The state of Maryland finally found me. I have jury duty. I can’t afford to give up a week of work to report, but it is inevitable, so here I am.
A prosecutor’s worst nightmare.
I don’t want to pass judgment on anyone (not formally, anyway—not any more than I already do …). I mean, I don’t want anyone I’m being judgy about to go to jail!
And I’m a naturally gullible pleaser. I’d tend to let most defendants go free in exchange for an apology and a promise not to be all criminally again.
After passing through security at the courthouse, I head toward a room marked Jury Service. Other potential jurors who arrived earlier are already seated and fooling with their cell phones.
After an hour or so, I’m culled out of this group with perhaps 50 others and herded to a courtroom where the case is described, and a series of questions are posed meant to either eliminate or qualify us. Some people want to be on this jury way too much. They sit forward in their chairs, intense. Like terriers. They are scary. And others clearly arrived wanting to get out of this by wearing tee shirts proclaiming their prejudices. They are even scarier.
I get up to go to the restroom and am stopped by a guard who demands I leave my purse at his feet on the floor by the door. I could, theoretically, make cellphone calls from the hall. While the guard and I are whispering to each other, several men slip cellphones in their pockets and stroll right past us. “How is that fair?” I ask the guard, who just shrugs.
Eventually, I am called to approach the bench to speak to the judge privately. “Is there any reason you can’t serve on this jury?” he asks. I tell him I can’t be impartial. I know the arresting officer. I’ve spent several Christmas Eves with his family. I’ve known him since he was a boy.
The judge pulls his glasses down his nose and looks at me over them. “Does that matter?” he asks. Both the defense attorney and the prosecutor are standing at the bench with me. I glance between them at the defendant knowing that the asking of this question morally obligates me to be on this jury. He is hunched over the table in front of him and smiles sadly at me.
Which brings to mind Ms. McNally. She was a no-nonsense, ex-Army WAC, humorless and angry, who taught my fourth-grade class like the drill sergeant she was. She wore her brown hair very short and strode about with her head jutted forward from her collared shirt, swinging this way and that like a terrapin in search of troublemakers. We were a fourth-grade class sent for the school year to Marley Junior High School due to overcrowding at Lake Shore. There was a great deal of energy spent protecting us from “the big kids” but not from other kinds of bullies.
One day, Ms. McNally laid us out because Kevin Cavey had talked during reading group. She made 30 nine-year-olds brace at attention in the broiling sun for the entire half hour of recess on a baking blacktop without moving. You couldn’t even scratch your nose. Traffic whooshed by, crows cawed from the sweltering woods that edged the athletic field.
My best friend Becky and I vowed that Ms. McNally might be able to keep us from 30 minutes of Chinese jump rope, but she could not break our spirits. We had nine-year-old business to attend to. When released, we were going to gather in a clump of other girls to see who could bend her thumb to touch the inside of her forearm, which we had identified as being double-jointed, an ability we bizarrely coveted. Or we were going to hyperventilate, then squeeze each other around the chest until we passed out. Fainting, too, was a recently admired skill.
But as we sweltered within our regiment, what we knew for sure was that we were going to grow up to be beautiful, strong, and above all, fair. To demonstrate our spiritual autonomy, Becky and I made a quickly whispered pact. Unfairly convicted of Kevin Cavey’s crime, we would demonstrate to the judge perpetrating this punishment that she could control our bodies but not our minds.
As Ms. McNally patrolled up and down our lines, looking for the slightest transgression, Becky and I squinted straight ahead in the 90-degree heat and smiled. We were ridiculously powerless underdogs who instinctively wanted to take her on because we felt this injustice, as a matter of principle, made us equals on some moral scale.
We were also two little girls who wanted to love our teacher. We had not yet learned about power struggles.
“Okay,” she said, stopping in front of us with a slight smile of her own. My left sock was drooping into my scuffed black and white saddle shoe, and Becky’s hair was curling in the humidity. “Laura and Becky, because you two think this is so funny, you can stand here until the bell rings. The rest of you are dismissed.”
Passing judgment is a tricky business and one I would like to stop patronizing. As the judge reluctantly relieved me of jury duty, I said a prayer for the defendant I was abandoning, then turned back to the judge. “You know, you’ve stopped every single woman in this room from leaving on the assumption she might break the rules– make a call while out in the hall. And yet, I’m willing to bet there’s not a man present who is not carrying a cell phone in his pocket, and you haven’t stopped even one. Is that a fair policy? Impartial?”
He looked at me with raised eyebrows, and in the pause, I was on the blacktop with Becky. “No, Miss Oliver, it’s not fair,” he said, then added with a slight smile, “and I’ll change it.”
Though we hold a desire for justice as big as the sky, we learn compassion assumes a backstory that would tenderize the heart of any judge. If you knew the facts not in evidence, you’d put no one on trial.
May there always be someone in your life with whom there is nothing to prove. May you judge yourself only– with infinite mercy and grace.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.