The empty echo chamber of jury duty

1987_8.2._Agrigento-Temple-of-Hercules_620wOne of the ways I test my relationship with old and new stories is by comparing my reactions to current experiences versus where I was “before.” I used to love Jury Duty. The vaunted process of being tried and judged by one’s “peers,” having come down to us over centuries, is the very pinnacle of civilized society. Or so the old story goes.

My first jury service as a citizen of Baltimore was for a murder in a barbershop. The trial lasted five days, during which my life was turned upside down. Since I was teaching architecture studio at university, I had to ask colleagues, and even my husband, to substitute for me. Cancelling is not an option with design studio. Yet the whole thing fascinated me: the unconvincing young prosecutor on what might have been her first case, the public defender who had seen it all, the diverse members of the jury who resisted having to send away yet another lost boy, and the quirky judge whom I later learned was good friends with John Waters and had ceramic skulls decorating her chambers. I also later learned that the murdered barber had been the neighborhood fence for stolen goods, and had cheated the wrong guy.

Yesterday, during Jury Duty, I kept noticing details; each one felt like a stone slipping out of a crumbling wall. The very word, duty, for starters. And going through an airport scanner to get into the building. At least they let you keep your shoes on—but not your belt. Being assigned a number. The anonymity itself.

In indigenous cultures, people face a circle of their fellow villagers, who know them well and see not only the transgressor but also their higher self. And they aren’t kept segregated; they sit in the circle with everyone else—because they belong. They have made a mistake but still they belong and are needed.

This way we have of turning everything important over to experts, authorities and professionals, to fix or resolve on our behalf. The theatrical nature of the whole proceeding, everyone acting their roles. The formality of the Classical architecture, the imposing scale of the rooms, the empty, echoing marble walls and floors, and the gold leaf and murals, intimidate as they flaunt prestige and power.

The judge yesterday was an African American woman, and clearly, up on her raised dais behind a forest’s-worth of desk, a person of great power and worth. She who will sit in judgment of wrongs committed.

The courtroom is buried deep in the bowels of the building, utterly cut off from the outside. To be fair, I’ve been previously in the top-floor courtroom, which has a fine glass ceiling and is filled with light, but still no views.

Walking by the side of the building on the way in, you pass a sally port, a dark concrete tunnel behind a locked gate, carving down into the Underworld beneath it all. This is where the vans, with their barred windows and armed guards, bring the prisoners in when they stand trial.

I sat looking at the accused during the lengthy and elaborate jury selection process. There was a pool of over 400 people, all of whom were missing work, family obligations, or other responsibilities for at least one day, possibly three or four more if selected for a trial. I couldn’t help thinking this young, well-groomed black man probably never had this much state attention lavished on him in his life. Where was this apparatus during his school years when he needed extra attention to manage the panic, desperation and rage that flared through him from an unstable home life and/or a violent neighborhood? When he needed a good meal, a loving touch, a compassionate ear? A mentor, teacher, or friend who saw his potential and understood his struggles—and did not blame him for his situation, or his outbursts?

It comes down, instead, to this. Locking him up. Holding theatrical rituals dating back to the Enlightenment—long enough ago that we sit in awe and compliance, yet not very long at all by the measure of human history.

I don’t love Jury Duty any more because I no longer believe in a system that was created in and is perpetuated by stories of hierarchy and control, of good and evil, right and wrong, myself and the “Other,” judgment and punishment and unquestioning duty.

This makes me sound like an ungrateful anarchist, which I don’t think I am. Mostly, I am sad for not believing in it any more. I feel like an outsider, a misfit. Yet I am also hopeful and aware of viable alternatives that are working in this very city, right now, today. I’ve mentioned Community Conferencing before, which was founded 15 years ago and is based on the Maori practice of convening council circles to resolve conflicts.

The crime the young man was accused of is quite violent and frightening. If I were the victim, I’m not sure if I would agree to a Conference, which would mean facing him right there in the circle. To put this in perspective, Community Conferencing is not used to resolve violent crimes, but it has been used to facilitate forgiveness in the aftermath.

As it is, the whole situation is depressing and makes me want to weep. In frustration that this expensive, elaborate, unwieldy theater is the best we can do for all concerned. In solidarity with the victim, of course. And for the accused. There is nothing restorative or redeeming in this. It is, pure and simple, an exercise in condemning a fellow citizen—who may at one time have had a bright future—to rot in a horrific, unsafe, and violent institution. Which, by the way, costs at least ten times per year what was spent on his education.

While there is much respect and rule-following, there is little love or compassion evident in a courtroom. I do know a few judges, and they are intelligent, thoughtful, and fair. But they are part of a broken system spawned by a failed, mistaken, and damaging story. They’re just as stuck as the young man standing trial. The courtroom is their prison, just as our culture’s story is ours.

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