This is the beginning of my story…or the end? To see all the chapters in order, click HERE.
How does a stay-at-home, church going, girl scout leader Mom end up standing before a court accused of armed robbery and attempted car-jacking? And can anyone else learn from the experience, other than those who are closest to her? How can this same person use the gifts God gave her to share the experience, glorify God’s miracles, and hopefully inspire others at the same time?
A jury duty summons came in the mail. It was just an average, everyday jury duty summons, nothing to get worked up over. I’ve gotten them every year since we moved out to the desert nine years ago. Every year I open the envelope, write down what day I’m supposed to call and find out if I will be going to the courthouse the next day. And every year the recording says I’m not needed.
For me, a jury duty summons is really irritating. I get aggravated and vocal about how inconvenient it is. Why do they tell me a month in advance that I MIGHT need to come to the courthouse and then make me call the night before just to find out if I won the lottery of a day sitting in a crowded room with some of my weird neighbors? Why not just tell me I will be going for sure right then? I can plan on it. What if I had a job and needed to get the day off? It’s really not any trouble for me to go in. I am actually bothered that other people might be put out by it. But that’s not really what is making me irritable. It’s fear and old memories being dredged up.
The last time I actually got called into court was ten years ago in the city. That courthouse was huge and there are so many people. It’s pretty anonymous going in there. I sat in the big comfortable jury waiting room with free water, wi-fi, TV, and vending machines, and read my book. It was kind of nice really. I had three children at home at the time. My step-daughter was starting Junior High School and my two boys were six and five years old. We were homeschooling the boys, so they were home with me and my Mother-In-Law all day. Going to jury duty at that time was kind of like a vacation from regular life. I didn’t mind going in but there was something bothering me.
Two years earlier I had been falsely accused by the District Attorney and had to defend myself. The charges were dropped after a year and nearly $30,000 in fees, but the time was traumatic for me and I still held some bitterness toward the system for bringing the case against me and for pursuing it so ferociously. The look on the D.A.’s face as he walked out of the courtroom after dropping the case for lack of evidence still stuck with me. Laughing a bit, he looked at me and told me maybe they’d get me next time. I was terrified. They’d watched my house before they arrested me for weeks. I had no idea they were there. Would they be watching me now? How could I know? I hadn’t done anything wrong, but everything they presented was true and led them to believe I was the one that robbed a woman at gunpoint and tried to steal her car. How could I know they wouldn’t pick up more pieces of my life and arrange them in a picture that looked different than the one they took them from?
Two years had gone by and I was still upset by the whole situation. We were still in debt thanks to the police departments job. They had taken a gun handed down from my husband’s father as evidence. We never got it back, not that we ever used it. It had sentimental value. Here I was sitting in a courthouse, waiting for them to call my name. I’d been there about an hour when my group was called to a courtroom. We sat listening to the case overview and they passed out a thick questionnaire for us to fill out. We were told to answer all the questions honestly and completely and then return them. We could leave after we were done and were to return in the morning to the same courtroom. I’d have to get my Mother-In-Law to watch the boys again and take my step-daughter to school as well.
I started reading the questions. Most of them were easy and straight forward, things like your background, work, family relationships, etc. Then came ones I never considered. How do you feel about the justice system? Do you think it’s fair? Would you convict someone on the basis of what the law is and not how you feel about the law? How could I answer these questions truthfully? I knew the minute I gave my honest answer I’d be asked to leave. If I always answered that way, I’d never be on a jury. And what about that defendant? Shouldn’t he have someone like me on the jury, that might actually look at the case more fairly? Should I lie and then hold up the deliberation if I got that far?
I couldn’t lie. I knew that. I answered the questions honestly. I don’t believe the system is just. I think most people believe that if you were truly innocent, you wouldn’t be able to incriminate yourself and I learned first hand that that’s not true at all. I think the general population thinks as I used to; that the Miranda Rights are to help the criminals, not protect the innocent. They get in the way of cops getting the bad guys. And I think the police arrest anyone they can get their hands on for a crime just so that it looks good on paper. If you arrest people and have a high conviction rate in court, you’re keeping the people safe. Right? It looks good in the annual report. It justifies the money they spend. But crime isn’t being deterred. It’s only being punished and it doesn’t matter who is punished. Don’t get me started on how I used to feel about Defense Attorneys. We all knew they were the scum that help criminals get out of trouble. I also know from my experience that those that have enough money and a connection to someone that can help are more likely to get out of the trouble, innocent or guilty. All of this, in my opinion, made me a better juror than I was before the incident. I used to think like most everyone else. It is how the system conditions us. If you’ve been accused, you probably did something, and you’ll have to prove to me you didn’t. The law is actually the other way around and now I know why. I wrote all of this down, handed it to the bailiff, and walked out to my car.
When I returned to court the next day, all the potential jurors were standing out in the hall. Before they opened the door and let us in to sit down, they read a list of all the jurors that could go home right now. I was on that list. My heart sunk. They’d never let me on a jury. I was too honest and principled, I thought. And then I was angry. They knew last night when they were reading those papers who they were going to send home. Why didn’t they call us? It would have saved us all a lot of time. I went home and I wasn’t sent a summons until a few years later when we had moved out to the desert.
Since then, I think I’ve been called about six times. I get the paper, I call the number, I’m excused. I feel like I’m forced to participate in some ugly lottery. I haven’t been to the courthouse out here until now. When I got the summons this time, I wrote the date on my calendar. As always happens when I get that summons, I started thinking about my case. One of my sons asked me recently why I write so much down. I keep a journal and a calendar and write details I want to remember about each day. Plans we’ve made, dinners, where we’re going are all on the calendar. And I tend to go back and write what happened if we do something unexpected. I keep track of the weather, what birds I see, what got cleaned, or what I planted in the yard. It’s a little obsessive and I’ve gotten more detailed over the years. I jokingly tell the boys that some day, all the electronic records will be lost and they will only have my journals and calendars to recreate what it was like to live in the early 2000’s! I also keep receipts filed and easy to recall. Sometimes I start to think it’s a little unhealthy and stop writing. A few days at most can get by before I run back and fill in what has happened on my calendar. Thinking back, I realize what I’m doing. When the detective was at my home on the day I was arrested, he asked me what I was doing “on the day in question.” I swear! It was just like a “Columbo” re-run or “Law & Order” episode! I showed him my calendar. I usually write down everywhere we go, I told him. I have girl scouts on Fridays and Bible Study on Wednesdays, etc. There was nothing on those days. Nothing at all. Later, my lawyer asked me about that calendar. The DA was using it for evidence. He asked if I had anything else that might point to where I was on that day. I searched my journals. Those days were also empty. They only thing I had was an instant message conversation on the computer between a friend and I. I printed the record of it. It haunted me that I had no alibi for that day. But why would I? I’m a stay-at-home Mom! I was at home making dinner, doing laundry, and chasing kids! How could this be happening?! Writing things down is a symptom of my recurring thoughts, a kind of PTSD thing. It helps me feel safe.
The day to call on my summons came and went. When I woke up the next day at 4 am, I stumbled to my coffee pot and picked up my book. I sat reading and waking up until 5 am when I went to make a note about something I read. That’s when I remembered I was supposed to call about jury duty! I sat down and called that minute and found out I had to be there at noon. And that is when I started to feel sick.
There was no getting out of it. I had to show up. Maybe they’d just let us sit there all day and then send us home. That’s happened to me before. I had to call the women’s center that I volunteer for and tell them I wouldn’t be there. They’d have to find someone to replace me for the day. I got ready to go and headed out the door feeling very queasy. All the memories coming back one at at time.
The courthouse here is much smaller than the one in the city. It was pleasant, obvious where I needed to be, and air conditioned! I brought my knitting. I figured we’d be sitting around doing nothing for awhile and I really can’t read when I can hear people talking. We were shown a video about how great being on a jury is and how it is our duty to perform this task as a citizen. Everyone seemed pretty down about being there. Some people knew each other. Some had been there before. It’s a small town, so you’re bound to see someone you know. I didn’t, but I knitted away. I expected to be there for a few hours and not be called. About an hour later we were all moved to the courtroom. I hadn’t been in a courtroom in ten years and this one was so much smaller than the last one. The judge talked and talked. The woman next to me said the judge said this every time. They went over a bunch of questions and then we took a break. When we got back, several people were excused and I was called to replace one. We all answered questions about ourselves, out loud, in front of everyone. I was terrified. I’ve never been much of a public speaker and this was ridiculous.
Then it got worse. They asked if I’d ever been accused of a crime and would that have an effect on how I performed my duty. I had to tell them I was accused and the case had been dropped. I tried to form coherent sentences about why I believed I was capable of being fair on a jury because of my experience, not in spite of it. After all, I knew that both sides of an argument can be wrong, even the accusing authority. The prosecution was required to prove that someone was in the wrong, not the defense. I thought it came out well. I wish I could have recorded it and heard myself. I have a feeling I think like I’m a lot clearer and steady that I actually am. My own experience as a defendant years ago brought that to my attention. The judge moved on to other prospective jurors.
A few minutes later, another question made my stomach lurch and compelled me to raise my hand and speak. I don’t know if you had positive experiences with speaking up in a classroom when you were a child, but I did not. I’ve always been a bit shy and nervous which has always attracted the henpecking that children do in school. I was actually sick in class once when we were required to read our essay out loud. I never lived that down. All the acting classes and performances I did through high school never cured me of my fear of the classroom situation. That has stuck with me until this day. I’m not afraid of public speaking, I’m happy to stand up in front of a group and answer questions or perform, but put me in a situation that looks like a classroom, no matter how compelling an argument I think I have, no matter how much I desire to speak up and tell people what I think about the topic, if I have to raise my hand and speak, forget it. I actually shake and feel sick. Deep down I desperately believe I have something important to add but just cannot bring myself to put myself back in that classroom situation. And here I was, in a courtroom, as a prospective juror, with a lawyer asking the whole group a question and I felt passionate about my answer, sure that my answer needed to be heard.
“Does anyone here feel that if they disagree with the law in this case that they couldn’t give a verdict of guilty?”
I shook as I began to raise my hand and realize that no one else was volunteering to answer. I would be asked to speak my mind. It all happened in slow motion. At the same time as I was raising my hand, I was trying to formulate my words so I would be clearly understood. I’d already heard the sentiment, “Well, I may not agree with the law, but it is the law and if I’m judging someone whether they broke it or not, I’d have to say he did.” The question had been asked in a few different ways. I was a little confused at times. It didn’t seem to be presented clearly. I felt led to answer in a certain way, like he was fishing for that answer. The last way he said it I felt was clear enough for me and I had to answer.
“I’m not speaking of this case specifically, but in general. If I don’t believe a law is just or right, I cannot convict someone of breaking it. After all, it used to be against the law to let black people eat in a white restaurant.” The lawyer just nodded and moved on to the next question. I knew at that moment I would not be on that jury. As I sat there another hour, I heard over and over again from almost all the other jurors, they may not think the law is right but it must be there for a reason. I couldn’t believe it.
At the end of the day, several people had been dismissed from jury duty but I remained. We were all asked to come back the next day to continue picking a jury for this trial. As I drove home that afternoon, I was actually excited. I had stood up and said what I believed was right and I wasn’t summarily dismissed. Maybe, just maybe, the system wasn’t as corrupt as I imagined.
The next morning, I got up and got ready for the day. I was now sure I’d be on this jury. It’d be my first one and I was pretty excited about it. I readied myself for a long day in court. One hour later, I was driving home angry and disappointed. I had been the first to be dismissed that day. Once again, I had rearranged my schedule and worked in time to “do my civic duty” and the court disrespected my time and effort, called me in so that they could dismiss me immediately. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
Driving home, I grumbled and complained to myself. All those people in that courtroom would really uphold and convict a fellow citizen on a law they believed to be unjust? Really? If any of them thought for one minute about what they said, they’d see what they were doing. These same people would think it was a shameful response of the Nazi soldiers to say “I was only doing my duty, as I was ordered to do.” They’d hold those people responsible. How far will they go? If a lawmaker in our country made it illegal for a particular group of people in this country to hold a job and be paid, would you go to court and convict him of trying to support his family? Where would this “I’m just following the law.” thinking go? I’m seriously shaking just thinking it through again and tapping it out on the screen.
When I got home, I did what all good Americans do these days, I posted on Facebook. I know. It’s not monumental but it’s all I could think to do. I did get some positive response from it. Some of my friends understood what I was trying to say, but the percentage was pretty low and I wonder if I made public poll how many people would agree with me. I’m thinking it would be even lower.
And that’s why I’m here typing this story out. Once again, I began to wonder why I should even bother making that statement, answering the way I did. I’d never be put on a jury if I did. But what if one person in that room heard me and thought about what I said? What if one person read my post afterward and reconsidered their position about “following the law”? What if more people do the same thing by standing up for our constitutional rights and being the biggest check and balance in our justice system? To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, “Why it may even start a movement! And most of you are too young to know what a movement is!”
This story is just the beginning. I’ve always felt that someday I’d write my experience out for the world to see. It was painful and life changing for me and, until now, it hurt too much to rub those wounds and remember, to reflect on what happened and what could have happened. But this last experience with the justice system has finally encouraged me to take off that bandage and look at the old scar. The wound has healed. There is a scar to remind me of what happened and I refuse to cover it up and hide it any longer.
To read the next chapter, click HERE.