Except for my usual chores and outings around town as a mother and home-manager, and the occasional day trip to San Francisco to witness with friends, I don’t get out a whole lot into ‘the world’. Not as much as I’d like to. So when I do, it is a pretty exciting thing for me, especially with the possible opportunities this affords, to meet people and be a witness.
In the spring of 2005, I was called upon to fulfill my civic responsibility, and show up for jury duty in Redwood City. Not only did I make it onto the jury, they chose me as jury foreman! I had to direct and represent the whole jury. I absolutely loved the opportunity to spend most of three weeks in the company of people from all walks of life, hearing about their work, their lives, their interests. I loved going out to lunch everyday with these fellow jurors, and having conversations about many things other than the trial, since we were not allowed to discuss it outside of the deliberation room, which came at the end of the trial. I got to make friends with a couple of the younger women. What a great opportunity! I also loved watching the trial process in action. It was a fascinating experience.
One young woman, the youngest on the jury at age 21, was working on her master’s degree in International Relations. I asked her what she was planning to do with that degree when she was done with school. She told me that she is learning Hebrew and Arabic, and is planning on getting a job with the UN, and going in a special delegation, to go help create peace in the middle east. She was absolutely serious. I asked her if she thought there would eventually be ‘peace in the middle east’, and she said, most definately, yes. I found that very interesting.
Though the trial process was fascinating, the case itself was a very sad one. It was a criminal trial involving the accidental death of a woman on a freeway. The man on trial was charged with several crimes which were laws on the books, the two main ones being vehicular manslaughter and felony hit and run.
It was a very sad case because the victim who got hit on the freeway(standing on the road outside her car) was under the influence, and the person who hit her was under the influence. It was an accident that did not need to happen. But according to the law, this fact was not allowed to be a factor in the case. The law for the one charge was that it is against the law to strike a person with a car, killing them. This was the minor of the two main charges. The more serious was the felony hit and run. If the man had just stayed there, like the law requires, and not run away from the scene of the accident, the charges against him would not be so severe. But the law states that if you hit someone, regardless of the severity of the accident or the injury, you are required to stay at the scene, and not leave. These are laws regarding actions. These actions were declared illegal, and laws were made against them.
Our job was to hear all the eyewitness testimony, observe and study all the hard evidence, understand the law, and compare all these things with the law to see if they matched up. In other words, we were obligated to decide if the hard evidence (the facts) proved that the law was broken, in each case.
It was a very sad and difficult thing to hear the details of this horrible accident, and to make a rather long trial story short, finally the day came where all the testimony ended, and we were able to go into the jury deliberation room to discuss everything, and decide if the facts and evidence prove that these laws were broken or not. In one minor charge, there was not sufficient evidence, so we decided not guilty. Unfortunately, for the other charges, there was more than enough factual evidence to prove guilt- the breaking of the law.
On the last day, we spent the entire day (with a one hour lunch break), from 9am until 5pm, going over all the evidence, and reading the law over and over, making sure we understood it correctly, reading the rules for applying the law, and making sure we were making right observations and judgments in our duty to decide if the actions and evidence proved that the law was broken or not. By now, at the end of the three weeks, I had gotten to know all these people, and we were like a temporary ‘family’, and had formed some emotional bonds with each other as friends and ‘collegues’ on the jury. We so wanted to do what was right and everyone took their responsibility very seriously, to make sure we were doing right, according to the law. We did not want to make an unjust decision, as we knew that the sentence for breaking these laws would likely be severe. We wanted to decide rightly.
So at the end of the day, at 5pm, I filled out the papers declaring our decision to the judge, on all the charges; not guilty on a few of them (based on lack of evidence), and guilty on the two serious charges.
It was sad because we knew that it was likely that the man did not even remember hitting this woman. It was sad because the family of the dead woman sat teary eyed in the court room, waiting for justice.
We turned in the papers to a person who gave them to the judge, and the people were called into the courtroom as the judge looked over our decision. Then, after spending the entire day in that room, we were called in and took our seats, every eye on me! I nervously sat rehearsing my words in my mind, so that I would be as respectful and professional as I could possibly be, in my statements. As the judge read each charge, the minor ones first, I declared to the entire court, the jury’s decision. When he came to ‘Vehicular Manslaughter’ and ‘Felony Hit and Run’, it was, ‘guilty’, and ‘guilty’. The court reporter was typing out every word that was said.
It was a sorrowful moment, and we were actually relieved it was finally over. But wait- the judge had an announcement. He declared that a new law just came down from Sacramento, and this was the first case this would be applied to, and now that the trial was over, he could tell us about it. Our sorrow in deciding this case was not over. The judge told us we were required by law, to go back to the deliberation room once again, to decide something else. What?! We were done! This had been difficult. We were ready to go home. It had been three weeks. What else needed to be decided? We did what the law asked of us. This did not seem right! What were they requiring of us now?
The instructions would be given to us when we were all in the deliberation room. My fellow jury-mates filed out of the courtroom, down the hall, and back into the deliberation room, exhaused, dejected and discouraged. I was last in line, so by the time I entered the room, there they all sat around the table, completely still, staring at me, with a bewildered, exhausted and worried look on their faces. Then to my shock about a third of them burst out crying, including the men! As I stood in the doorway, staring at this distraught group, I again prayed to God for wisdom and direction. God, help me do what is right!
To be continued.
Related: Federal Hate Crimes Laws, pt.1