I have arrived early, as usual. The lights are still off as I take a seat towards the back on the aisle, where I can catch just enough light from the hall to read the novel I’ve brought with me.
By the 9am scheduled start time, the jury assembly room pews hold sixty or so potential jurors. A couple of individuals go forward to ask to be excused, and I briefly wonder what it would mean to check the box certifying that “I am not of sound mind or of good moral character.” Is the blonde next to me searching for something deep in a massive patent leather purse of sound mind? What about the guy several rows forward reading the women seeking men personal ads? Are the folks I meet later in the jury room of good moral character: the lawyer, the Continental flight attendant, the unemployed laborer?
What have I to learn from the guy two rows up – an older man with a graying beard, ponytail and frayed jeans who shifts nervously back and forth in his seat — and from the other scruffy, ranch-hand-looking men a few rows over? I am certain I have much to learn, from them and from all the others here, if they can find a way to express it, and I a way to hear. More than hear: to listen. I find myself waiting expectantly, eager to capture the system at work.
This is the sixth time I’ve been called for jury duty; I learn something new about the law each time. The young defense lawyer in the case explains the jury selection concept of voir dire (which I hear as warddyre, in his Texanized French). It means, roughly, speak the truth. He and the prosecutor ask how we regard police officers and our experience with traffic citations. I speak the truth, and hope also to recognize the truth as the day progresses.
The case, to my surprise, is merely a contested ticket. A young man has either run a red light or not. Simple as that. His fine, if guilty, falls between $1 and $200. The prosecutor is a recent graduate volunteering her time in order to gain court experience. The lawyers remind us that the young man is presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Later the defense attorney asks if we were to leave right now, before the trial begins, whether we would leave thinking the accused was innocent or guilty. A trick question. I keep wondering how contesting a traffic ticket is worth the price of this trial – fourteen of us who arrive before 9am and leave at 4pm, all to provide a jury of six peers to judge his case.
Then I remember an editorial I read in the Sunday Times. In it, Lakhdar Boumediene describes the seven years he lost as a prisoner at Guantánamo. As I read again the editorial a day after my court experience, these words resonate:
In a decision that bears my name, the Supreme Court declared that “the laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” It ruled that prisoners like me, no matter how serious the accusation, have a right to a day in court. … And the court said that because “the consequence of error may be detention of persons for the duration of hostilities that may last a generation or more, this is a risk too significant to ignore.” (2012/01/08/my-guantanamo-nightmare.)
Running a red light (or not) in Houston is sadly routine. But the court date and the editorial remind me of what is extraordinary – the protections our law offers: the right to a speedy and public trial; the right, in many cases, to a jury of our peers; the right to be informed of the accusations against us; and the right to counsel, among others.
The defense attorney in this case informs us that in some countries, the decision handed down by the jury can include guilty, not guilty, or a third option, not proven. Not here. Here we are innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is on our accuser and we will have our day in court. This shall be true whether we run a red light or commit a felony. May it always be so.