Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Seat of Judgement

We love our court system, don't we? We love to watch it and make fun of it and announce loudly when we think justice is perverted. However, so few of us seem to want to participate. When I was called for  jury duty in 2004, it was interesting to see how many people spent a goodly portion of their time before the judge arguing why they should NOT have to serve, because they just didn't want to. They had other things to do. They'd rather not be there.

Admittedly, being on jury duty was a bit of a pain in the tochas -- it made for a very unpredictable February -- but I was willing to bet that as much as some of my fellow jurors did not want to be there, their desire to be gone was outweighed by the fact that there was someone who could NOT be present in the courtroom, because he was dead. And someone else was on trial for his involvement in that death.

I had to sit in judgement in the courtroom and decide if he was guilty based on what was presented in court.

Can we talk for a minute about the difference between court and the media? Court doesn't come with a nice remove from the defendant. He (or she) is right there, in front of you. As human as you are. With redeeming qualities and flaws and bad hair days and moments of brilliance and moments of extreme dunderheadedness. There is no overriding media commentator. Nancy Grace is not there to announce breaking news and the ONLY possible way that the evidence can and should be construed. All you have is what's there in the grave hush of the courtroom.

On one hand, you have a life that is gone. On the other, you have someone who may have taken it. And then you have to find without a doubt, without a question, that the defendant is guilty. Because at the end of it all, if you have ANY questions, if there's even a possibility that the defendant is innocent, he needs to be able to go home.

That's how it works. You can't have any questions. It has to be proved without a shadow of a doubt.

And so sometimes people walk. Not because they're innocent, but because in our system, we rely on the burden of proof to find them guilty. We ask regular people to review that proof -- or lack thereof -- and make a decision. We know it doesn't always work, because no system is perfect. We do the best we can with what we have.

I'm pretty sure that if you disagree with a verdict -- and we've all done it -- there are reasonable ways to express that. I'm also pretty sure that seeing people publicly threatening the life of an exonerated defendant makes me feel ill. Calling for the death of Casey Anthony now  hardly makes anyone look like an agent of justice.  It makes them look as though they believe all life is valuable except for the people they've decided are wrong  -- no matter what the courts say.

And while I'm on the subject of taking life, let's think about this: In death penalty cases, do you want a jury to weigh lightly or heavily? Do you want them to be satisfied with a scarcity of evidence? Or do you want them to make sure that it's all there?

Oh sure, maybe if it's a mom accused of killing her child, you might be satisfied if the jury said "She's loopy, she's a liar, we think she did it." Off to death row for her. She's a killer, right? A crazy, remorseless killer. You know. You watch CNN. You have no doubts.

But what if it was you? What if it was you .. and you were innocent? And there was a case built that couldn't actually prove that you killed anyone, but circumstances looked like you might have, and then it's your life on the line. How badly would you want that reasonable doubt? If a juror -- even one -- had a question, thought "but maybe, no" -- would you want her to say,  "Aw screw it. Guilty"?

I know I wouldn't. I bet you wouldn't either.

I don't know if Casey Anthony killed her daughter. But I know that I'm glad I didn't have to decide, and I know that the jury shouldn't be lambasted for its decision. I was on a jury that took some heat for some of the decisions we made -- ones that weren't made lightly, ones that involved shouting, some crying, and hours spent deliberating -- and it was unpleasant.

It's easy to sit in judgement until the consequences are life or death. And then it's very, very hard.

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