Thursday, April 23, 2015

Praying with my fellow jurors: My jury duty experience

Last Thursday, I walked into the Suffolk Superior Courthouse in Boston, MA to answer (begrudgingly) my call for civic responsibility: jury duty. Knowing that this courthouse had far more cases than a lower county court and that I had no legitimate reason to be excused, I knew that I would get assigned to a case.

My hunch was correct. The judge, probably harried from the myriad excuses heard throughout the day, gave a sigh of relief when I admitted that other than missing work, it would not be an unreasonable burden for me to be put on the case. She had already placed three men on the case, and, needing a female, I suppose she thought I would be as good as any.

And so for three days, I became known to everyone as Juror #4.

Fortunately, the case seemed simple enough. Two policemen had witnessed two men perform what appeared to be a drug transaction 20 feet away from them in broad daylight. One of the men was arrested shortly after with possession of cocaine and heroin. They eventually found whom they believed to be the dealer--the one whose fate partially rested in my hands.

Two policemen gave their testimony of what they had seen, claiming that they recognized him immediately, and showed us pictures of the crime scene. I was fairly convinced, but was anxious to hear of any additional witnesses that could contest what the policemen had seen. The defendant's girlfriend offered her story that the defendant was actually with her during the time he was reputed to be selling drugs in the park. It was painfully obvious, however, just how fabricated her story was, which made the policeman's story more credible in my view.

As a jury group of twelve who had never met each other and had little common background, our discussion was unusually lively. But what had started as a roundtable discussion soon splintered into multiple conversations, with some jury members remaining silent and remaining apathetic. Other jury members would attempt to speak out, only to be drowned out by the more vocal members.  How in the world are we going to reach a unanimous decision, I thought?

After one jury member interrupted another who was speaking, I spoke up.

"If our decision is going to be unanimous, this needs to be a roundtable discussion," I said. "We cannot be interrupting each other. Raise your hand if you want to speak."

Being one of the youngest on the jury, I was shocked that people listened to me. But miraculously, they did. I then went into Sunday School teacher mode (yes, I teach Sunday School), and ended up calling on people to who rose their hands speak. And I had no compunction telling people to be quiet if they so much dared as interrupt a fellow juror.

After five hours of deliberation, we had almost reached a consensus: 11-1. One of our jurors could not commit either way, and burst into tears.

"I just don't know if we have enough evidence," she said. "This is two white policeman's testimonies against a black man. And in light of Ferguson and other instances of police corruption, are we okay with that? Sending a guy to prison is a big deal, and what if we are wrong? What if we are wrong? This is a decision that we will have to live with for the rest of our lives, and I want to walk out of here with a clear conscience."

Silence filled the room, and others gently affirmed that it was indeed a large decision that we were making. But I did not know on earth we were going to do. We had gone in circles talking about the same pieces of evidence we had. How were we going to reach a consensus? What else was there could we discuss that we had not already discussed? And what if he was indeed innocent? Was my conviction incorrect?

I then heard myself saying, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I am a religious person. Would any of you be offended if I offered a prayer out loud?" Everyone looked at me, but shook their heads and said I could go ahead.

I then bowed my head and offered a short prayer out loud, asking God to help us make the right decision and that we would have a good feeling leaving the courtroom. I don't know if everyone had bowed their heads with me, but a peaceful feeling filled the room. After some silence, some jurors reiterated why they went from having an undecided view to being confident of the defendant's guilt.

After 20 minutes, the undecided lady then announced that she was ready to call the defendant guilty. After six hours of deliberation, we had finally reached a consensus: 12-0. From the juror's countenances, I could tell that everyone in the room was confident in their decision.

I tried not to look at the family crying in the courtroom and the defendant's stoic gaze, as we told the judge our decision. But when we had left, the officer who had escorted us said that he believed that we had made the right choice. He told us that the defendant was actually a subsequent offender, but we were not allowed to know that information. The judge, perhaps in unprecedented fashion, came up to talk to us in the deliberation room, thanking us for our service  and validating our decision as well.

It was certainly an incredible experience to have twelve people from different age ranges, political views, and socio-economic backgrounds to come to a unanimous decision. But I am also grateful for a God who helped me leave that courthouse with a clear conscience and a feeling of peace.

Photo by cmh2315fl


  1. Thanks for sharing, Sarah .Prayer works every time.

  2. Sarah, you are so cool. Not the best word choice on my part, but it's the first thing that came to mind.