Beyond A Reasonable Doubt

It’s three in the afternoon.

You’ve been in the jury lounge for the better part of the day.

You and the forty other people lucky enough to be summoned on this sunny July day.

Having vacated the courthouse twenty minutes ago, after the judge said that the court would make their final decisions on the jury in about ten minutes, you flip to the next page in R. F. Kuang’s Dragon Republic.

One of the court administrators steps to the podium at the front of the room and begins to read a list of names.

Your name is the second one read.

You get up even though you aren’t sure if this means you were selected or dismissed.

You take the elevator up to the tenth and final floor with thirteen other people, the judge congratulates you on your selection, and you all swear in.

The opening statements begin, and life as you know it changes… if only for a few weeks.

All Rise:

This was how the stage was set for my three weeks of jury service. I got to deliberate on a jury of fourteen civilians as we were presented with a federal criminal case.

Each day before we walked into the court room and as each recess finished, the courtroom clerk would say, “all rise” as we filed into our seats. At the opening of the door, all the attorneys, the defendant, and everyone else stood up as we entered or exited.

A few seconds later, the judge would enter, and we would remain standing until she gave us permission to be seated.

It was a strange feeling to be presented to for three weeks.

It was stranger to be unable to ask questions.

Like viewers on the opposite side of the tv screen, we watched the Netflix Special of the U.S. Government vs. Serge Obukhoff in gory detail.

A weight of responsibility permeated that court house and we carried that weight alone as we were instructed to speak of the details of this case to no one (not even other jurors). It consumed our waking hours and made it into many of our dreams, as we oscillated between guilty and not guilty opinions.

Objection Your Honor:

Perhaps one of the most annoying parts of sitting in that courthouse, was our relative ignorance of courtroom verbiage.

We were instructed not to research anything in regards to court proceedings or vocabulary, and so as attorney after attorney said things like: Objection: relevance, Objection: Leading, Objection: 503, Objection: Asked and Answered, Objection: Lack of Foundation, Objection: Speculation, or when the Judge said: “overruled” or “sustained” or “it has been stricken from the record” we were just confused.

I was definitely familiar with Viola Davis saying “Objection your honor, prosecution is badgering the witness,” in her role as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder, but this was the first time I was able to see attorneys make objections in real life.

As the days turned into weeks, I began to understand how much of a chess game the attorneys were playing with their choice of witnesses and their objections.

As jurors, we were to only take into account information that was not stricken from the record. And if the judge sustained an objection, it meant that we were to disregard that question and any potential answers that the witness gave to that question.

In many ways, the attorneys were sketching caricatures of the witnesses and shaping what we saw by the usage of their objections.

It was fascinating, and I caught myself smiling and having Eureka moments when I was able to see the strategy of what some of the attorneys were doing a few steps before they carried it out.

As a funny aside, I also wished I had a personal judge at my house so that I could say “objection your honor, relevance” whenever I got into arguments with my mother.

Only the Truth, The Whole Truth, & Nothing But the Truth

Of the seventeen witnesses that testified, a good third of them either had immunity, had entered plea deals, or were currently in prison.

The day that all of us walked in and the witness was already at the stand in handcuffs with a guard present, we all were taken aback.

We had heard of this guy in the previous days, and if anything was crystal clear in this case, it was that he was a criminal genius mastermind.

As I sat and watched these regular people with checkered pasts testify, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of pity. Some of them seemed genuinely sorry that they had profited off of the ignorance of others. Others clearly lacked any remorse.

Before any of the witnesses was allowed to take the stand, they had to swear that they would only tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But even so, the defense attorneys made sure to remind us jurors of all the times that some of these witnesses had lied under oath.

The handcuffed guy I mentioned earlier, had actually lied under a previous plea deal and almost got away with stealing 1.6 million from the government. His bad behavior was indeed punished as the prosecution was swift to remind us in their re-direct examination. Another witness swore up and down on the lives of her children multiple times while talking to FBI agents, insisting that she was not guilty of anything.

This element of the case was probably the most drama infused aspect of the whole experience.

We were instructed to take the witness testimonies as evidence, but to also take into consideration their potential ulterior motives and biases. We were straight up told to weigh their testimonies with caution.

As we listened, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between the witnesses in the case, and the people in our lives who have ulterior motives and perhaps less than wholesome agendas that we allow to have full weight when it comes to speaking into our lives.

Perhaps we should weigh their words a little differently depending on how they have treated us in the past..

A Fiery Defense:

One of my personal favorite moments from the trial was after one of the witnesses alleged that the defendant had openly admitted to participating in the kickback scheme when being questioned by the prosecutor.

The defense attorney approached the podium for his cross examination, and vehemently defended his client while attacking the witness.

He stripped the witness of their credibility, asked clarifying questions regarding the exact circumstances that took place in this alleged exchange, and defended his client with such energy that you could hear the emotion in his voice.

That angry and infuriated tone that the defense attorney exhibited, combined with his aggressive body language is something that I will never forget.

The defense’s main goal was to highlight the manipulative nature of the head ringleader in order to show that the defendant was in fact tricked.

It reminded me of many times in my life where justice wasn’t served. There wasn’t clear evidence that I was guilty of whatever I was accused of, but I was punished anyways. Or the times when I was guilty of something because I was misled into it.

There’s definitely been plenty of times when I have knowingly broken rules, but to see a defense so passionate about defending their client, reminded me of how I see the person of Jesus.

I could write a whole blog about how the triune God exists in the courtroom with the judge, defense attorneys, and jury, but that’s a blog for another day.

I think I left the courtroom that day realizing that this kind of fiery defense is what I want to provide when speaking up for those who are voiceless or marginalized. Maybe I’m not an attorney, but I want the words that I say to be used in defense of those who are being targeted by the powers that be.

Reasonable Doubt:

On the second to last day of our service, as we were given our final instructions before deliberating, we were told that the defendant was to be innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

As jurors, we were able to see the indictment (basically a written list of what the defendant was accused of), but we were unable to see the potential punishments or sentences. This is because the jurors’ job is solely to find the defendant guilty or not guilty. The task of punishment is the judge’s job. And the “burden of proof” falls upon the prosecution.

After watching movies like Runaway Jury in high school history class, I thought deliberating would be more like a game of Mafia or Resistance.

While we did appoint a “foreperson” and the loudest voices did end up filling up a lot of the space, it was interesting to see how our gut feelings and intuition had nothing to do with our decision.

In fact, many of us had doubts that the defendant was completely oblivious to the criminal scheme that he happened to be a part of. However, our job was not to convict based upon a feeling or intuition. Our only job was to decide if the evidence produced by the prosecution found the defendant to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

And my gosh were there many many reasonable doubts.

Not Guilty:

I think the whole experience was encouraging in terms of the concept of being innocent until proven guilty, but on the flipside it was easy to see how this system could be abused and exploited for crimes where precautions were taken by the perpetrators.

At one point, after we had decided that the evidence found the defendant to be not guilty, I voiced this concern to my fellow jurors.

I said that I believed our evidence did not point to the defendant being guilty, but that for this exact reason, I was concerned that our justice system was not robust enough to handle instances in which abuse was ocurring but perhaps there was not a clear paper trail.

Obviously no justice system this side of life is perfect, as one of the jurors so matter of factly pointed out, but it still is a little disheartening to know that you could take a serial rapist to court, and he could still be found not guilty if concrete evidence that wasn’t just the word of his victim(s) wasn’t readily available.

I think it just taught me that justice and accountability really falls into the hands of normal civilians like your or me.

It’s us calling people out on their toxic or hurtful behavior that creates a paper trail and gives future perpetrators a chance to change their ways early.

In that same vein, we play a large part in preventing the victims of tomorrow from ever becoming victims.

One of the driving factors behind the rationale with which I use to make my life choices and choose the causes I rally behind, is based upon this concept of stopping the cycle of trauma that I see.

By the time an issue has made it to the courtroom, we in many ways are too late. At that point we are deciding guilt…. not preventing trauma.

We’re reacting instead of preventing or being proactive.

Closing Arguments:

I look out into the world and I see immense beauty but I see this beauty juxtaposed with pain. We see hurt people hurting people, and we see cycles and patterns that seem too big to stop. We feel helpless as we see problems in our cities and across the ocean.

We numb ourselves up with our coping mechanisms and with our work and we stay busy building our little empires while doing our best to stay oblivious to the injustices around us.

It’s easier to say that something isn’t our problem because it doesn’t affect us rather than making it our problem.

So this is my call to action for you:

Outside of work and outside of your hobbies, find something, and make it your problem.

Is it raising awareness on climate change?

Is it less robust education for underserved populations?

Is it the discussion of race with youth?

Is it labor trafficking?

Is it cyber bullying?

Is it a lack of integrity or accountability within a sector you work in?

Is it a lack of vaccination information and education?

Whatever it might be, there are so many problems in our world today. They need people like us to be brainstorming and experimenting with ways to solve them.

It is way easier to sit back, critique, and cancel politicians, celebrities, and policymakers, than to do the hard work of trying to solve them.

Partner with organizations, do your own research, find others who are like minded, and don’t give up!

If things carry on the way that they always have, we will always be one step behind true justice: the crimes will already have been committed and the inequality will already exist.

This is an invitation to time travel: let’s start working today, so that our kids and the generations that follow can have a better present than we see presently.

It isn’t hopeless, and contrary to common belief, this doesn’t have to be “just the way that it is.”

Let’s go!

Twigs, Logs, and Conversations with Grandpa

A week ago I got to sit down with my grandpa for several hours. At 89 years old, he’s seen a lot and if I’m honest, the older I get, the less patience I have for the repetitive nature of my grandparents’ storytelling. Regardless, I always seem to learn a LOT about life whenever I take the time to slowdown and listen.

My grandpa was the youngest of his siblings and even though he was often in poor health, he managed to outlive his wife and most of his colleagues. As he spoke, I could sense his overall pessimism with the concept of happiness. He kept referring to how when people would ask “how are you doing?” that the socially acceptable thing to respond with is “I’m doing great,” even though if people really cared and asked a follow up “but really how you are doing” that he would answer more honestly with a “I am very dissatisfied and unhappy with my life.”

A younger me might have steamrolled his emotions with a “There are so many good things happening around you. Look at your son spending time with you, or your granddaughters coming to visit you!” However, I just took the moment to nod and gave him the space to continue.

As we continued, he recounted how he met and courted his wife, how they got married, how they had their son, how they grew old together, and then how the breast cancer and the chemo took her away from him.

It was at this moment that I realized that it had been over 14 years since she had passed. Over the course of those years, slowly his liberties were stripped away from him. A few falls meant that my family had to move him closer to them and so he left his one community without any real hope of staying in contact. A few more scares meant he lost his ability to drive and so he mainly just stays at home now.

He smiled for a second and told me how throughout his life, his favorite past time was eating. If you ever spent time with my grandpa, you would know that eating was definitely a vice of sorts. But if you dug into the context, you would see how this coping mechanism was a response to the trauma caused by the Chinese Communist Party. My great grandfather had a pharmaceutical company in China and it was all taken away when the CCP came into power. My grandpa knows a plethora of languages and dialects because being on the run and being an immigrant were just a way of life. Eating became this privilege and struggling to make ends meet became a norm. There is this enormous scarcity mentality that I’m sure stems from that trauma.

His smile disappeared as he said, “Nowadays, because I’m getting old… even eating doesn’t bring me joy any more.” Steward your body, was the theme he kept repeating as he recounted story after story of how his older brothers and sisters would eat together. He recounted with joy the times that they got along, but he also mourned the times when they bullied him for being the youngest.

Somehow my grandpa kept returning to themes of eternal hope and gratefulness for what had temporarily been. It was quite literally a therapy session of a conversation where we felt all the emotions on the spectrum.

It was the first time where my grandfather ever told me, “I’ve done bad things and I always remember that I need Jesus.” It sounds sooo cliche, almost as if I’m adding this just to romanticize faith. But he really said that, and it really struck a chord within me.

See when I was a child (and some of my close friends would even argue now) I was ridiculously needy. I live and die for acceptance from family, friends, and the general public. I’ve chased affection in the form of relationships and accolades and I’ve always come up short.

I remember crying in my crib (yes I actually remember this), and being obnoxiously loud in that time period right as the sun is going down where it’s obviously getting darker, but it’s not completely dark yet. I was still afraid of the dark, and my room had a light pink curtain that didn’t completely block out light from the window. Across from our apartment was another set of apartments and on the wall of those apartments was a lantern with two lightbulbs. I was scared of the dark and had just woken up from a nap and as I looked around I saw the two lights from the lantern I imagined them as eyes of a monster peering at me. I started crying for my parents who I had forgotten were not home and my grandpa walked in.

I was hysterical and I wanted out of the crib and into the light. I think I just wanted to know someone else was there with me. I kept gesturing to the lights and trying to articulate that they looked like the eyes of a monster. Apparently I was decent at communicating, because my grandpa understood that I thought I saw a monster. But because I was being loud and because I was afraid, he reinforced the idea that I was seeing a monster. He said if I kept crying and being loud that this monster would come and get me.

In hindsight, if I was a parent or grandparent who was unfortunately given the drama king of a child/grandchild that I was, I think I would do anything to shut me up as well. If a story of a fictitious monster would shut me up then I wouldn’t put it past myself to use the same tactics.

But as someone who has sunk maybe 2-3k into therapy, let me tell you that this interaction was pretty important for little me. So much of my outlook on my own self, how valid my feelings or fears are, and so much more was formed in situations like this.

Obviously, my grandpa is not defined by this scenario, and he is not the villain in my story, but if we circle back to his admission of being an imperfect man, this scenario is one of the reasons why that admission was so profound to me.

Lin Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire discuss the writing of the song “Wait for It” from Hamilton in a Netflix, Song Exploder episode. In response to the interviewer asking if they thought that Aaron Burr was a villain, Alex discusses how one theme from their work on Hamilton was “If our lives were judged by our worst days, wouldn’t we all be villains?”

I really enjoyed the shows Once Upon a Time, Dark, and Better Call Saul, because the characters in these shows have moments when they are heroes and moments when they are villains… just like real people in real life.

In 2020, we love cancelling people and organizations.

Let me rephrase that: In 2020, I love cancelling people.

I don’t think it was until I made some really large screw ups in my life that I realized that the world is not as black and white as I had thought as a child. It turns out that I’m not always the hero in my story. In fact many times I am the villain.

It turns out that despite my best efforts and my best intentions, I hurt and use people to get what I want.

Sometimes this is a result of trauma that I experienced in the past, but oftentimes it’s just a reflection of how human I am.

In Jesus’ most famous sermon on the mount, he preaches to this huge crowd of people on a mountain and He says (in summary), “Judge not lest you be judged. For whatever standard you use to judge others, you will be judged in the same manner. Why do you look at the twig in the eye of your brother but do not see the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘here let me take the twig out of your eye’ while there is a whole ass log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye so that you can see clearly in order to take the twig out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5).

I find this passage very interesting especially in the context of our current culture.

I think it’s funny/sad how in general, Christians in the United States like to mix religion (Bible passages, teaching, campaigns, whatever) with everything else but specifically politics. Most churches will literally JUMP at the opportunity to publicly decry other people’s life choices while completely ignoring their own issues and sin.

We’ll talk for hours in “Christianese” circles about how we want to be like this romanticized notion of Jesus and how we want to be like the disciples that were just spending time with him all the time. We criticize Peter for not having enough faith to keep walking on water and we criticize Thomas for doubting. At the same time, we distance ourselves from and laugh at the hypocrisy of the pharisees, sadducees, and scribes (the Bible equivalent of church people) who literally spent their time trying to trip up Jesus on His theology and then eventually were the ones who initiated Jesus’ execution.

Like YO.

Hypocritical and religious church people like me were the people who literally put Jesus on that cross. It wasn’t the “radical left” or even the Roman government that put him there. I love how pastors will talk about how radical Jesus was and how the Romans saw him as a threat while literally glazing over the historical fact that THE CHURCH PEOPLE brought Him before the Roman powers to be executed.

The governor literally asked what Jesus had done wrong, and the religious people said that he was a criminal, that he needed to die, but that their traditions wouldn’t allow them to personally put him to death. When offered the choice of executing a known criminal or Jesus, the religious people chose Jesus.

This blogpost is kind of unique in the sense that it has really evolved from my original plans of what the message and theme would be.

What started as a reflection on time spent with my grandpa recounting the sorrow and joy of his long life, evolved into a personal reflection on fear and trauma, transitioned into an acknowledgement of the heroic and villainous nuances to each of our lives, and culminated in a Bible study lesson.

If you are reading this and you have questions about faith or Jesus, I think my message to you is that the Jesus and God of the Bible is actually a lot closer to us who are marginalized and what church people would call “sinners.” Religious people hated Jesus because his inner circle was literally the MOST hated people. There is a pretty large disconnect between the character of Jesus as depicted in the Bible, and the actions of the modern day church.

If you are reading this and you do consider yourself to be Christian, I would say that my message to you is that it is against everything we’ve been taught but we might need to re-visit scripture through the lens of the “villains.” Jesus addresses hypocrisy numerous times in His teachings. He constantly extends grace to people who we would consider “cancellable” while rebuking and admonishing religious people who try and condemn “sinners.” I think it’s dangerous for us to read the Bible and to try and learn about our place in all of this without accurately placing ourselves in the narrative contextually.

Initially, the title for this blog was going to be “Slow Down.” It was going to be an encouragement to take a breath and to sit and be present with those you care about without being distracted every two seconds by your phone.

I think thematically, I still implore you to slow down, albeit, I think now the meaning is twofold.

Obviously, slow down and cherish the time you have with those you care about because they won’t always be here, but also slow down when it comes to pointing fingers and judging others.

If you or I was judged by our worst day, we would all be cancelled.

I’m not saying don’t stand up for justice and just be a spineless person with no convictions, but there is a big difference between standing up for what you believe to be right and shaming and persecuting people who disagree with you.