Anyone who has spent time with me during the past two weeks knows that I have been on Jury Duty. Naturally, I complained endlessly about the inconvenience it caused me. My whole schedule was disrupted, I got behind in my work, and I had to stay up late at night to catch up. My friends and family were polite about it: they listen with apparent rapt attention, but I could see their eyes darting nervously ab aout the room, looking for anvenue of escape or an opportunity to change the subject, as I droned on about the stress of it all. Whining is de rigueur when a New Yorker is compelled to head downtown for such civic service, with the caveat that lunch in Chinatown and Little Italy can ease some of the pain and indignity.
Deep inside, however, I have other, different and opposite feelings about Jury Duty. To tell the whole truth, the experience excites me. First of all, it is a change of pace: new people, new venue, a new responsibility. Next, there is something wonderfully reassuring in knowing that, as a citizen, I am fully qualified to do an excellent job as a juror. Finally, I feel a combination of pride, delight, wonder and terror in performing an act so fundamentally essential, so profoundly spiritual, and so incontrovertibly American. To tell the truth, all of my courthouse visits as a juror have felt this way. Whining aside, I think that serving on a jury brings out the best in people—it certainly does in me. It presses me to be more straightforward with myself about what I know and don’t know, and it requires me to express myself honestly and articulately to my peers. Even when it gets emotional and jurors become irritated with one another because—well—no two people think or feel alike, the experience is exhilarating and, to my mind, redemptive.
The case on which I just served wasn’t particularly sexy, nor was it critically important in the big picture of social or criminal justice. It was interesting enough, though, and involved a melee with a machete in an uptown neighborhood and the contradictory testimony of a passel of marginally reliable witnesses who bore something of a latter-day resemblance to characters from the Damon Runyan stories that inspired the musical Guys and Dolls. While they spoke truthfully for the most part, as far as I could make out, the men’s testimony seemed influenced by testosterone and the women’s by a jaded and slightly irritated fatigue which manifested itself in inaudibility. A typical exchange between attorney and witness: “Is that when you graduated from heroin?” “No! I graduated from high school!” The witnesses were often painfully anxious and defensive, from the neighborhood bully to a policeman who testified that he had never read the Police Guide, which contains policy and procedures for arrests and evidence-gathering. When asked how he knew that he was performing his job correctly, he replied, “when I do something wrong my supervisor yells at me.”
Basically, the story is this: the neighborhood bully/drug dealer, a 42 year-old man who was born on the same block where he still lives with his mother and sisters, and who has a rap sheet a mile long, was habitually picking on another guy he apparently doesn’t like: “He never showed me no respect and, like, would spit on the ground when he was near me—which I took for a provocation.” One day the other guy (the man who spits) buys a big knife and publicly wields it, in peacock fashion, as if to say, “Stay away, or else!” This was unquestionably the wrong thing to do: the bully (whom we come to know affectionately as “the complaining witness”) is incensed. He robustly threatens the guy brandishing the machete, explicitly and colorfully describing where he intends to place it when he gets hold of it himself. He proceeds to attack the guy who has the knife, and is, unsurprisingly, stabbed accidentally through the ribs and one lung. Nevertheless, he is enraged and persists in attacking the startled knife-brandisher. Bleeding and screaming invectives, the bully chases the guy with the knife up five flights of stairs. He is followed by every kid in the neighborhood as he tries to kick in the man’s apartment door. The girlfriend of the guy with the knife, along with most of the neighbors, calls 911 to stop the riot. The police come, handcuff the bleeding bully to a gurney (he is resisting arrest), and take him to the hospital. The police don’t request a search warrant and never recover the knife, and fail to get any useful testimony at the scene. Most of the crowd disappears into the woodwork and the few kids who are tapped to give testimony fail to remember much of importance in the Grand Jury or when they testify for us. The case has as many holes as Swiss cheese, and, ultimately, we find him not guilty on two counts of assault and we spend nearly three more days deliberating a weapons possession charge before failing to reach a verdict—mostly because there is so little evidence to go on.
I have to say, most of us on that jury felt absolutely terrible because we couldn’t reach a verdict on a measly misdemeanor. We were wracked by guilt because the 12 of us couldn’t buckle down and agree on how to speedily administer justice in a situation that clearly involved illegal brawling and lawlessness. And the judge was fantastic! He was smart and funny, and he managed the case brilliantly—never wasting a moment of our time. Still, we couldn’t seem to get the camel of evidence through the heavenly eye of justice’s needle.
In retrospect, I understand two important things. First, finding the defendant guilty requires that all 12 jurors believe beyond a reasonable doubt that he actually committed those crimes. Our “hung” jury was itself testimony to the fact that we could not unanimously agree to this outcome. The system of presumed innocence had worked, even though the process of deliberation had been painful: reaching an impasse meant that individuals and factions of the whole group had to agree that they had irreconcilable differences with one another—that they could not agree on the truth as it was presented to them. Second, I have pulled back from my narrow focus on a single case about a knife fight in Harlem in order to see the big picture. There are many layers to this broader frame for society. For instance, long before the trial took place the police failed to gather evidence to present a viable case. The police department had failed to adequately train the officers on the scene to do so. Arguably, the police force is underpaid and undervalued. Many of the people in the neighborhood are the victims of a drug culture, which is itself caused by poor educational resources and a lack of job opportunities. The community in which this riot occurred is full of people who do not feel respected by the society in which they live, and are struggling merely to survive. This community is deemed unworthy of investment, and therefore it is unlikely to amount to much for itself or for the rest of us. These and other factors are what caused the alleged crime in the first place as well as the social structures that made it inevitable. This experience for me is an affirmation of an entire process we must all take part in on a daily basis if we want our society to have deep, intrinsic value. We need to take a closer look at where self-respect begins; at how we can assure that knowledge and justice are understood as virtues; where we accept individual responsibility for ourselves, our communities, and our environment; and the role of democracy and freedom in our culture.
Naturally, this makes me think of my job at the Lark where I work with many unheard voices trying to tell their stories in the theater. I have begun to see that each play that we work on at the Lark, and every show I go to see, is not unlike the isolated trial in which I just participated. My courtroom trial declared a man innocent of a crime, but implicated me in a much more complex understanding of justice, systemic failure, and the need for social activism. Can each piece of theater that I make or observe bring me to the same place of connection to society—and anxiety about my culture and its values—that my Jury Duty has afforded me? I hope so.
John Clinton Eisner