Jury duty. I was summoned to jury duty last week. In Alameda county, you get a notice in the mail with the summons date, and then you call in the night before (now you can also check online) to see if you’re to show up the next day. For the last few years, despite my being summoned faithfully every year, I’ve never had to show up to the courthouse.
This past week, I was told to appear. Sometimes, I sit in the jury assembly room all day, never getting called in to the courtroom. This past week, I got called. Drats.
About 80 of us gathered in the courtroom seats, and reluctantly put away our cellphones, newspapers, and books. I admired the diversity of the group.
The judge introduced himself and talked about his experience as a juror and how it was an honor and how in longer cases, the jury members will even keep in touch with each other. I nearly scoffed at the corniness. But some of his urging (and those of my attorney brother, who tweeted me with unheard of passion for the legal process before I went into the courtroom) seeped in–this was Civic Duty, and a great honor, and I ought to be up for it. I guess. Yah. Okay. I was feeling a bit open minded, anyway.
But then the details of the case came to light. It was a domestic violence case. The defendant was in the courtroom the entire time, a big burly dude. Before we were called into the jury box, in private, we also indicated on a separate questionnaire whether or not we had had experienced domestic violence whether it be as a witness, in our family, or if we ourselves had been a survivor. I said yes. My family has numerous domestic violence “incidents.” I said yes, I would be biased.
As I sat in the juror’s box (yes I was one of the first 15 people called to serve), I learned the name of the defendant. I learned the names of each of the jurors. We were asked to answer 15 questions, including our names, the neighborhood of the City in which we lived, our occupations, our education beginning from high school, shared information about family members and other experiences. We stated these things publicly. So weird. It got real personal at times. I felt like we were in group therapy. Again, weird. One juror got excused early because she barely understood English. People giggled at her answers. I’m sure they giggled because they were uncomfortable, but it was disrespectful.
The case was not anticipated to last more than a week. This was certainly a case on which I could sit on as a juror. A bit inconvenient, but it would not impact my life.
But dormant emotions awakened during the jury selection. The defense attorney alluded that the defendant was going to claim ‘self defense’ making me confused and angry. For serious? The defendant’s attorney looked a lot like one of my good friends so I couldn’t hate her. But really? Okay, I could hang with that.
We were asked one by one if there were any occasion under which a man could understandably strike a woman. Juror number 9 (who wept as she explained her experience with domestic violence) and I (wide eyed and in shock) said in our own ways a variation of No Fucking Way. “Could a man claim self defense? If a woman attacked him?” Ugh. I lowered my hand, uncertain of my answer, disgusted by the question.
Clearly, there was no dispute over the fact that the man had struck his wife/live-in girlfriend.
“What about if a man strikes a pregnant woman? Is that ever okay, if she incites him?” The woman next to me, Juror number 9, audibly gasped. “How many of you believe that he is innocent until proven guilty?” I couldn’t believe it, most everyone’s hands went up to say yes, he was innocent until proven guilty, even for striking his pregnant wife.
One man, Juror number 8, said no. He was asked about that. He said, “A pregnant woman is going to be hormonal. If you’re a man, you have to understand that and know she’s going to be emotional.”
I wanted OFF this jury. I knew I could not be biased, and I was going NUTS as my memories, like movies, played on the inside of my skull. I have seen family members strike each other, ashtrays being thrown. I have heard stories of aunts being beaten so hard that jaws were broken. The men were never taken to court, but thankfully, all of the women got out of their marriages before they were beaten to death. I kept thinking about them. I kept thinking about the defendant, his physical presence and how strong he looked. I couldn’t help but think of Chris Brown and Rihanna, too. I thought of Chris Rock, and how he said it is NEVER okay to hit a woman (but it’s okay to shake the SHIT out of her!–funny). It is never okay to beat the shit out of a woman.
And when we were asked if we could control our biases, I raised my hand. “No,” I said. I explained that I knew too many men who had not been brought into court for the violence they’d inflicted, and that if this man were here in court today, there had to have been some kind of evidence.
The defense attorney asked, “But are you aware that someone is innocent until proven guilty?”
Yes, I said. But he is not.
And so I was eventually, at the end of the day, along with Juror #9 (a middle aged Princeton grad who clearly was a victim/survivor of domestic violence), #8 (the dude who said that pregnant women should be given extra leeway), and #5 (a retired old dude from Piedmont with a Stanford MBA whose sister was beaten by her husband), excused from jury duty.
All of us walked out together into the cool air outside, relieved and some of us a bit shaken. “Have a nice life,” I said, as Juror #5 chuckled in response, and we went our separate ways, probably to never see each other again.