The other night I settled down to watch a courtroom drama. In the story, defense attorneys in a gun violence case try to bribe a jury. As a writer of fiction, I know that authors get to construct a world of such extremes that few of us would want to live there. So it was with this movie. Both hero and heroine and the bad guy attorney set out to get what they could, double crossing each other to the tune of $15 million, which was the price for buying the jury’s verdict.
Let me tell you about my own experience of jury duty. While called several times, I’d never been selected before. So it was as a complete novice that I entered the jury room and met my fellow citizens who would rule on a drunk driving case.
The defendant aroused some compassion. She was a pharmacy student, and conviction could have ruined her career. But as the case unfolded, it became clear that she acted deliberately to try to deceive police. Taken to the police station for driving erratically after leaving a bar, she refused to take a breathalyzer test. She promised to take a (supposedly more accurate) blood test at a nearby hospital and submit the results. She knew that the level of alcohol in the bloodstream lessens after several hours and so she waited to go to the hospital. She did not realize that the hospital would note the exact time of the test, and report this to the police.
In the jury room, we jurors got acquainted. We worked in construction, the post office, and in real estate. We were young and old, homebodies and partygoers, and people who enjoyed a drink or two. We were not judgmental. But we had to be. We discussed the case carefully. We talked about our values. We talked about the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions and for being honest. The young defendant had not injured or killed someone (though that was sheer luck) and so some of us struggled with the idea of hurting her future with a guilty verdict. In the end, we felt her lack of remorse and the fact that she’d tried to use her professional knowledge to escape the consequences of breaking the law must lead to a guilty verdict.
What I learned from my days as a juror was this: most people recognize what is right and what is wrong. Meet random strangers in a jury room and you’ll come out, as I did, full of hope for your fellow human beings. Still, criminal cases provide fodder for the writer. We have to create situations where characters do stupid things. That’s because no one wants to read about perfect people. We
can all sympathize with a girl like our defendant, who was only as foolish as any of us. But we, her peers, found her guilty, because not to do so would make a mockery of the law.
It was wonderful how Ms. Spence could separate judging the act versus judging the person. While we can sympathize with flawed people (which we all are), we cannot sympathize with flawed behavior.
It’s wonderful to see principles applied. This is an example of a very local, personalized one; and we experience the same on the national level.