Over the last few years I’ve been something of a fence-sitter on the issue of capital punishment. While I’ve leaned toward opposing it, I’ve been unable to substantiate my feelings much beyond the old two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right rule. It was only after my recent stint as a juror that I became convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the injustice of allowing such a grave decision to be made by an ill-equipped band such as ours.
The case, sordid as it was, was what I imagine to be run-of-the-mill in Brooklyn. The prosecution charged that a young woman had acted in concert with her boyfriend to rob and assault her neighbor. Since the woman was represented by a public defender, there was a limit to the frills. The witnesses were briskly marched in and out, and the lawyers’ cross-examinations and jaw-flapping were kept to a minimum, so the testimony was presented in two half-day sessions-chop, chop-just as the judge had predicted.
After hearing all the testimony and summations, our jury was deposited in a small deliberating room upstairs. I looked around the table at the group whom I would only get to know by number, as we never bothered to introduce ourselves: They were middle-aged or younger, five men, seven women (including me), and seemed to represent a cross section of the borough’s diverse population. We sat for a moment and someone asked, “What should we do now?” “You know,” one of the jurors volunteered, “for every smart person out there, there’re 10 dumb ones.” I think he was referring to the defendant’s stupidity, but the statement’s ambiguity lingered until No. 10, a lanky, 50-ish man with thick Buddy Holly glasses, cited some Scripture and pronounced that he couldn’t agree less. Our first argument was underway, and we hadn’t even had a chance to discuss the case. Little did I know this was to be the tenor of the hours that followed, during which we hashed and rehashed the evidence and the non-evidence and whatever stray thought someone may have had bobbing around in his head.
A number of the jurors seemed happy to drag the process out, at least until we could cash in on the complimentary dinner we’d been promised. The foreman even reminded us that if deliberations carried over to the next day, we’d be excused from work and still get paid! At 6 p.m., our court officer rounded us up for supper. The restaurant was just a couple of blocks away, but we filed out of the building, escorted by three heat-packing court officers, and boarded a tinny blue and white police bus.
We ate at a restaurant with photographs of the Colosseum and an illuminated fountain dribbling in an alley courtyard. The excursion passed with little excitement, save for the fantastical arm gestures of No. 4, a double-jointed Brooklyn Polytechnic student, and the agitated waitress who came running after us when she discovered that certain individuals had enjoyed the state-sponsored meal but stiffed her on the tip, which was supposed to come out of our pockets.
Back at the courthouse, as we were getting off the bus, No. 10-the Scripture-quoter, with whom I’d already shared a couple of heated exchanges already-turned to me and snorted, “If you define maturity as being a doormat, then you’ve got a lot. But if you define maturity as manhood, you’ve only got a few.”
“Excuse me, but are you talking to me?” I asked, perplexed.
It was drizzling outside and the 12 of us walked up the stairs into the lobby, past metal detectors and a lone guard sitting at the desk.
“What are you trying to say?” I demanded. He repeated himself as we all jammed into the elevator.
“It’s with regards to your comment on the bus,” he replied smugly. I thought about a conversation I’d had with the foreman.
“We weren’t talking about maturity,” I said. “We were talking about gratuity-leaving tips!” The other jurors exhaled collectively.
“Well,” No. 10 sniffed, “my point still stands.”
Nine hours into the deliberations, we were still grappling with definitions of the charges. Some jurors were arguing over evidence that neither the defendant nor the victim had contested; others were accusing the defendant of crimes for which she had not been charged. Someone suggested that the defendant was innocent because, during her testimony, she had insisted she was. No. 3, a West Indian woman, told us she didn’t believe the victim because he was West Indian, and she’d had bad luck with those guys.
After alternating between trying to distance myself from the mayhem and leaping into the shouting match, I started having visions of ripping off my skin, grasping great tufts of hair from my head, yanking them from their roots and screaming bloody murder. I must not have been alone because, around 9 p.m., some jurors decided that we were hung. Back in the courtroom, we stared blankly as the judge told us to go back and keep trying. A few hours later, we were excused for the night. To prevent any outside opinions from corrupting the delicate and precise nature of our deliberations, though, we were sequestered and, in the name of thrift, our lodging was located in Staten Island.
Once again, we boarded our little tin shuttle and bumped off into the night. Our trip was silent, except as we passed a semi jackknifed on the median. Someone sucked her teeth and the woman next to me looked into the procession of headlights on the other side of the highway and sighed, “Look at all that traffic-those people will never get home tonight.”
There wasn’t much activity at the hotel, just a marquee that read “Now Hiring For All Positions” and “Happy Birthday Uncle Eddy.” An officer escorted us to our rooms. I followed him to number 617 and was locked in for the night.
Our entourage returned to the courthouse after breakfast. We reached a verdict around noon. Actually, I think everyone petered out and the dissenters simply submitted to the majority opinion. It’s not supposed to happen that way, but things had deteriorated into a game of chicken, and the forum had long ago put up a no-vacancy sign to the notion of rational thought processes. Our collective decision was reached in an utterly haphazard fashion.
The foreman scrawled out the verdicts: not guilty of robbery, guilty of assault. The officer came and relieved us of the paper, and then we sat and waited.
“God is the only just judge,” someone muttered.
“That’s right,” another juror agreed. “Amens” and “uh-huhs” echoed around the table. I think it made some people feel better, but it made me feel worse.
I had started my jury duty with no particularly heightened sense of civic obligation, nor much resentment at the inconvenience-it was just one of those things that had to be done. I went home a little more jaded. But I was glad that no one was frying because of our botched experiment in logical reasoning. And I was extremely grateful that it wasn’t me whose fate our jury had been deciding.