Jury Duty – Lessons In Fact and Fiction

081223-N-8848T-530 GREAT LAKES, Ill. (Dec. 23, 2008) Legalman 1st Class Christie Richardson, a trial services legalman assigned to Region Legal Service Office Midwest makes an opening statement for the prosecution to a jury during a mock trial. Richardson was part of a legal team demonstrating the legal system for 22 Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) cadets from Chicago-area high schools. (Official U.S. Navy photo by Scott A. Thornbloom, Naval Service Training Command.)

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 stupidmargaret-spence-5819_pp2-300x298 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.

Margaret Ann Spence

Margaret Ann Spence’s novel, Lipstick On The Strawberry, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in 2017. She blogs at http://www.margaretannspence.com.


keep-calm-and-don-t-burn-booksGuest blog on Digital Book Today, beginning Tuesday, 9/2, available for a few day. The topic—“The Thoughtfulness of Fiction, How It Impacts Our Mental Acuity as Well as Ideas, Beliefs, Perceptions, Even Behavior.” This originally appeared on my home blog.

Digital Book Today was created in 2009 with the goal of helping readers find books in a digital world. They feature books from independent authors as well as books from traditional publishers. Contributors have either worked in the book industry and/or have been avid book readers all of their lives. All genres are represented.

One of its services is a page called The Top 100 Best Free Kindle Books (update daily) featuring the best of the daily free books. To find my blog, visit http://digitalbooktoday.com/category/guest-blog-post/

The Thoughtfulness of Fiction and How It Impacts Our Mental Acuity as Well as Ideas, Beliefs, Perceptions, Even Behavior

c. Jonathn Kos-Read

c. Jonathn Kos-Read

Have you ever read a novel and felt as if you’ve left your surroundings for a new world? This is one of the ways I use to decide if a book’s made a major impact on me. The process by which this happens isn’t simple, not a matter of exciting action or steamy love scenes. A combination of writing style and language, plot, compelling characters, and an unfathomable mixture of interesting ideas old and new are some of the qualities that go into what’s called willing suspension of disbelief.” In essence, although I know what I’m reading is imaginary, I react as though it’s real. And it changes me in ways I haven’t measured, provides knowledge, even, dare I claim?, wisdom.

Some of the books that have done that for me are Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Hunger Games, Main Street, Caramelo, Doomsday Book, Revolutionary Road, and The Things They Carried. These probably aren’t your choices, but you might have your own favorites.

Or you might not read fiction. I know people who refuse to on the grounds that it’s not real, not for serious-minded people, it’s fluff.  Stop and think a minute though: fiction is more truthful than nonfiction because it allows us entry into other people’s minds and emotions. It presents thoughts in action and practice. It’s the closest thing we have to eternal life since every eon, each individual can be represented.

As usual with slap-your-face obvious information, this perspective, known for centuries to readers and writers, now is being substantiated through various studies. Yes, reading fiction stimulates and strengthens certain areas in your brain. Yes, reading changes behavior. Changes can be positive, assisting you to function and relate better in the world.  Or they can be negative, encouraging aggression and cruelty, setting you and those around you up for a world of trouble.

I began thinking more about the impact of fiction on real life when I read a novel about a poet and a group of immigrants in Sweden. The Shadow Girls, by Henning Mankell, starts off comedic with the protagonist Jesper being urged to write a thriller by his money-hungry publisher, escalates until nearly everyone, including the hero’s stock broker and his 90-year-old mother who staffs a phone sex service, is trying his hand at a manuscript. Then Jesper accidently meets three young women, immigrants from Iran, Russia and Africa (two of them undocumented), whose lives intrigue him. He becomes determined to give their stories a voice. They want to tell their own tales, thank you very much, and through a mélange of narrative, writings from their classes, and inner dialogue, we learn a little of the terrible and distinctive circumstances of each, along with their dreams for a future. (Mankell is best known for his Kurt Wallender police mysteries.)

I started grasping emotionally how the state of homelessness, powerlessness, nonpersonhood affects the girls in the novel, giving me a better perspective on my small efforts to support immigration reform here in the US. And I wished everyone on all sides of the immigration debate would open themselves to the world in the book’s pages, because in some small sense, you are what you read. 

A strong argument against dystopian, spy, and war novels, littered with bodies like abandoned soft drink cans, and for thoughtful, positive, compassionate novels with happy endings.