Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hooked on a Feeling

For three (almost four) months, I have been part of the Hennepin County Grand Jury, and, for lack of a better term, I hate it.
I really dislike using strong words to describe my life, but this is a time when I am comfortable with it. I hate being on this jury. The reasons are quite simple.

1. It takes me away from work.
This seems like it would be a good thing. Who doesn't want time away from their colleagues and responsibilities? Well, me. Every time I have to go to a day of jury duty, I have to write a lesson plan, lay out the work, and hope it gets done right. The added issue is that my students are so horrible to my subs, that they have all canceled on me. That's right, every one of my subs will not do any repeats for me. They hate my students that much. Of course the students say it has to do with not getting respect, but that's not the point. It's more work for me not to be there.

2. I'm having a hard time with the cases.
Ok, so at times I come off as being hard as stone. I told a kid the other day that he's not graduating because the work he was trying to turn in was over a month late and I wasn't accepting it anymore. That might be harsh, but some of the cases I've seen have been nasty. Understand, grand jury is homicides, and the lawyers must present their evidence. This means pictures, witnesses, and more. And while I can stomach a lot, there are just some cases that are hard to listen to.

Now, I'm no Twidiot ©(and yes, my term), so I won't be discussing the details of these cases. Hell, I seem to be one of the only members of the jury who doesn't read the local newspaper right now, turns off my cell phone while in the grand jury room, and is unwilling to discuss the cases in the elevator afterwards.

That being said it's difficult to watch and take notes at times.

Let me give you an example. Say there is a case where a man killed his child. He beat the child to death with the kid's favorite toy. The lawyers (and we only see the prosecution) will call in the medical examiner, who will put up pictures of the deceased and walk us through the damages and cause of death. This means seeing pictures of the child's body. This also means a dry voice talking about how a man can use X amount of physical pressure to crush a child's skull.

Next a detective or officer on the case will come in and tell us the police involvement of the case. If there is a witness to the crime, we will hear from that person. Inevitably one or more will cry and need a break.

And every witness will always start the same way. "State your name for the record and spell it," followed by, "What is your educational background for your position?"

It gets tedious, and it is draining to see the horror that we do to each other. Slit throats, killed babies, shooting each other, stabbing each other, running each other over with cars, smashing bottles, etc. It reinforces the idea that we are not intrinsically good.

3. People are not logical in groups.
This one is the hardest for me. I am a passionate person, but I have learned over time how to control my emotions and look at the facts. Over and over again, should you ever do jury duty, the lawyers will remind you that the case is always about the law. Not your feelings, not what your saw on a TV show or media outlet...the law. We are given copies of the law, and it is explained to us. This makes it all the more worse when fellow jurors begin an argument with a phrase that should not be in the jury room:

"I feel...."

When you start a sentence with that phrase, you are no longer objective. Feelings are not objective. If you wish to argue that, Plato, that's fine, but in my experience on this green and blue marble, feelings are always based on subjective ideals.
We are arguing the law. Is this person acting with premeditation as the law describes it? It is not how YOU think premeditation is, but the law. That's the key.

You only need 12 people to agree on a charge. Unlike a petit jury, it's majority rules. If 12 say go, then 11 say no, and the case goes on to a trial. Most of the time, we agree on the charges. I admit that the teacher in me does not allow for us to get off topic. However, I cannot always keep everyone focused... I'm not the foreperson.

Two weeks ago, we argued a murder charge. Three members disagreed with the assessment and hijacked the vote until they could be heard. I think in their minds, they truly had this noble idea of making an impassioned speech, a la Twelve Angry Men and changing our minds. And each of those three used the phrase that has no place in the room.
"I just feel," the first one said, " that this is too much. I mean it COULD have been an accident. Then we're being harsh."

"Look at the law," I responded. "Knowing...or unknowingly. Thus premeditation."
This fell on deaf ears. And in all honesty, I could have cared less how they felt. They were in the minority, but it bothers me that they could not come up with an argument stronger than, "I feel." The group would argue for fifteen more minutes. It was insane.

4. The building is depressing
I swear I see the same people waiting outside the court every week. I know that's impossible, but they always look the same. Everyone looks unhappy, and it is amazing that the offices manage to have so many windows and yet feel and look so dark. Still, you can taste the defeat and sadness that surrounds so many of the people. Armed guards are everywhere, and no one quite seems to have a sense of humor. I watched a little boy play with his mother, and he was able to do this trick with a car that he hadn't ever done before. His face lit up, and his mother was proud. The boy wasn't loud, and wasn't near anyone. Yet, a man at a bench at least thirty feet away yelled, "Hey, not so loud! What you big deal." Thus, the man and the boy's mother began arguing, and the smile was gone from the boy's face. It's just depressing in there. It's not wonder everyone bolts for the outside. It's not for a cigarette; it's for sunshine, warmth, and the return of the feeling of love.

Don't get me wrong, there are some interesting aspects to this.
I've learned a lot about the court system and the need for thoroughness.
I've learned that WAY too many people think that CSI is 100% real. As one M.E. put it: They are so great because the writers know how the case ends already. We don't."
I've learned that courthouse has burned out lights all over that they will not replace. We offered to buy the necessary bulbs and were told no.
I also learned that the sad technology of my classroom is still better understood and taken care of then in the courtrooms there. In one courtroom is a sign that reads, "Ring bell for judge." In front of it is the kind of bell you would find for a bellhop. Forget giant chambers where judges yell at lawyers, this is ring for service justice. As for understanding, most of the time we the jury have to help the lawyers make their powerpoints and videos work.
I've learned that even in a courtroom people will ignore words and concentrate on looks. Maybe this is why the law is ignored....

I serve until mid-June, and I look forward to finishing my civic duty, but I am saddened by the fact that even in real life, people ignore the instructions and think with what THEY think is right instead of the law. It creates problems.

I hope, dear reader, that you are never called to grand jury duty (My wife never has been called for any kind...must change that), but if you are, I hope that your group is interesting and hard working.



Voix said...

Bummer deal, Ironic. I'm really sorry that you've got to go through all this.

Peggy said...

It has been interesting to read about your experience--I was called up for regular jury duty in the 4th district this spring, but was allowed to postpone for a year, being a nursing mother with a newborn.