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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”