Read Old Man Scanlon

Jury Duty

23 September 2009

I've read—so it must be true—that once upon a time a government career used to be considered gentlemanly and honorable. I myself dimly remember when politicians weren't automatically despised: a congressman had to earn his contempt, although the bar was never very high. Lawyers are inextricably linked to politics and government, and it does them little credit. Fortunately, at local levels, it is still possible to discern honorable political service if you have a sharp eye. Also, more amazing still, all the lawyer jokes notwithstanding, every lawyer I've met who was not a politician, even the man who represented my ex-wife in our divorce, has been pleasant and able, someone you wouldn't be afraid to invite into your home.

Even here in the staggeringly corrupt People's Republic of Massachusetts, one may find, and indeed participate in, a pride-inspiring government operation infested with lawyers: jury duty. Our state has a system in which jurors are called every three years to serve for one day or one trial. This broadens exposure to the courts and reduces the inconvenience of public service. It is a good idea and it works. My number came up again this September.

From the very start to its finish my jury duty was a positive experience. The juror's handbook had a map and included parking information. I found the recommended lot, which had plenty of room. The old guy in the booth was pleasant and helpful, pointing out the courthouse to me. The court staff were to a man affable and efficient; even people who had forgotten their juror service forms or filled them out incompletely were handled with equanimity and due respect. Mercifully, the jury rooms were television-free, and it boded well that many potential jurors brought reading material.

The Superior Courthouse, a century-old domed stone building in the center of the county seat, was not as impressive as a cathedral, perhaps, but its age and massiveness gave it gravity, a serious quality I suspect a modern glassy cubicle farm would lack. About ninety of us had been called. Fourteen of us were selected—two would be chosen randomly as alternates at the start of deliberations—with only three or four of the original ninety left over at the end. "Would you want to be judged by twelve people too stupid to get out of jury duty?" is an opinion I've often heard, but who better than twelve people who, lacking legitimate claim to any of the numerous allowable reasons to be excused, refused to lie to avoid their obligation?

The judge clearly loved his job, instructed us carefully, and, at least to a layman's eye, kept the adversaries honest. He explained the presumption of innocence, the nature of evidence, and the concept of reasonable doubt. And, in terms that seemed aimed directly at me, he told us that we were helping to maintain a bedrock institution of our democracy that had been honed and perfected over hundreds of years.

Both courtroom protocol and the law itself fascinate. In court, everything that happens, any evidence presented, is done openly. If it doesn't adhere to the established choreography, permission is obtained from the judge. There are no surprises. Each party takes great pains to let all others know what's on the table. The judge is omnipotent, and exercises his power to ensure fairness.

In law, every term has an exact, precise, excruciatingly well-defined meaning—most pleasing to those of us who are literal to the point of bloody-mindedness. One of the charges we heard involved possession of an illegal firearm. To most people, possession means having something in your pocket, or maybe your house or car. But legally, if you have knowledge of something and can exercise control over it, you're in possession—no matter how well or how far away you've hidden it. This example gave me insight into the legal language of old wills, in which I have genealogical interest. They often use a sequence of two, three, or even four apparently synonymous terms (leading inevitably to the conclusion that lawyers are paid by the word) which may in fact have distinct legal shadings.

It seems to me that part of the system's genius is the counterpoint of this nit-picking legal literalness with discretion and common sense exercised by officers of the law and juries. Justice is done despite—or perhaps because of—this tension between legalism and practical common sense. When the common-sense component is subverted, by zero-tolerance policies, for example, the results often strikingly lack any semblance of justice. After my recent experience I am willing to consider the possibility that even the Supreme Court's profoundly dissatisfying Kelo decision (the Connecticut eminent domain case) may have been based on sound grounds in law.

Our system doesn't have much trouble with classic crimes like assault and battery. In the case presented to us, we heard about a dozen witnesses testify. We noted and ultimately considered insignificant their varying descriptions when they had to identify the defendant in the courtroom—after all, they were men describing clothing. But the discrepancies served well to illustrate how details can differ depending on the observer and point of view, yet the stories still remain consistent. We heard Joe Citizens relate how they came to assist a woman being assaulted and provided the police with a license plate number, and we heard the police speak about arresting the defendant and finding an illegal firearm.

The gun in question, a sawed-off .22 caliber bolt-action rifle, was admitted as evidence, and during deliberations we could look at it, touch it, heft it. Someone literally hacksawed the barrel to a length of six inches excluding the chamber, removed most of the stock, and ground off the serial number, an ugly and brutal desecration of an honest piece of work. It was the vilest example of form following function that I've ever seen.

We didn't envy the defense attorney, who had very little to work with, nor did we reject his arguments out of hand. We deliberated seriously and carefully. Amongst us, two did not find it necessary to speak while we considered the charges, and it was gratifying that there wasn't a single jury-hanging jackass. We convicted the defendant—an "alleged perpetrator" no more—of a property crime, a firearms charge, and assaults. We felt we dealt justly with him, but had to leave the building with a sense that the job was unfinished. Our own task was complete but we had no inkling of what would happen as a result.

The man we convicted had spent much of his adult life on the wrong side of the law, getting and failing at mandated anger-management counseling, doing jail time. I believe that something in his humanity is broken, and it was evident that he did not have the wherewithal to fix himself. In the end it was Google that provided some closure: his local paper reported that he had been sentenced to prison for twenty years, more or less, to be followed by several years of probation. But I doubt the story's over.