Whew! What a learning experience. Long story short, I completed my service the first week, physically being present for only three days. But everyone’s service was unique. The luck of the draw….literally.
Minneapolis is a large city and my court serves a populous county. The jury room that first morning had 197 people in it. That number was announced by the friendly jury room supervisor who tried to keep our spirits up as we all plowed into the room having left from home incredibly early because of a severe winter storm. All schools were closed, but not the government. Part of the airport shut down, and there was a rippling concern in the room that the transit system would close down, too. We’d be stranded downtown, unable to get home, unless we had our own car.
I used the park and ride to avoid the white-knuckled driving experience and unfamiliar parking issues. My ride on the bus the first morning was interesting, and I was definitely on a learning curve. Tired from having almost no sleep the night before, (a phenomenon shared by everyone else I queried in the jury pool), I closed my eyes once I found a seat and felt the bus sway lightly, side to side as it lumbered slowly down the freeway. Wi-Fi available, I pulled up my phone and tried playing a few games, but my finger missed the mark too many times due to the bumps we experienced on the road. I looked around, my eyes landing on a large sign talking about my rights as a rider. I was completely distracted by the punctuation error in the first line. Race, color, national origin, sex age, disability or socioeconomic status. Can you spot the problem? Sex age? Are we missing a comma? Why did no one catch this? I didn’t continue reading. I was further distracted by an icon elucidating that there was no food allowed on the bus. Since almost everyone around me was eating, I kept staring at the icon like a Rorschach test, wondering if that really was a hotdog with the international no sign struck through it, or something else.
The memory of the people I met will stick with me for some time. I developed a fast group of friends, and we managed to have a nice time that first day. The jury room supervisor announced to the room that we were the cool table! We’d been playing board games and Apples to Apples and been quite loud, comparative to most other tables where they sat amongst one another quietly, earbuds in place, heads in their laptops. Thank God, I found my people. An outreach pastor with more personality than half of the room kept us in stitches. Her extreme faith was sadly hard won; her life story was filled with personal tragedy. An example being that her ex and mother to two of her children, who had served twenty years for stabbing a woman 24 times in the neck, had just been released from prison. This woman was inspirational and was in the process of writing her life’s story. I’m hopeful she will reach out to me and allow me the privilege of helping her publish her work. She filled me with the mysteries of the Lord’s work, and our paths crossing!
Everyone’s normal lives came to a stop when they were called for jury duty. Responsibilities and hardships be damned, you’d better show up. And if you were late, the clock re-set, and you had to start your service over – even if you were into week two. It was intimidating. There were tears of worry from my tablemates about things happening in their real lives which were now out of their control. Jobs, children, medical appointments, everyone had a story. A husband whose wife had cancer at home. A woman in the middle of a terrible divorce concerned her ex would show up at the home while she was not there. She’d left her children home alone, it being a snow day. Ages 10 and 12, we all assured her they would be alright, but we also felt her angst. Another person worked on commission and a two-week service would mean no income. Her heartfelt letter to the court explaining her precarious financial situation, and her nearness to possible foreclosure did not sway the court. Show up. You might be able to discuss your hardships if and when you are in an actual courtroom, but until that time, you are a number—literally.
Urban myth swirled among us, everyone gossiping about what they heard and what they thought would happen next. Would we be released early? Would we have to come back on week two if we weren’t called to a courtroom in week one? Could we phone in? Should we hope to be called out of the jury room and go through the selection process –voir dire? Should we hope to be placed on a jury? What if the trial took a really long time? How would we feel if we were in the position to find someone guilty or not guilty? (Innocent, I would learn, is not an option). What if they were going to prison? That’s on you! What if you were called for a civil trial and had to spend days trying to jerk yourself awake listening to boring topics like the fascinating world of metallurgy or something even more complicated or technical? Pinch yourself!
As it turned out, I was eventually called out of the room with 24 others and experienced voir dire. It was a criminal trial about domestic abuse. The judge, the defense lawyer, and the prosecutor asked very personal questions while everyone in the room listened rapt to your answers. You were under oath. At one point the judge asked if any of us had been convicted of a crime. No hands went up.
“Really? No DUIs out there?” the judge asked.
Four hands went up, each then, mortified, having to tell their story. I kept to myself my long, sordid history of traffic violations but worried after I got home that I had not confessed them. First thing the next morning, I grabbed the ear of the judge’s clerk and re-assured myself that they were not interested in that particular type of crime.
The voir dire exposed all of us. People were crying as they told their stories about being shot, drug use, domestic assault in their own families, hardships, experiences with the law, other races, the list went on. One guy’s father had been killed by the police, but he didn’t come unhinged in the re-telling. Another woman, who was in an on-going dispute with her insurance company over a hail damage situation was wildly affected by this. She alluded to this particular life experience more than any other, and it defined her. She was the roof lady in my mind. Sad, that in a few words, her life was pared down to this being her most oppressive and life-altering situation. A couple of people were almost hostile, vehement in their belief that there was no way they could ever be impartial. The process exposed us. Prior to that, we were all just the same. Just a pack of people, going through their lives. In voir dire, we were forced into confession, baring our souls and sins to a room full of strangers.
The process behind us, the attorneys made their picks. I was one of 13 selected to sit on the jury. The rest of our crew filed out, back the jury pool. No one knew what was worse.
After the judge gave us a brief rundown on the law, opening statements began. It was riveting. The prosecution got up and gave a fast, one-two punch. The man was guilty. Then the defense attorney, a very capable, impressive young woman wowed my eyes open when she came out of the box declaring that the accusations were all a big lie. (Hence all the questions in voir dire about our experiences with lying). She was very convincing and told us what to look for.
The first witness was called—the victim. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in the room, carefully watching this woman, in turns shaky and strong, as she began her testimony. Was she telling the truth? Was she lying? There were so many witnesses in the lineup. I couldn’t believe that I’d be called to make a decision one way or the other about who to believe. But then, in the middle of her testimony, the jury was asked to leave the room. Not long after, the clerk came out and told us that they had settled, and we could all go home. Our service was complete.
I spoke up. “But what happened? Did he plead guilty?”
The clerk nodded. “He pled. The state accepted the plea. That’s all I can tell you.”
Oh my gosh. I’ll never really know, but it was scary to think it could have gone either way. My fellow jurists and I broke up fast, each of us scrambling to get back to our real lives. Starving, I walked through the skyway and to a Jimmy John’s and got a sandwich then pulled out a transit map and tried to figure out the bus schedule for a ride home. I’d plotted the return for a late day departure, not one at noon. The problem was that the schedule on-line was different than my map. What’s wrong with you Metro Transit! Get your act together! We’re counting on you! The map, stating it was for the current year, was given to me by a helpful woman who watched hot tears escape from my eyes the day before when I realized I had gotten on the wrong bus. They eventually let me out, somewhere downtown, so I could begin searching again to find the right bus to take me home.
Not at all certain that I’d deciphered the bus information correctly, I tucked my Jimmy Johns into my purse, swapped my shoes for my snow boots, and headed out in the storm. The wind blew, and I slid down the icy sidewalks to where I hoped a bus would come shortly. Breathless, glad I made it in time, I realized I was 15 minutes early. My stomach growling, I threw my bags down in a snowbank under a bus portico with no seating (why?) and stood near the Plexiglas wind buffer and shoveled my Jimmy John’s into my mouth. It was a long way home and you weren’t supposed to eat on the bus, right? Or not. I’m still not sure.
Watching the surrounding action, I stood directly in front of the Family Justice Center where two cars attempted to parallel park in a very tiny, open spot. The first one gave up. The second, driven by a guy smoking a cigarette with the window down in an old, beat-up sedan smashed into one of the parked cars on his attempt. He and his partner laughed at me as I made eye contact with them and shook my head. They pulled out without leaving a note and sped away. I stood there wondering about how strange people were and about what to do next when I glanced down and saw a trail a mayonnaise down the front of my black jacket. Hatless, but cold, I had wound a scarf around my head and neck and tied it in a bow on top. I fit into the scene perfectly.
Home, comfortable, clean, and well-fed, I snuggled in bed that night with my puppy and George while we continued our evening marathon of Downtown Abbey. Relieved to know that I would not have to go back to the process in the morning and free to conduct my life, I felt grateful for everything I had. That and the fact I could now experience my Oscar viewing party with too many cocktails without fear of a hangover. Thank you, Providence!
I felt blessed to have met some of the people who I would have never met in my everyday life. It was an experience I would not wish on everyone, but for those who can serve without too much upheaval in their lives, it was, overall, rewarding.