking anything much except, “Try not to say anything stupid.” But my default Tell-Them-What-They-Want-To-Hear personality type, the general desire to be an agreeable person who Does What’s Right, certainly upped the chirpiness factor of my answers, I fear.
Until a few minutes into the defense attorney’s turn grilling us. He’d begun a line of questioning that went something like, “Do you believe it’s possible for someone to be so intoxicated that they don’t remember what happened, but for them still to consent to a sexual encounter?”
My demeanor changed in an instant. I raised my hand hesitantly and told the attorney I didn’t feel comfortable with his definition of consent. With some humiliation, I heard my voice quavering. He followed up with: “Do you think it’s possible that someone could at least believe consent had been given?” I suppose so, I told him, but my chirpy composure was gone. I could see where this thing was headed, and I didn’t want to go there with it.
I looked at the young girl, the accuser, and the young defendant, and I felt my hands shaking and my throat begin to constrict in that way I know too well. I realized that in a few minutes, I would be weeping, embarrassingly and inexorably, and I felt pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to stop. Bewildering. It had come from nowhere, and I suddenly found that I couldn’t understand what people in the courtroom were saying anymore.
Fifteen minutes before that, I had honestly believed that all the painful experiences people have shared with me over the years might actually be a useful tool to wield as the jury deliberated. I found it bizarre that so many in the jury box with me claimed they didn’t know a single person who’s been the victim of rape. I imagine the look on my face must have betrayed some mixture of disgust and disbelief. The hell you don’t! I kept thinking. They just didn’t tell you.
Minutes before, I had thought, maybe I could be the person who helped them understand how the thing comes to pass, the cascading series of decisions that, like loose pebbles, seem harmless enough until the avalanche cuts loose. There’s the late-night attack by unknown assailant variety of hell, the I trusted you why are you doing this to me version, and absolutely everything in between.
The single commonality seems to be that someone always asks the victim something reproachful, in the vein of, “Well, why did you do X?” And in that question there is always blame and self-protection, an expression of doubt that the asker of the question would ever be so stupid, trusting, slutty, drunk, reckless, or (and it really comes down to this) vulnerable as the victim was. Because if you don’t ask the question, even inside your head, you have to realize: It could have been me. And for a lot of people, that idea is too painful to let slide.
I wanted to be the It could have been us voice in the jury room.
But as the tide of tears crashed higher and higher, a storm assailing a jagged shoreline, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to be that voice. Instead, I had already become another voice, a shrill and defensive one, standing up for all the people whose stories I know, who made some small decision that most of us have made at some point (like forgetting to lock the door, like going to his apartment alone, like ordering another margarita) and who got punished for it beyond all measure of what anyone could ever possibly deserve. You blame her, you question her, you are blaming all of us. F*** you. That, in essence, was where the rage was coming from.
The moment I said, I suppose, with all that doubt and rising anger, I stopped being the skeptic I needed to be, remote and questioning, assuming nothing. I had already jumped into the accuser’s boat (in my mind, I was by now calling her the “victim”) and was furiously bailing and paddling. But she already had an advocate. That wasn’t my job.
Within about 30 seconds, I realized I needed out of the box. Right then. I shakily raised my hand and told the attorney and the judge that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to be as impartial as I needed to be after all. That I was feeling strangely emotional and didn’t feel I could be fair to the defendant. The judge looked at me kindly and said (I paraphrase), “You’re saying that now that you’ve heard more, you think you would not be able to consider the verdict fairly?”
“I would very much want to,” I said, sounding (I am sure) like an idiotic little kid with skinned knees. “But I’m afraid I might not be able to.”
And that is exactly why they ask all those brain-floggingly tiresome questions.
I made it out of the courtroom without sniffling out loud, thankfully. And I approached the second courtroom, the second jury-selection gauntlet of questions, with a much-heightened sense of humility, one befitting the proceedings. I just wanted to go home. And if I couldn’t, I was more than content with my namelessness. Sometimes, in a civilized world, it’s your job to be a cog in the works. A thoughtful, objective cog, but a cog all the same.
When the questions ended and the judge pronounced the fourteen of us official jurors, I felt myself go slack and expel a sigh of resignation. I liken the sensation to calmly and helplessly watching your toilet overflow and a mass of fecal-enriched fluid level itself across the floors of your bathroom, hallway, and kitchen. Somebody’s gonna have to clean it up. It doesn’t matter who does it, but you happen to be standing right there. So go get a mop and a bucket.
And that’s how I ended up as a juror on a first-degree murder trial last week. Stay tuned for Part Two: The Trial.