Why Jury Duty Matters
“Iam a multiple sexual assaults survivor,” I tell the judge in what I intend to be my most composed voice but it comes out as a tiny squeak.
My phrasing is pithy but it’s also clumsy, my command of language temporarily tentative because I feel deeply uncomfortable.
Although the judge sees my lips moving, he can’t hear me and neither can the two lawyers, the interpreters, or the defendant. So he asks his clerk to hand me the microphone as I promptly turn crimson with embarrassment.
I swear I tried to project my voice.
I’m alone in the jury box. The interview is happening behind closed doors to determine my suitability to serve. I’ve already filled in two preliminary questionnaires in which I highlighted potential conflicts of interest, which is to say several instances of sexual assault. Now the judge and the lawyers want to ask me about them.
The case on trial is the rape of a child allegedly perpetrated by a man who does not speak English, hence the presence of interpreters.
“In light of what’s happened to you, do you believe you are capable of remaining impartial? It would be good to see justice meted out, wouldn’t it?”asks the defendant’s lawyer with a compassionate smile.
Oh, he is good, he is suave but I won’t let him or anyone else put words in my mouth. Words are my job and the use of “meted out” is a red flag. No, I’d like to tell him, I don’t want this man I don’t know to pay for what other men have done to me. I’m certainly not here to exact revenge and to suggest as much is both disingenuous and insulting.
Rather than blurt it all out, I pause for emphasis and take a deep breath before responding.
“I’m a journalist and I only deal in facts. What happened to me is irrelevant in this context,” I reply, self-assured this time, still pithy to a fault. On the off chance I might be selected, my role is to judge facts. I trust myself to be as dispassionate as required and have no problem setting aside my personal life for a while to focus my full attention on something else.
Journalism and tour directing have equipped me with this mental on/off switch. Despite chronic depression, I discover I’m still able to flick that switch when the situation calls for it. I’m a little taken aback that my broken and battered brain can compartmentalize, rephrase, and default to neutral politeness rather than my usual bluntness.
“But how do you feel about such a case given your history? Isn’t it likely to add more trauma?” he asks again.
“Not at all. I think it could be very healing,” I reply in a heartbeat, surprising even myself. The critical distance I’ve needed for a long time has finally shown up; this lawyer coaxed it out of me.
When we break for lunch, I’m still reeling from this epiphany as I step out of the courthouse feeling lighter.
When the little pink jury summons postcard turns up in my mailbox in fall 2017, I literally jump up and down with joy.
As an immigrant who wasn’t able to vote in the 2016 presidential election and only became a citizen in December of that same year, being able to take part in American civic life thrills me: I finally have the opportunity to do something.
To me, jury duty is the cornerstone of patriotism, it benefits all of society and transcends partisanship. It’s the one thing you can do for your country while being on an equal footing with absolutely everybody else.
And this is as valid in France, where I was born, as it is in America. Also, because I’ve spent my entire adult life abroad, I’ve never been called upon to serve in France and likely never will.
Most importantly, it’s the first time I feel like a real American. Until then, citizenship had been a purely abstract and administrative affair — lots of forms and checks and interviews and pictures and fingerprints — despite the blue passport already in my pocket.
On the appointed day, I report to the courthouse bright and early in formal attire, hair tied up in a bun, light make-up on. I may be old-fashioned but court, in my mind, demands a modicum of respectability so my usual uniform of leggings, tall socks, wild hair, and baggy sweater wasn’t going to cut it.
This, I realize upon entering the enormous waiting room, is a very personal approach.
All human life is there and I’m happy to re-encounter “my” America for the first time since the naturalization ceremony. Although my own family is a perfect sample of multiculturalism, back then I’m still living in predominantly white neighborhood and the rainbow of skin hues at the courthouse is a welcome reminder of what the real America looks like.
In the jury room, there are some tired faced, some eager faces, some faces already hiding behind laptops, some crafty faces sewing delicate things. And there’s little me, trying to write because I find myself unable to focus on the book I brought or the e-book I’ve just borrowed on a whim from the public library.
We watch a video that explains how a trial unfolds and what our obligations as jurors are, a judge gives a humorous speech, and then we wait until we’re called and assigned to another judge.
It takes three whole days to merge three jury pools.
The nature of the crime is such that it stirs up visceral reactions among potential jurors. Some women break down and share pieces of their personal narrative with a packed courtroom. The distress in that courtroom is palpable, and many women and a handful of men are coming undone at the prospect of serving on this jury. Some are visibly upset and terrified.
This is a measure of how widespread sexual abuse is, at all levels of society.
When lawyers tell us about the defendant’s immigration status, it gets much, much worse.
Seattle is a sanctuary city, which means law enforcement cooperation with immigration authorities is somewhat limited so I can’t help but wonder why or how someone’s immigration status is relevant.
And yet, one woman with a strong South-Asian accent erupts in anger, a verbal volcano threatening to turn this courtroom into a shouting match.
“Send them back to where they came from,” she yells.
As an immigrant, this outburst makes me feel ashamed. Forgetting where you came from doesn’t make you a good American, it makes you a rabid racist.
“Does the defendant’s immigration status bother you?” his lawyer asks to the courtroom at large. I sit on my hands and rein in the urge to speak up because it would be counterproductive.
What I want to say is how heartened I am by this process, how relieved I am that this man is afforded a fair trial, and how proud I am of America for upholding due process despite the current administration’s open war on undocumented immigrants.
This man may be a child rapist but then again he may not be. Unless called upon to do so and presented with evidence, it’s not my place to judge.
During lunch recess, I walk around downtown to clear my head, my juror badge visible on my lapel. None of us are supposed to discuss the case with one another, or with anyone else. The badge is a visual cue that helps us avoid fellow jurors.
Finally, on the afternoon of the third day, jury selection happens. I’m already sitting in the jury box but I’m promptly dismissed on a peremptory challenge; I’m not given a reason why they didn’t choose me.
Although I strived to remain as neutral and exacting as possible, my personal history spoke for itself, as I expected it would. I exit the courthouse on a cold, gray afternoon so mentally drained that I get on the bus in a daze and later miss my stop.
In three days, I learned more about America than I did in years.
Seeing American justice in action reassures me that some institutions still work in the US. But seeing so many of my fellow citizens hell-bent on shirking responsibility by any means necessary irks me no end.
The true test of character came on the first day.
Packed into the courtroom, we were asked a series of group questions for which we had to raise our number card if the answer was yes. At that point, the judge asked further individual questions to clarify.
“Is there any reason you wouldn’t be able to serve for the next two weeks? We anticipate this to take a while but we should be done before Thanksgiving,” he says.
Cue an unstoppable torrent of excuses, ranging from the valid to the vapid.
There are sole proprietors who can’t afford time off because this would represent a loss of earnings that could tank their business. There are foreign trips that were planned a long time ago, both professional and personal. There are students of all stripes sitting exams. There’s an 18-year old kid so bemused and overwhelmed and lost she has no idea what she’s doing here and tells the judge as much with touching candor.
And there are the nasal tones of “me, me, me, I’m a decision maker, me, me, me, I’m important, me, me, me” from corporate braggarts who will try anything to get out of jury duty.
Nevertheless, it’s not that they can’t get involved; by law, their employer has to release them for however long a trial lasts.
Instead, they don’t want to get involved and their unwillingness to serve has turned them into petulant children scraping the barrel for excuses. Also, they know they’ll be excused if they show enough reluctance and animosity so they go all out in an extravagant display of boisterous individualism. While doing so, they don’t pass up any opportunity to gloat about indispensable they are, too.
This is us, this is who we are both as a jury pool and as a nation, a patchwork of passionate, broken, conscientious, selfish, and helpful people all thrown together.
As an American, jury duty is the only thing your country will ever ask of you. Even voting isn’t mandatory.
So why not set your ego aside and serve when you’re given the chance?
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.