When summoned, stick with your convictions
The square, blue piece of mail arrived in November. You’ve probably gotten your share of them over the years: JURY SUMMONS.
I arrive early at the crowded third floor room at the Mesa County Justice Center, where I pass the time reading a fascinating Newsweek article about how President Clinton is up nine points over Sen. Dole. Although it’s a nice gesture, the complimentary coffee is hard to gut down. Talk about grounds for dismissal. (Rimshot.)
But I’m not here for the coffee. I’m Juror No. 971, and things are about to get serious. Any vision of a lightweight case I could milk for humor column material disappears when I learn our trial involves charges of domestic violence.
We’re escorted to the courtroom, where our large group is to be whittled down to 12 jurors. I come in with an open mind about the defendant; however the guy in front of me should definitely be convicted for wearing too much cologne. Fortunately, he’s excused.
As is another middle-aged man who talks like Forrest Gump, only slower. Forrest doesn’t think he’s qualified to sit on the jury. He tells the prosecutor: “Personally, I think it’s wrong to hit a woman.” As if the rest of us are fine with it.
Eventually we reach 12 jurors, one of whom is my now-retired family doctor. One morning, he brings us free doughnuts. For the past 20 years he’s told me not to eat these things. Now he’s practically shoving them in my mouth.
Over the next three days we’re inundated with testimony and evidence, broken up for the occasional “recess.” It’s not like the recess I remember as a kid. There aren’t any monkey bars or slides in sight. The teeter-totter, however, is awesome.
Our bailiff, Twila, escorts us. She’s kind and patient and even gives me a courtesy laugh when I ask if we’re allowed conjugal visits.
She takes us to the jury room, where we’re prohibited from any outside communication. No TVs or phones allowed. What they do have is coffee. And it’s nothing like the demon brew down on the third floor. It’s much worse.
It’s here where we begin our deliberations. We review, and argue — sometimes passionately. People hold tight to their views. Half the time, nobody can agree on anything. It’s loud, tense and argumentative.
And it’s everything right with America.
Twelve ordinary people, representing a diverse cross-section of society, gave one of our accused fellow citizens a fair and honest hearing. We didn’t always agree, and it got heated, but we did the best we could and left as friends.
We find him guilty on five of six counts. Judge Gurley reads the verdict and we’re done. I can’t speak for the others, but on my walk out of the courtroom a strange feeling pops up from out of nowhere: sympathy.
For the defendant.
I realize how insane it is to feel bad for a guy who smashed his girlfriend’s head against a wall, but this is a young man who had no family or friends in the courtroom offering support. He has no job, no one to love, no future. Tonight he’s all alone in a jail cell.
His own doing? Absolutely. Yet I’ve learned that screaming, “Lock him up and throw away the key!” is easier to do when you’re not the one slamming the cell door shut.
It’s not always perfect or pleasant, but the justice system works. Sure, occasionally you’ll read about a guy who sprained his ankle near a church, sued them out of existence, and split a $12 million paycheck with his scumbag lawyer. But for that and every O.J. verdict out there, there are thousands of cases of simple, honest justice being issued daily.
So I leave the Mesa County Justice Center reassured about the process. Everyone was professional and performed their jobs well. Should I ever seek justice, I’d want Deputy D.A. Bo Zeerip as my advocate. If charged, I’d want public defender Megan Downing fighting for me. And having Judge Gurley overseeing the proceedings would be perfectly fine. Overall I’d say everything about our local justice system seems pretty good.
Except for the coffee.
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