I have many takeaways from the experience. But what I’ve been contemplating most as I watch the media wrap-ups of the year’s most important stories is how the experience shaped my own perception of some nationally covered events. There have been a couple of jury decisions (grand juries, in these cases) that have gained intense national attention and censure—cases where the headlines often start with the words “Jury Fails…” And every time I see someone seeming to blame those jurors, I cringe.
Because something unusual happened as my jury experience ended. Immediately after delivering our verdict, the jurors I served with and I walked into a side room to collect our cell phones—and the deputy who had been guarding us throughout our deliberations began vociferously scolding us for making what she thought was the wrong decision about the defendant’s guilt. Her verbal attack came as a complete shock—the emotional equivalent of another of the year’s big news stories, the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” The consequence is that even months later, every time I hear someone on the news call out those other more high-profile jurors as the “bad guys,” I am instantly defensive. I am transported back to that moment in the courthouse, being reprimanded all over again for trying to do the best I could at an enormously difficult task.
Admittedly, I don’t know near enough about the information or instructions the jurors in these big national cases received. Maybe they were also doing their best—or maybe they were acting out of personal bias or bigotry. And admittedly, I wasn’t on a grand jury, which I know works differently. But I’m choosing to give the jurors in those high-profile, nationally followed cases the benefit of the doubt.
Because here is what my experience as a jury member was like: You are given an enormous amount of information, some of it contradictory or unclear, and asked to make a decision that will have enormous consequences for the accused, for the grieving family of the victim, and for the community where you live. You are asked to set aside your personal feelings and to follow the law as it has been interpreted for you by the legal representatives in the courtroom. You are banned from discussing the case with anyone whose opinion you value, or from researching your questions to pin down missing details. All this at a time that you’ve had a hard time sleeping because of the things you’ve seen and heard during witnesses’ testimony. Being a juror is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was made much harder, in my case, by being told I’d failed at it as soon as I’d finished.
I have no doubt that there are problems in our law enforcement and legal systems that need to be fixed. These same systems ask everyday people like me—and maybe next year, you—to take on the job of delivering justice. Based on my own experience, I’m inclined to believe that most jurors, given this challenge, will do the best job they can. But individual jurors can’t fix systemic problems by themselves. Only “We”—the jury at large, acting together—can bring about real change.