When they first sit down together, they look uncomfortable. No one knows each other, and it could be a group of people who’ve gathered for a mandatory driver’s ed class or in response to some training ad about how to get a better job. They sit stiffly with their eyes straight ahead, afraid to look at the person sitting shoulder-to-shoulder next to them.
But after a day or so, they invariably come together as a cohesive group. When they file in the room and the person in charge says “Good morning,” they begin to respond more robustly, sometimes even boisterously as the days progress — like smiling kids singing a strung-out version of “Gooood Morrrrn-ing!” They have gelled.
They have become a jury that will decide the fate of a fellow citizen.
They are black and white, Hispanic and Asian, and all sorts of other mixed races. They are young enough to still wear a scrunchy in their ponytail or old enough to walk in with a shuffle. Like the judge, they sit in an elevated box to signify that, in the end, they, too, will judge. These jurors are anointed with the oil of civic duty and while, perhaps, annoyed at the inconvenience in the beginning, they always come away proud of what they did.
I’m proud, too, as I watch this process unfold at every trial I attend. I know it sounds corny, but to watch this time-honored process — American citizens giving up their time to perform this most important civic service — is awesome. It isn’t pleasant duty. Jurors can be kept away from their daily life for weeks, and it isn’t easy passing judgment on others.
This is exactly what President George Washington, President James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and 35 other forward-thinking Founding Fathers had in mind when they signed the U.S. Constitution in 1787. And here we are, centuries later, still adhering to their ideal of how to form a more perfect union. Awesome.
Back in the day, it really was a “jury of peers” that sat in judgment, even though nowhere in the Constitution does that phrase appear. It was the farmers, blacksmiths or cattle ranchers who lived most closely to a defendant that decided the accused’s fate.
Today, jurors most likely have no neighborhood ties to the person on trial. In the case I most recently attended — U.S. vs. Johnny Reid Edwards (aka John Edwards) — the jurors were chosen from a pool plucked from 27 counties in the Middle District of North Carolina. None had ever met each other, but fate brought them together to pass judgment on no less than a former U.S. senator and two-time presidential candidate. Again, awesome.
At the Edwards federal trial in Greensboro, N.C., I watched closely as the white man in seat No. 2 made friends with the black woman next to him. He, a financial consultant, she was listed as a customer service representative, and they likely had little in common. The young black woman in seat No. 7 works in human resources, and the 60-something white man on her right is a retired railroad worker.
In the back row, the last three seats were occupied by two black men — a retired police/fire department employee and a mechanic — and sandwiched in between was a white corporate vice president. All three appeared engaged and respectful of one other.
As I watched this jury’s relationships grow, through frequent smiles and thoughtful gestures, I daydreamed about how juries are wonderful microcosms of equality — all races and sexes and ages working together toward a common purpose. I wondered if these jurors would exchange contact information at the end of the trial (as some have been known to do) and stage verdict anniversary parties to stay in touch.
Greensboro, N.C., has a history of bringing people together in the name of justice. Just three blocks from the federal courthouse is the famous Woolworth lunch counter where four black college students defied the convention of the day and sat down to be served on Feb. 1, 1960. The location is now the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.
Franklin McCain, one of the four brave students from that day, was recently quoted as saying: “We had no notion that we’d even be served. What we wanted to do was serve notice, more than anything else, that we were going to be about trying to achieve some of the rights and privileges we were due as citizens of this country.”
Nothing embodies the rights of an American citizen more than the guaranteed privilege of having a jury decide their justice. We may not always agree with a jury’s final verdict, but we must respect it — and continue to honor the process that makes this system of justice possible.
Jury service is the great equalizer and a reminder that none of us is above the court-sanctioned judgment of another. If you have never sat in on a jury trial, pick one and go. It’s a real eye-opener.