The phrase alone fills the hearts of men and women alike with fear and loathing.
Most people try to get out of jury duty. They'll claim that they can't miss school or they can't miss work or they're too racist to make a fair decision.
A few years ago, I was called for jury duty, but I didn't try to wiggle out of it. I was young and naive and I was working a boring job at a boring company that offered full paid time off for jury duty.
So, when it was announced in the court room that the trial I was up for was an actual MURDER TRIAL, I was all, "Oh, please God, yes! Sign me up and strap me in! I want to go on a 3D ride through our nation's justice system! And I want paid time off away from my cubicle!"
I was over-the-motherfucking-moon. I was living through something I had only ever seen on television. I was in an episode of "Law & Order!" I couldn’t wait to call my mom how different murder trials were in real life Boston than they were on her then favorite drama, "Boston Legal." (Hint: there’s less William Shatner and more floor-to-ceiling wood paneling.)
There was a moment in the first day of the trial when I was sitting in one of the jury box seats, watching the lead attorney pace up and down in front of us, drilling a forensics expert on the type of bullet that was used to kill the victim where my “OMG-I’m-in-the-jury-for-a-motherfucking-MURDER-TRIAL!” excitement reached a fever pitch. I felt a blush of excitement spread across my cheeks and I wanted to giggle in glee.
Then the attorney asked the witness about the exact number of bullets found in the body and I checked myself. I reminded myself that I wasn't LARPing "Law & Order." There were no men dressed up like Sam Waterston holding wizard canes objecting to evidence and no stern lady judges answering with sass, "Overruled." I was in the middle of a serious situation.
A man had been murdered. Not in the exciting, thrilling, Hollywood movie definition of the word. A man had been murdered in the real sense of the word. His body had been broken by bullets and his family would never be able to see him again. Something unjust had occurred and now it was up to me and the rest of the jury to determine if the man on trial really committed this horrible crime. Our collective decision would forever alter not only the fate of the defendant, but of his family, his friends and the victims' loved ones.
The actual trial was not that much like "Law & Order." When you see justice doled out on television, all the boring parts are edited out. You don't have to listen to three different forensic analysts prove through scientific reasoning that the victim was shot with bullets and that's what caused his death and that yes, the victim is legally dead.
You don't have to listen to cops explain the protocol they have to follow when showing up to a hospital to determine that there's been a shooting crime, and yes, someone is actually dead.
You also don't have to wonder why the ADA decided to wear such an unflattering pantsuit because on "Law & Order," none of the ADAs are ever wearing unflattering pantsuits.
That said, there were some exciting moments.
For instance, the one witness to the murder who was not a personal friend of the victim was a possible illegal immigrant who accused the court of bullying his initial statement out of him. He was also some sort of underground radio DJ, which seems like artistic flourish, but it was real life!
The defendant's mother emotionally described what it was like to see her son chased down by cops and I thought I was watching an Oscar-nominated film.
One day we even went on a field trip. Well, OK, they're called "field visits." The prosecution shoved us into a fancy coach bus and a police escort drove with us from downtown Boston to a neighborhood bar in Jamaica Plain that featured heavily in the prosecution's “murder story.”
A year later, some girl would walk up to my friends and I after a major street festival and invite us to an after party at that same bar -- and I had to yell at my friends why we could not go. (Because I knew that some people who drink there have gotten murdered.)
Once the closing arguments were made, we were adjourned. It was clear that after six days of trial, the only facts we knew were that a man was shot and killed, the shooter was an averaged sized bald black man wearing a white T-shirt and grey sweatpants and that everyone who had been brought to the stand as a witness was probably lying about the details of the case.
When I say that most of the witnesses were lying, I mean the real witnesses. The three forensic experts were probably telling the truth. All their stories about how the bullets entered the body at a certain angle were boring, but they seemed to match up. Also, I don't think the paramedics were lying about what time they arrived at the hospital with the victim. I actually don't even think the cops were lying because everything they said was very much about the procedure of law enforcement. There was no call for them to lie, and like I said, this wasn’t a television show.
I felt very strongly, as did the other jurors, that all the people personally connected to the shooter, victim and crime scene were probably lying. They each had said on the stand that their earlier interviews with police were false or they refused to answer certain questions or they were just really shifty and squirmy. You couldn't trust any of their statements, especially because none of them matched up. All the testimonies that were supposed to matter were in fact worthless.
It seemed to me that even though we knew the defendant was an average=sized bald black man who owned a white shirt and grey sweatpants, that statistically there were enough average-sized bald black men who owned that kind of generic outfit in that neighborhood that you couldn’t prove it was the same person.
I mean, if the suspect and defendant were both seven foot tall men with blue dreadlocks who wore glitter spacesuits that night, then perhaps I would have been convinced.
Most of the jury agreed with this logic. Two people, however, said that he was guilty because "they felt it in their gut." These two people also admitted that they couldn't prove his guilt with fact.
So, we found the defendant not guilty. Because, you know, in the United States of America, if you can't prove that a man's guilty, he's not supposed to be guilty.
While I was in the room with the other jurors, I felt strong in my conviction that we couldn't convict a man with such slight amounts of evidence. I felt like a young Sally Field. You know, young and fresh, but morally righteous.
As soon as we were dismissed, I felt disgusted with myself. I had to live with the thought that I had possibly let a murderer walk free. I knew that convicting an innocent man without enough evidence was supposed to be a greater sin. However, throughout the entire trial I was left with the feeling that no matter what the jury decided, the victim's death would be avenged by his friends and family in some way or another.
You could surmise from all the broken testimonies that we couldn't use that the witnesses had a truer sense of what had happened, and that perhaps they had their own ways to deal with it.
I’m not even saying that the defendant did it, but that I thought the victim’s family knew who had and I was left with the worry that some sort of violent reckoning would occur far away from the marble courthouse.
My best friend tried to cheer me up later by pointing out that I hadn't succumbed to racial stereotypes or that I had pulled off some Atticus Finch-like hoo-ha. She thought that I should pat myself on the back for not convicting a black man just because he was black, because as she pointed out, there are people who would sadly do that.
But I didn’t vote “not guilty” because I wanted to be some kind of post-racial girl scout. I voted “not guilty” simply because the prosecution hadn’t proved without a shadow of a doubt that he was guilty. I said “not guilty” because I was filled with doubt.
Essentially, the trial felt worthless. It felt like I had just been called to put on a show to make the city of Boston feel better about its grip on justice. The 3D ride I wanted to take through America's justice system turned out to be a giant letdown.
The Boston City Courthouse should have a gift shop annexed off the front entrance, so that you when you leave jury duty you can buy a T-shirt that says, “I got to serve jury duty, and all I got was this lingering sense of doubt that sometimes keeps me up at night.”
Well, I did also end up getting $100 from the State of Massachusetts for my service. So, there's I guess there’s that.