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Painted Brain | Jury Duty
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • March 31, 2015

Jury Duty

One thing I’ve definitely had come to terms with is that I learn by doing things wrong the first time.

This trait is so deeply-ingrained in me that my lack of criminal background exemplifies the subtle privileges with which I have lived all my life. I have the psychology of a person who ends up in jail for stupid, out-of-character mistakes. The fact that I have not been to jail might reflects the fact that I’ve never had to steal anything or hurt anyone, nor did I grow up around people who did. If this is not privilege, I really don’t know what is.

For me, learning from my own mistakes has been primarily a challenge to my sense of self-worth. Things get easier with repetition, so now that I am in my forties, my mistakes don’t worry me nearly as much as they used to, and often, my mistakes seem like learning opportunities. This is somewhat ironic. In the past, when I whined to others about how bad it felt to fuck things up in public, their response was always, “Well, it’s a learning opportunity.”

I guess that, eventually, it sank in or, god forbid, they were right.

A great example of this happened to me just this week. I got called for jury duty and, for the first time, I was selected for a jury panel. I’ve been called in for jury duty a dozen times in the past, and I’ve always spent the day sitting quietly in a large room with a hundred other people, performing my civic duty by hanging around until 4:30 when we were all allowed to go home. On this most recent occasion, I was among the first dozen people from our fifty-person panel to go before the judge, the prosecutor, the defense team, and the defendant. (I am changing several details and keeping specifics to a minimum in order to protect the integrity of the ongoing trial). I knew I was going to be let go from this jury. The judge talked at length about the process, her history on the bench, and her clearly-evident passion for the work. As I sat there in the courtroom waiting to answer her questions about personal bias, past history in similar circumstances, and whether I have friends or family on the police force, I tried to fathom my potential for bias as I braced myself for their questions.

I said that, as a social worker, I once worked with a young man who looked a lot like the defendant, a man who was shot dead by police in 2009 as he was climbing out of his car menacingly (according to police), though he was unarmed. After offering my views regarding the contextual nature of all human situations and interactions, and my experience empathizing with people who have done terrible things, I was saved by the bell. The day ended, and I was called back next morning, along with the other remaining potential jurors.

I was prospective juror #12, and in the morning, I was first to be targeted by the prosecutor for questioning.

“Juror 12, you said something about the difficulty of assessing an isolated incident without considering the larger situation in which people live. Can you explain that to me?”

I’d known that question was coming, but somehow, I’d been unable to prepare myself for it. I stumbled through an acknowledgement of strong bias for the defense due to my professional experiences and my worldview. In the end, the prosecutor said it for me, suggesting that I might, “Really, really question or even doubt the evidence because I wanted to see the defendants as not guilty.”

I love lawyers, sometimes. I agreed wholeheartedly with her assessment, and soon, I was released from the jury.
But, as I always learn from my mistakes, a day or so later, I had a much better sense of what I wish I’d said:

“Having sat in this courtroom for the past seven hours and observing the order, the respect, the civility and the rigor with which this process is happening, I have come to feel and believe in the integrity of this room and this decision-making process. I was honestly not expecting to feel that. What I don’t believe in, in a way that is profoundly sad, is the integrity of the society in which the events that led to this specific context, the frame of this courtroom, occurred. Our world, our city, and our individual psychologies just feel far too complex for me to stand in judgment of the alleged, discrete actions of another individual. How do I know that, living this defendant’s life, I would not have done exactly what he allegedly did? Is it possible to be a conscientious objector when it comes to sitting in judgment of another person? The court system is fair and just, at least it felt that way in this courtroom. But our current society, sadly, is not fair and just. Because of this, I am very likely to side with the defense, and do not feel impartial.”

Dave Leon, LCSW is the founder/director of Painted Brain, and writes a weekly editorial column for Painted Brain News

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