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Bonzer Words!, Bonzer Words!: The Count Down: Trial By Jury

...The jury room was quiet as we waited to be called. Sitting around the table just the right size for six we were comfortable enough, but silent. Plenty to think about. No reason to share. I canít believe Iím here. Thatís what I was thinking...

Gloria MacKay tells of a lonely time in the jury room.

Twenty-four of us ended up on the left of the center aisle, four to a bench, not alphabetically but according to some prearranged plan of the court.

Shortly after eight that morning we had wandered in one by one and spread out on either side of the courtroom. I grabbed an aisle spot and settled in, not sure what would come next. After the suits and the robe filed in the judge slowly called out our names as we gathered our belongings and slid into our assigned seats as quietly as books on a shelf.

My seat was in the third row from the front next to a pert woman in a becoming maroon woolen coat and flowing scarf. On my right was a comfortable looking young fellow Ė brush hair cut, jeans, casual brown cotton sweater. A gaunt man barely balancing on the edge of middle age perched on the aisle seat in front of me. White shirt, stripped tie, tan checkered jacket. A few of our group swiveled around, smiling, waving and shaking their heads slightly as though to say what are you doing here or how is it that we have ended up together, out of context? I envied them their comfort in finding a familiar face.

Next came introductions: the judge in his robes; the two attorneys (defense, older in a navy blue suit; prosecutor, taller wearing muted grayish brown). The two started right in asking us questions. They acted as though knew us, probably from the information we mailed weeks before. Each of us was encouraged to speak at least once; a few talked quite a lot while others, like me, had to be encouraged with direct questions.

The attorney in gray wondered if I thought a breathalyzer test was unfair, considering not everyone reacts to alcohol the same way. I rambled something about it was probably the best we could do; we all have the same speed limits although some of us drive better than others. It is no wonder my mindset was more on driving than drinking. I had just traveled rather briskly over fifty odd miles in the darkness of early morning on unfamiliar roads with more curves than a bag of pretzels to get to the courthouse on time.

Far sooner than I expected we were led out of the courtroom. ĎRemember your seats,í chastened the judge. Just time to use the bathrooms, unkink our legs, inhale a few breaths of fresh air before we were called back. Without preamble the judge read six of our names and thanked and excused the remainder. He spoke so quickly and quietly I wasnít sure what he said, except for one name. My name. No doubt about it, I had become one-sixth of a jury. The frail man was not, the perky woman was not. I did not even notice their leaving.

I focused on the five who remained. The young man next to me was still there. Even though we did nothing but nod he was the closest thing to a friend I had in the room. Directly in front of me was a quiet woman, a shiny gray pony tail trailing down to her waist, clutching a yellow paperback book of puzzles under her arm. Earlier, as she took off her coat I had noticed her dark gray shirt was on backwards. Later on in the day she had turned it around.

The other four sat behind me: an imposing, older man in a roomy white pullover; a short, ruddy faced, stiff-mouthed man wearing a plaid shirt; an affable woman with the loud voice. I donít know what they thought about me. We were strangers in an unfamiliar place with an uncertain day ahead. Thatís all that I knew.

The jury room was quiet as we waited to be called. Sitting around the table just the right size for six we were comfortable enough, but silent. Plenty to think about. No reason to share. I canít believe Iím here. Thatís what I was thinking.

When we were summoned into the courtroom everyone was standing and we all sat down together. Everyone being the judge, the two attorneys and the defendant, a smallish man in a dark red corduroy shirt. I could see only the right side of his face as he sat stone like, staring straight ahead.

Our work as jurors was taxing but not arduous; early on we were given a break while discussions went on in the courtroom. Our little room already felt like home, a quiet place to reconnect fleeting impressions: the judge, immutable eyes behind dignified glasses; the prosecutor, the more restrained of the two; the defense attorney, more bustling; the defendant, as still as the air around him.

Next, testimony from two sheriffs, a state trooper and a toxicologist. Then out for a lunch break as the six of us went our separate ways. I found a Thai place nearby with a table for one and a newspaper. Under these circumstances it was easy to follow the firm instructions of the judge - do not discuss the case, not with each other, not with anyone.

Thatís one plus for our jury. We did not open up to each other, not a word, not a shrug or a frown or a smile. As we sat in our room Ė not locked in, it was made clear, the rest of the world was locked out Ė not once did we make anything but the smallest of talk. Not once did anyone allude to the fact there was no majority rules option for us; to reach a verdict we had to agree.

As the rain clouds darkened and the clock ticked through the afternoon it became clear we would be back the next day. Witnesses kept coming, friends and coworkers of the defendant. Pieces of evidence: photographs, a meal and drink tab; a breathalyzer test. Testimony: how acetones and hydrocarbons can effect the results of the breathalyzer; police reports; medical reports; test results. At the end of the day the defendant, full faced as he took the stand, looked straight ahead and told his story.

Decision making came the next day. I knew my inclination but I had no expectations about the rest of the jury. I has been so preoccupied with the trial itself I hadnít given the finale much thought. I would have imagined impassioned conversation, perhaps three of us on one side of the table and three on the other pulling strings, twisting, tying knots. All of us talking by turns, all of us listening to each other as intently as we had listened in the courtroom. But when push came to shove, as the saying goes, I would have envisioned our six separate existences weaving together a verdict we would unroll before the court in a measured but timely manner.

I would have expected some of us to talk more, others to listen more. Some to give. Some to take. At worst I would have expected we would quickly run the gamut of dribbles and double talk and nuances and fine points and what is reasonable and what is doubt and all the other posturing and histrionics which are part of talking things through. I would have assumed, static or not, our antennas would eventually pick up the same station.

Not so. A scant ten minutes later I watched ten eyes turn to me for acquiescence. Then five fingers point at me and three chairs pull back from the table. The man in the plaid shirt, the same man who had chatted to me about his farm, his native country, his sons leaned forward and shot in my face some of the most vitriolic words which had ever come my way. Then he said he had enough of me, turned around and faced the wall.

At that moment the sandwiches came. I stared straight ahead, nibbled at my tuna fish sandwich until I noticed I was not able to swallow, wrapped it up and stuck it in my purse. One way or another I knew I would be going home soon and it might be a long, lonely ride. The choice was mine. Would I end up the bimbo, the broad who dug herself a hole with her doubt and then jumped in with both feet? Or would I drive home in glory. All I would have to do is agree. Maybe he is guilty. After all, isnít it a judgment call, like how high is an infield fly or whether the ball carrier stepped over the line? My jury would be so happy with me. We would exchange email addresses and phone numbers and plan to have lunch together some day.

Not that it would ever happen, but I wanted to be included in the fantasy. But first would come the drive home and if I didnít like the company it would be a long road, indeed.

The puzzle woman found a pencil. The chatty woman spoke loudly and fast, as though she were a misbegotten hostess of an ill-conceived dinner party. The man in the plaid shirt stood and chewed. I could see his ears moving. ĎYou are going to have to stand out there in front of everybody and say not guilty when the rest of us say guilty,í he finally spit out. ĎTheyíre going to ask us all, you know. Theyíre going to know you are the one.í

I shuddered, then looked at the young man, our foreman, and said I had a question for judge. He leaped up with a pencil and pad, trying his best to make us all come out even. The way to ask questions when the world is locked out is to summon a messenger by phone, hand her the folded paper, and wait for an answer from the judge. Twice I sent questions. Twice came replies. Both answers exacerbated my doubt; ironic, because these same comments confirmed the verdict of guilt which lay like concrete in the five minds of my peers.

The pleasantries in earlier hours were not working for us now. They said I did not ask the right questions. If you donít like my questions ask your own questions, I retorted. It was five against one. I knew I could never change all of their minds. Not if we never got home. Easier for them to change mine. Quick and easy. Whoís to know?

I sighed and nodded to the young man; he knew it was time to pick up the phone. We single filed into the courtroom and stood while our foreman read the verdict.

Nobody polled the jury. Nobody said anything. All we had to do was walk out single file leaving behind one judge, two attorneys and one defendant, still wearing his red corduroy shirt. The lobby was quiet, the parking lot motionless but in the distance trees bent in the wind. I walked quickly without turning to saying goodbye, not that there was anyone who wanted to hear another word from me.

I drove easily. It was stormy but still daylight and the stretch of windy road was familiar. By the time I got home my eyes were dry, my tuna sandwich still on the seat beside me looking as limp as I felt. Limp without joy but limp without guilt. There is only the trip. One mile after another.

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