Friday, August 05, 2005

The hot seat

I find most peace in my life when I try to live by the Serenity Prayer, which I mentioned many posts ago. In short, this familiar prayer urges us to control the things we can, let go of the things we can't control, and to have the wisdom to know the difference in these two categories.

That simple philosophy of life has really been helpful to me - up until now. Up until now, the control I managed to acquire gave me a sense of empowerment over my own life. This week I was asked to have control over someone else's life...and I didn't like it, not one bit.

I have been experiencing my first few weeks of jury duty. Actually, the judge said they call it "jury service" now to make it seem more palatable. They want us to think we are volunteering, when in actuality we are being drafted.

No matter - I didn't try to avoid it. I had reached the ripe old age of 50 and had never been called to serve on a jury, probably because we spent so little time in one place as we were moved around in the ministry. I was intrigued by the courtroom. I had never seen a real jury in action. I had minor trepidation in the midst of all this curiosity and anticipation, though, because I have always considered myself to be - well, not exactly wishy-washy, but I try to give both sides on any argument equal time and if the area is gray and not black and white, I find it hard to make up my mind. In one way, that qualifies me exceedingly well for a jury, but in another way, I'm a jury's worst nightmare. See? Even in discussing this, I see the gift and the curse in thinking this way!

The judge told us we were released from confidentiality about our participation in the cases after the fact, so I feel free to mention a few things here. The first case was not that important. A young man was visually identified by a state trooper as driving a car when he had been suspended from doing so. Sounded pretty clear-cut. Then we found out the trooper saw him only in passing, and waited 6 days to issue the summons, at which time the young man and his girlfriend swore it must have been someone else. It would have been an easy case if the officer had pulled him over immediately, but...we had to find him not guilty because there was too much doubt.

I didn't lose any sleep over that case.

The next case was rape. Suffice it to say, most of the jury figured the guy did it, but, for reasons I will not address here, he got off too.

I started losing sleep.

Then came the most recent case. This was a 65-year-old man accused of inappropriate sexual contact (touching through clothes) with a couple of girls, 8 and 9 years old. The state's case was weak - his word against theirs. There apparently was some tickling going on and the defendant, a small-statured old man with a mustache, balding head and bowtie, insisted if the touching happened at all, it was incidental. No witnesses. No evidence. We just had to sit there and make a grave decision - whether to send this man to jail and in the process give him the legal requirement to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

We agonized. We almost became a hung jury, but the holdouts who thought he was guilty decided to change their verdict because a hung jury would have required the girls to go through another trial. It had already been a year since this happened in the first place. Everyone involved in the case, even secondarily, had been under this cloud for a year to have their day in court. And, Lord help me, I was one of 12 people who were commissioned to decide the verdict.

That threw the Serenity Prayer out the window temporarily for me. It's easy to say, "Control the things you can," but it's not easy to come to a decision - with very, very little to work with - that will affect lives forever in a huge way. The pressure was enormous.

The verdict after 2-1/2 hours of deliberation was not guilty. It was decided we just didn't have enough evidence to say this man did it. Did he do it intentionally? Accidentally? Did the girls have a skewed perception of what happened? If he was innocent, we cursed the defendant for being stupid enough to put himself in a position of vulnerability. If he was guilty, we doubly cursed him for doing such a despicable thing. As a jury, we were certainly in a cursing mood.

I can say for sure most of the jury had a restless night after that. Did we save an innocent old man from being labeled for life and going to jail? Or did we let a potential child molester out to prey again?

There is not much serenity about being on a jury.

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