Over the last several weeks I've been serving on a jury in Sacramento County. The experience was sometimes intense, sometimes more waiting around than at a connecting airport. In the end, I learned some amazing things about our justice system.
The letter arrived in the mail early in the summer, just like it does every 18 months or so. On the appointed day I called in. Many times before, the recorded message would tell me to call back the next day to see if I needed to report in, only to pass my week of "service" at home, waiting to check the message each evening. This time, the first time I called in I was told to report downtown the next morning.
By midmorning, 60 of us had made it to the fourth floor of the courthouse and had drawn numbers. These were to be our identity numbers for seating, selection and, as I learned later, to confirm our verdict when polled by the judge.
Jury selection went by quickly 12 jurors and four alternates. Before we started and at the end of every day during the trial the judge admonished us to not discuss the case outside the court, even with family or friends, and to avoid any news coverage even to not read The Bee if the reporter had been seen in the courtroom that day.
The judge was insistent about this admonition at the end of every day. He also was very strict about it at a crucial moment near the end of the trial, when one of our 12 was dismissed because of a casual outside conversation the evening before our verdict was to be read.
Our case concerned a murder more than two years ago, with most of the important testimony offered by young men whose memories of the events had been altered by the trauma of the event, and by more than two years of "if only" thoughts after the fact.
For the most part, it was hard for us to find common areas between any two testimonies, as witnesses from both sides clearly wished the story to be told in their favor. When it came time for deliberations, we had to rely on a stack of jury instructions to understand what "force," "malice aforethought" and "possession" were supposed to mean. We had read-backs of testimony, sometimes more than once, to hear again how a witness had described what had happened. We spent some time piecing the sequences together and a lot of time debating what we were supposed to decide.
As foreman, my job was to keep the process moving toward a decision on each count and to make sure everyone participated. This was key, because our decision had to be unanimous, and to be truly unanimous, everyone had to participate.
When the judge read the verdict, he asked us as a group and each of us individually whether this was our verdict, and whether any one of us disagreed with the verdict as read. If we had not all participated before each of our votes, this inquiry might have revealed that we had more work to do, back in the deliberation room. Thankfully, we didn't.
The verdict from a jury is deliberate, thought-out and accepted by 12 individuals who have no stake in the matter except their civic duty.
By forcing 12 random citizens to consider the evidence and the law, and to come to a unanimous decision on how the one applies to the other, you are asking for a final result that has been looked at and considered at least a dozen ways. If there is a reasonable doubt, it will be raised. And if that happens, the process will continue until the verdict fits how everyone sees it, together.
As I experienced it, this is a powerful system; one that has a strong likelihood of applying the law fairly and without bias. If this system finds a defendant guilty or innocent, it does so with an abiding certainty.
In a world that seems to have lots of systems that aren't working very well, our justice system seems to be one that is working just fine something our society has actually gotten quite right.
Experiencing this insight made jury service worth it, more than I imagined it could be.