Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Burden of Proof

In front of the courthouse in downtown Sacramento is a sculpture. A
fountain. The chaotic, curving shapes remind me of nothing so much as a series of distorted antlers, flowing from one to another. There is a single break in the jagged ring, one small gap where the pieces don't quite come together.

If the sculpture were a criminal case, the jury would have to acquit.

I spent a month on the jury for a rape case. I listened as the district attorney worked methodically, laying out the evidence piece by piece. Asking every question from every angle. Setting out an array of facts, emphasizing certain points seemingly at random. I don't envy his task: how can you convince twelve people of anything at all, let alone beyond a reasonable doubt?

The defense attorney countered at every point he could, seeking to stab holes in the picture the prosecution sought to form. The events of the night in question blurred. Testimonies and lab results and photographs all smashed together to form a disjointed, self-contradicting image.

I know now why attorneys make closing arguments. The DA stood and spoke, and the chaos took shape. And unlike the fountain outside, the pieces came together.

I wasn't expecting it. It took a few days in the jury room for myself and the other eleven to settle our minds. Between the first day and the last, we had some strange conversations. We guessed at motives and argued about their relevance. We spun off on tangents and took hours to come back to the black-and-white instructions the court clerk had left us. I wasn't ready to vote guilty when I walked into the room for the first time. Only a few were. Maybe, on some level, we were already convinced. Maybe we just needed time for our souls to be sure.

It's a weird thing to look someone in the eye after convicting them of rape. Weird to be okay with the anger you see there. Even weirder to receive, after it's all over, a certificate of appreciation for your service.

During jury selection, the judge asked if anyone had served on a jury before. To each person that had, she asked if it was "a satisfying experience." I was intrigued by the question then, and I understand it even better now. I understand the odd, tense relief of taking the vote, and having it unanimous.

1 comment:

E said...

Well done. It's hard to lay the groundwork...you pick jurors hoping they can stick with you for the long haul; have enough faith in you to pay attention and just see where it all goes, as opposed to getting frustrated, throwing up their hands and mentally checking out on day 2. Hoping you can give them all the pieces, and the manual and send them in a room to build a proper verdict. But yeah, it's a hard and arduous process. Especially for $15/day. Thanks for serving, and for writing about it, very cool!!