Law and order

As I walk into the courthouse, I’m instantly reminded of a college science building. There’s an institutional smell – like paper and toner – and the hallways are windowless and jagged. I wind my way from the County Administration Office and place my valuables on a conveyor belt.

I’m headed in for jury duty. For real this time. And my first obstacle is an airport-like security system. I forget my watch on. I’m approached with a wand. I’m nervous, unsure what I’m supposed to be doing, unsure of what the court’s expectations are, unsure of whether I’m even in the right place.

I enter a room filled with a cross-section of the Minnehaha population – old, young, grey, bald, male, female, wealthy, poor, etc. Each of us looks from one face to the next, slowly comprehending the bleariness that comes with an early morning excursion. One man walks in – the life of the party. He’s been here before. He’s already sat in on a trial, and he recognizes his fellow jurors. I’m here for the first time. Some guys have all the luck.

Cancellation after sweet cancellation has kept me at bay, requiring me to report to work and continue on my life as if nothing weird was happening – as if no one was requesting my civic duty be upheld. I look down at my red Juror sticker, and it beams back at me – “It’s your turn now, sucker!” – a bright spot on my otherwise drab grey work outfit. And then, the movie – with actors as wooden as the tables they sit behind – begins.

A barrage of questions awaits. Two days of dirty coffee and ice water, contradicting testimonies, uncomfortable chairs, fluorescent lighting and wood-grain paneling. I’ll soon spend my time dodging questions, ignoring looks, attempting to keep this life away from my own until finally opening up, realizing that I’ll be stuck with these other people for the next few days, and I’d better make the best of it. Initially, I’ll feel as if any mention of my personal life will be cause to send me home. Eventually, I’ll just follow the stream, realizing that I actually kind of want to go through with this crazy “being a juror and deciding someone’s fate” thing.

I’ll spend the next 15 hours – spread over two days, of course – wondering if the lawyers should get public speaking lessons. I’ll compare them to the heavyweight actors on Law and Order, notice their flaws and their unpolished speeches, their two-layered nervousness and their constant second-guessing. I’ll wonder why the judge seems so meek, why he is often unsure of the proper procedure until, after a few seconds, he makes a not-so-commanding decision, taking much longer than the split-second outbursts that occur on television.

I’ll realize that this is all real, even though it seems fake, like a production from a second-rate high school drama department. Then I’ll be asked to make a decision, to enter into a room with 11 other people and discuss and decide the accused’s fate. It will seem so powerful to me. And very scary.

Ultimately, I’ll learn the difference between not-guilty and innocent. There’s no such thing as innocence. In the courts, there’s just a yes or no answer to one question: “Guilty?” Sitting behind the wood-grain paneling, on the uncomfortable chair, filled with dirty coffee and ice water, eagerly awaiting our next recess, I’ll fully comprehend the idea of being absolutely sure – beyond a shadow of a doubt – whether or not an accusation can be held up.

But for now, I’m just watching this video. I’m nervous and excited. And I’m doing my civic duty, and that’s something I’m proud of.

This was lovingly handwritten on November 28th, 2006