Jury of the Damned: A First-Hand Account of America’s Awful Justice

06/01/2009 2:33 AM |

Back in the courtroom, there are no more witnesses, no more evidence. We are sent to deliberate based on the testimony of one woman. Jury duty is an intellectual exercise; the justice system controls information more severely than a fascist state. In March, a federal case was declared a mistrial when a judge discovered nine jurors had performed supplemental research on the internet. We are not to Google anything. We are not to visit the scene of the accident. We are only to consider the remarkably little we’ve been told.

In the closet, I am elected foreperson through the shoving of official papers in my direction. A quick initial vote shows we’re all leaning the same way—for the plaintiff. But roughly fifteen minutes of discussion ensue. One woman has way too many opinions about what we’ve heard to leave it at a simple show of hands, and she rattles off her main points—the witness was credible, the defense attorney was weak, the defendants should have testified—in a stunningly breathless monologue of infinite reiterations that ends only when I manage to interrupt her. The Russian woman is skeptical, but seems too tired and unsure to argue for long. Two jurors—one eager to go home, the other too mousy to have an opinion—seem willing to vote the way everyone else does. Justice is blind. Justice has other shit to do. I am more frightened of juries than ever before. We vote again: unanimously, for the plaintiff. We all sign a sheet affirming our opinions, and summon the court officer.

As foreman, I get to stand and speak for everyone, though it’s all yeses and noes rather than any grand “we the jury” proclamations. After my big scene, we’re led back to the jury room with the two alternates who tell the rest of us that they would’ve voted differently. Her story didn’t sound right, they say. Both pedestrian and motorist were at fault. What a difference a juror makes.

Back in the courtroom, we’re excused from the trial, though a compensation portion remains. We’ve completed our “civic duty,” the judge says. Standing out on the street afterwards, several jurors pass me without even a nod. We’re strangers again, as though the last few days never happened. I descend into the subway and wait. I’m used to waiting.

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