Secret thoughts from the jury panel

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Forty people shuffle into the courtroom. They take assigned seats, which correspond to their names on a diagram. They look serious and a little intimidated.

Voir dire begins – the question-and-answer process by which the biases and beliefs of these potential jurors will be disclosed, and a jury of 12 members and two alternates will be selected to decide the fate of another human being.

The judge introduces himself, the attorneys, and the defendant. This is a criminal trial, he says. The defendant is accused of possession of heroin.

The defendant is a small, middle-aged man whose blank facial expression does not change. He looks slightly shabby in nondescript slacks and a flannel shirt.

The judge asks questions first. Do any of you know the defendant, he says, or me, or any of the attorneys, or the District Attorney for whom the prosecuting attorneys work? I’m the first to raise a hand. I know someone with the District Attorney, not well. Well enough to influence my decision? No, Your Honor. The judge asks about the jurors’ schedules and potential time conflicts.

The prosecutor asks questions. How do you feel about the drug laws? Are they too strict or not strict enough? Marijuana should be legalized, someone says. Another says the drug laws should be stricter.

A woman identifies herself as a nurse, and says she has seen the horrors of drug abuse in emergency rooms. Stricter, she says. Another nurse says she sees drug addict babies born. They start life with no chance, she says. A man says he was a meth addict. Stricter, he says. I wonder if everyone is as shocked as I that he would volunteer this.

We are asked whether we feel differently about drug possession compared to trafficking. I raise my hand. The system we have isn’t working, I say. I don’t know the right solution but maybe if marijuana is decriminalized there would be less abuse of other drugs. Drug addicts may be criminals, I say, but may also be victims. I’m thinking, what chance in life did this man have?

We are asked whether we know a certain street corner. I surmise this is where the defendant was arrested. We are asked whether we regard police officers as more or less credible than other witnesses. Some people trust the police more. One person says he was unfairly arrested and he doesn’t trust police at all.

The defense attorneys take their turn. They are from the public defender’s office – no surprise. This defendant couldn’t afford a private attorney. They explain the standard of reasonable doubt and the prosecution’s burden to prove its case. They ask our views. They talk about the defendant’s right to remain silent. If he doesn’t testify, will we assume he’s guilty? Maybe that’s their plan: just claim the prosecution failed to prove its case.

I wonder what actually (oops – allegedly) happened. What did this man do? Was it evil, or stupid, or unlucky? Is he a drug addict? If he’s found guilty will he be sent to prison? Someone has mentioned that prison is a luxury for criminals at the taxpayers’ expense – good food, cable TV, the best health care. I’m not so sure about that.

Prison locks criminals away so the public is protected from them. Beyond that, I don’t have much faith in prison’s ability to rehabilitate. More often, I think, it throws human beings away, and the rest of us pay for it. How am I better off if this man goes to prison? Jurors are not supposed to consider this.

I remember a very old joke – too politically incorrect for today’s sensibilities – about what you call a man in a three-piece suit. Answer: the defendant. I chastise myself for being irreverent. I don’t tell anybody.

After a break, the whole panel is dismissed – perhaps a last minute plea bargain. I won’t find out any more.