For the first time in my life, I was summoned to serve as a juror in the local court. When my students (high schoolers) learned why I would be out of school, many of them encouraged me to “hang ’em high” and I even jokingly told a few, “I’ll find them guilty just for you!”
The jury selection process came and went and as the lawyers peppered us with questions, it became clear that the case was not civil in nature, but criminal. Out of the first 14 possible jurors, three of us were picked, largely because neither we nor a member of our immediate families had been victim to a violent crime. Hearing explanations from the 11 people who were excused was the beginning of my recognizing that trials are not games in which there is simply a winner and loser, but that the stakes are real dollars, real lives, real years in jail, real justice.
The victim and a witness took the stand, indicating with varying amounts of certainty that the defendant was, in fact, the man who committed the crime. After presenting evidence and police testimony, the prosecution rested and the defense attorney called the defendant to the stand who immediately started trying to explain himself without having been asked a question. The judge silenced him and as the questions were asked, his answers became gradually became a ramble; revealing that he was homeless, that he’s been addicted to crack cocaine for 17 years, that he was nervous and scared. He was in the middle of explaining how he felt like nobody would listen to him when the lawyer stated that he had no more questions and the defendant was ordered off the stand.
Once both sides were finished, we were dismissed to the jury room to deliberate the case. After a brief discussion, we took a secret ballot vote. In this particular case, 10 of the 12 jurors had to agree whether guilty or not guilty. Eleven of the slips read guilty. Having been elected the foreman, I asked if there was anything that anybody had to say and a woman took the opportunity to express that she believed the defendant to be guilty, but still felt some sort of interior conflict with the evidence that she believed. A few jurors offered reminders that the prosecution was to prove their case beyond a “reasonable doubt” rather than “the shadow of a doubt,” but the woman still seemed unconvinced.
I happened to be feeling a similar conflict within myself. Admittedly, any case where the defendant pleads not-guilty will be void of 100% certainty as to the guilt of the accused. So, doubt will exist and while it may be difficult to weigh a doubt against a certainty, that interior disagreement is not what I was experiencing. I spoke up and explained that what I felt was not a significant doubt, but a conflict between what I reasonably believed to be the truth and what I wanted. It was reasonable to judge the defendant as guilty, which required 17 years minimum sentence before eligibility for parole; yet what I wanted was for the man to not have to go to prison, for him to have not committed the crime, for no crimes to have been committed. St. Augustine’s famous statement, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” illustrates that we have an inherent desire for Him, Heaven, paradise. It seems that almost all of our day-to-day decisions are, essentially, making the best of a bad situation, but the scale of judgement and punishment at hand required an unflinching acknowledgement of the true fallenness of our world – and the recognition that we are left wanting.
Though one of the jurors had voted “not-guilty,” no other issues were brought to discussion. My duty as the foreman required me to fully write out the verdict for each of the crimes with which he had been charged: We, the jury, find the defendant… guilty of… Signed, Andrew Sciba, Foreman. I imagine that it’s one thing to make a guilty vote and go along for the ride, but being the person whose name and signature validate the verdict brought a lot of emotional weight to each word I etched out in my blue-ink chicken scratch. One of the other jurors, with tears in her eyes, expressed a hope that the previously homeless defendant might find some type of sobriety and solid spirituality – she then asked that we might all pray for him. And so, in an event that would probably only occur in the South, we, the jury, bowed our heads and prayed that he might find safety and fulfillment from God’s grace and that we might find consolation. The verdict was read in the courtroom and the jury was subsequently dismissed. Though we were run through the same emotional wringer, we became strangers the moment each of us set foot in the lobby.