I sprayed the stuttery starch from the tall can onto a seven year old blouse and wobbily from lack of practice ironed it crisp. After sewing a loose button onto what I hoped was a “classic” rather than outdated tan corduroy blazer, I donned what I hoped looked like a respectable outfit to perform the civic act of jury duty.
There was a deep air of seriousness as a vast melange of people entered the “holding area”–an Avery tag clipped on each of our fronts proclaiming that we were, indeed, a “Juror”.
I had waited (a lot) and spent plenty of time wondering what it would be like if I actually made it onto a jury for an actual case, how I would feel, what I would say and do and thought I was ready to enter the courtroom when Panel 7 was finally called. But in reality, I wasn’t ready for what washed over me when I entered the courtroom.
We were quietly instructed to sit as squished together as possible on some old wooden church pews. With my Baptistic background, I felt right at home on the creaky, pitted planks. A few days later while driving alone in my van, I was still ruminating on the paradoxical metaphor that sitting on a church pew in a legal courtroom where truth is reverently proclaimed from a microphoned pulpit, and judgement takes place before sentencing is passed stirred up for me.
As our group of jurors shuffled into the courtroom, the defendant was already standing in front of the judge–back to us–wearing too-short, belted khaki pants. I leaned to the right to get a better view so I could snap a clear picture in my head memorizing every detail for later. I can still see very vividly in my mind the white socks, loafers, and surprisingly thick ankle chains. His long-sleeved white dress shirt hung on his bony, hunched frame. His hair was dark, long, wavy and tangled with gray, but it was neatly combed into its salt & pepper waves. It reminded me of the color of shiny, silver-black mussels that wash up on the beach. I never saw his face and couldn’t judge his age other than to tell he was old enough to know better.
As we settled into our seats, the judge was in the process of verbally confirming the defendant’s previous record–which institutions he had spent time in from other counties, on what charges, how long his previous incarceration(s) had been, and what he was in court for today. Without warning, it was suddenly time for the show to start!
Judge: “How do you respond to the fact that you were in possession of bags and items that were not paid for” and “what do you have to say about your statement that your wife had paid for the items in question” and “how do you explain your wife sitting in your car in the parking lot with the hatch open and the car running?”
Defendant: <hedging> “I don’t recall saying that”, “I don’t remember that happening”, “I didn’t even have keys to that vehicle on my person”.
The judge stopped looking down at his paperwork, from which he was asking his questions, and looked the defendant in the eyes. He leaned forward and patronizingly said to the defendant, “you’re not going to own up to this Mr. ____, now are you? You’re just not going to own up to what you did.”
After a few more very pointed, specific questions from the judge that he could not wrangle his way out of, the defendant finally said, “I can’t say anything else because I did it. I’m guilty and I did it.”
The judge was fierce as he sentenced the defendant with a fine of $2,000 plus five years in prison with possibility of parole after one year served. If granted parole, he would then be subjected to random and frequent drug testing to make sure no drugs, legal, illegal, prescription or otherwise and especially alcohol, were found in his system.
The judge, at this point, stopped reading the mandatory sentencing and said to the defendant, “I did say alcohol and you did hear me, right Mr. ____?” The defendant shuffled and flinched a shoulder, but the judge didn’t let him off the hook. “You did hear me say alcohol, that is correct, Mr. ____? You are not to drink any alcohol at any time” and he waited and prodded until the defendant answered audibly so that it could be put on record that he had heard and understood. He was also told that he was not to be in the vicinity of or have contact with (name of a certain person–I’m assuming he was the prescription drug dealer that sold the defendant his dope) or the Marketplace Wal-Mart where the shoplifting, drug deal, simple battery and arrest had taken place.
I was moved more than I had expected I would be during the sentencing. I wanted to scream at at the top of my lungs at this man “I have four children!” I was lioness angry that he or anyone else would do something dangerous and stupid within 5.4 miles of me and my precious family’s haven. With every beat of my amped up heart during the intense sentencing, my pounding anger slowly ebbed away leaving strangely gentle pulses of pathos.
Clearly this man had been tangled up in a sordid lifestyle for a very long time, and so was his wife, all over the state of Georgia, over and over again. He didn’t know any other way of life, and if he did before he certainly didn’t any more. And I prayed that he’d find Jesus in jail and a year from now exit a new man.
After being released from jury duty, I sat in my 11 year old mini van, the one with the broken door that won’t open on one side, utterly relieved. I was in my own car. Fully paid for with money that had been honorably earned. Able to sit in the warm sunbeam for as long as I wanted. Free. Thankful that I had sat on the side of the courtroom that I did, and not the side the guilty man had stood on just a few minutes before the next years of his life were legally altered. That I was given a wonderful upbringing. An introduction to someone who changed the course of my life forever, an education, morals, a solid family and a great start to my life that would never lead me down the sad, hopeless, desperate, corrupt road of the man I had just witnessed in that tiny courtroom.
The judge also required that 60 days after his release from jail he begin not only to pay the $2,000 fine, but also the jury’s salaries since the defendant had demanded a jury trial ($25 x 48 jurors amounts to $1,200) since we had taken time out of our personal and professional lives to come serve, as well as the lawyer fees for preparing the case to go before a jury ($1,500). The judge even shook his head and said, “I don’t know how you’ll find a job or how much you can even work, but I’m going to give you a 60 day grace period after you get out of prison to try to figure out how to pay it back”.
I have a feeling that the system will never see that money, but I am counting my $25/day job as a juror as one priceless experience.