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Who Knew Jury Duty Could Feel So Meaningful?

I was moved to be entrusted with something this important — the fate of a person who had been convicted of a crime.

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There we were, all 167 of us who had been called into jury duty, the Monday after a recent holiday. Very few were hoping we would have to stay. Most were strategizing how to get out of it. I had been coached by my neighbor at a party the week before to be very vocal about my opinions and prejudices.

But as the morning unfolded, the savvy people at the courthouse showed us a video about how our serving our country in this way made a real difference in our democracy. I put down the cookbook I had brought with me and listened. I found myself less and less tortured by the idea of serving.

Eventually, 45 of us were called into a judge’s courtroom as potential jurors for a real case.

The judge I reported to did a wonderful job of creating a welcoming and compelling context for why we should care, why we should participate, and how we could make a difference.

She explained that the judge and attorneys rise when the jury enters and exits the courtroom as a sign of respect and honor. And I felt honored. We mattered.

As the lawyers and the judge asked their questions to determine impartiality, I sat mostly silent. There were no questions that I could honestly attest to; no circumstances described where I couldn’t imagine finding my way to being fair and impartial. And so, I was selected as one of the 12 jurors in a criminal case. Oddly, and much to my surprise, I found myself moved to tears. I was moved to be selected, entrusted with something this important — the fate of a person who had been convicted of a crime. I felt responsible and dutiful to pay attention and not wish I were somewhere else. I set my life down outside of this courtroom, these witnesses, this process.

For the next eight hours or so, testimony was presented. We heard six witnesses in all and were able to take notes. I was never bored. When testimony was complete and both the prosecuting and defense attorneys had rested their cases, the judge read us our juror instructions. We were to set aside our personal biases, stories, and opinions and only consider the facts as they were presented. This is a very difficult thing to do without considerable training.

We were to apply the law as the judge read it to us and determine whether the defendant was guilty or not guilty without a reasonable doubt. And all I could think was: Holy crap! This is such a huge burden and responsibility! And we don’t really know what we are doing! We are just regular Joes here!

In our rag-tag jury of twelve, we had a waitress from Denney’s, a social worker, a couple of retired people, some super-smart Boeing engineer types, a stay-at-home mom, a manager of a memory care facility, and me.

We deliberated for over eight hours, the early hours of which were spent with people sharing the story they had created from what they had heard. I briefly lost my cool and “requested” that people stick to the facts of the case and not elaborate with grandiose stories. Then I made it my job to uncollapse the facts from the fiction (story and interpretation). I was present to how grateful I am for the training I received at Landmark Education and from Byron Katie. I know fact from story (not that I always apply this education in the heat of battle with my husband!).

Yet even with this meticulous sorting and sifting of facts, using color-coded markings to point to areas we did agree on, our jury could not come to a unanimous decision. In the end, we submitted to our judge our failure to find a unanimous conclusion.

The judge asked for us to return to the courtroom from our jury room where we had been sequestered. We marched in our now familiar orderly line and took our seats. We confirmed that even with more time, we did not feel we could come to a unanimous decision.

Our judge declared it a mistrial. She said that the jurors were excused and she would meet us back in our chambers. We walked in single file and sat silently waiting for her. No one spoke. I don’t know what others were thinking, other than one guy who said he thought we were in trouble and that “mom” was going to come in and yell at us. I was thinking we had failed at our job.

The judge came in and told us that she knew we had approached the task she had given us with earnestness. She acknowledged our efforts! Remarkable. Then she told us not to worry about a mistrial. She understood. We asked her a few questions, which she answered honestly, humbly, humanly.

My faith in our judicial system was being restored. It has real people who care about real people in it.

She told us that the lawyers would welcome the opportunity to talk to us, but that we were not compelled to talk with them. We were free to go. Something had me walk back into that courtroom. I didn’t take my seat as a juror. I was no longer that.

The first to speak was the prosecuting attorney. He said he was glad that we had come to a mistrial. He said that he didn’t like the part of his job that made him prosecute for something he didn’t believe in. He didn’t believe the person accused of this crime had committed it. He believed that he could now go back to the state and request a lesser sentence for the young man, which is what he thought should have happened all along.

I felt tears run down my face — tears of gratitude that we had not delivered a “guilty” verdict for this criminal charge. I was grateful for the standstill we had come to and the courage of the two people in our jury who didn’t collapse against peer pressure and our collective desire to end the trial. They held their ground to the end. They are the heroes here.

When we walked out of the courtroom, I saw the young man involved in this case and his father. They nodded to each of us and I was moved again. I wanted to hug him. He had been spared. And somehow, I was part of it.

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