I was released from jury duty yesterday. I didn’t make the final cut and I was glad, but not for the usual reasons. The case involved child abuse and domestic violence and it unsettled me in frightening ways. Sitting in the jury box being voir dired by the prosecution and defense attorneys took me back six years to when I served on a jury in a criminal trial. The case involved a man charged with child abuse, child molestation, child endangerment, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and a slew of related atrocities. The child had been 12 at the time of the alleged crimes, but the case took four years to reach a courtroom. The defendant was her father’s best friend who had known the girl since she was in trainers. By all accounts, the pattern of abuse involved cigarettes, drugs and pornography and had begun long before the actual molestation.
We acquitted him.
All the adults involved, from the victim’s parents, the defendant, the prosecution, the police, and we, the jury, had failed that child. I felt sick to my stomach even as I raised my hand to concur with my fellow jurors to acquit on every charge, but one – contributing to the delinquency of a minor; a charge that does not always carry a prison sentence.
The child in question, a mature 16-year-old at the time of the trial, wore makeup and a short dress which appeared to sully her in the eyes of a couple of righteous female jurors. But when it came time for deliberation, every one of us followed the rule of the law, strictly adhered to the judge’s instructions on each charge, setting aside our personal views and prejudices, and arrived at the only conclusion we could-not guilty on all the major charges. Why? Because the prosecution failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had committed these crimes. Because, the key eye-witness, the defendant’s ex-girlfriend, recanted on the stand and openly flirted with him—a move that could have easily discredited her in our eyes even if she had stuck to her story. Because the police had done a thoroughly shoddy job of investigating the crimes, taking evidence and preserving that evidence, almost as if they didn’t care. Because her parents were too busy trying to get along to bother with a precocious pre-teen.
My civic duty done, I went home and hugged my children a little tighter. But I couldn’t get rid of the bile in my stomach or the nightmares that lasted for nearly three weeks. Yes, we had followed the rule of the law, but had justice been served? The defendant left the courtroom with a slap on his wrist and a mocking smile directed at us.
So there I was, six years later, seated in the jury box. Three potential jurors told the judge that they had been victims of domestic violence and child abuse. Their stories were gut wrenching and horrific. The prosecution attorney asked them if they could set aside their personal bias if they were selected to serve on this jury. One woman said “no” and she was immediately excused. The other two said they could be impartial and they had put their miserable past experiences behind them and would do their civic duty. Heroic. Sitting behind both these women, I couldn’t subdue my panic. How could they be so certain, when just seeing parallels between the two cases was like hitting the refresh button on the case from six years ago and my role in being complicit in letting down a child. My tummy filled with bile as I raised my hand to get the prosecution attorney’s attention.
I told him about that case and how I couldn’t shake my guilt even after all these years. Yes, I can set aside bias and follow the rule of the law yet again, but how can one be dispassionate when a child is victimized? Serving on a jury isn’t just a civic duty one performs like a robot. It can be life altering. I am a testament to that fact.
On my way home, I thought about the first juror who was let go. He was a disgruntled, angry rancher who had forgotten to feed his cattle that morning because of his jury summons. He kicked and cursed his way through security at the courthouse, flinging his wallet and keys into the scanner. In courtroom, he took his seat angrily when his number was called and asked to be excused right away because he needed to get home and feed his cattle. When the judge reminded him that he had a civic duty to perform, the rancher invited the judge to “go feed my cattle.” On his way out, he tripped the fire alarm in anger. The judge grimly assured us that the rancher would be found in contempt of the court and spend the night in jail. “Let’s see who feeds his cattle then!” the judge retorted.
The rancher did not have to listen to horrific testimony of child abuse and domestic violence, but he would have nasty memories of his first jury summons. I wonder if he would be haunted by it for years to come.