Nowhere are the common threads that make up America’s fabric showcased more than in the courthouse amidst a vast jury pool.
There, the tire store owner sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the high school teacher who is seated next to a grocery store baker who speaks to her neighbor, the farmer. They lay aside their work and struggle to do their civic duty.
Recently, I sat among these great Americans — my fifth time summoned to serve — and remembered back to a powerful lesson of my first jury summons. It’s been over 25 years. Then, it was exciting and felt like such a grown-up responsibility.
I was selected for a jury and, in a bit of inexplicable reasoning, was voted foreman. We were there to decide the verdict of a man who had been arrested for driving under the influence. He had refused a breathalyzer and, in those days before today’s stringent laws, his fate would be decided upon his testimony and the arresting officer’s as well as the police report.
In the jury room, we debated for half an hour then took a vote: 8-4 in favor of conviction. More discussion and a second vote which was then 10-2.
More discussion and another vote, again 10-2. After a couple of hours and more ballots, I was forced to notify the judge of a deadlock. We broke for lunch then returned to deliberate further.
The two holdouts were older men who, as it turned out, were both World War II veterans. They were deeply resolved to acquit. I’ll never forget how firm one man was. Steely. Unbending.
I took a breath. “We’ve all talked about why we think it should be a guilty conviction, why do you think it should be ‘not guilty?’”
Remarkably, the two gentlemen were sitting side by side, both gray-headed, with faces that crackled with the experience of their seven decades of living, but they had never met until that day when they had been called to another service for their country. The man whose jaw was set the firmest in stubbornest spoke up.
“I fought for this country to ensure the rights of all men. I landed on the beach of Normandy, with bullets whizzing past my head and friends falling dead at my feet, their blood covering my wet boots. I risked my life to guarantee freedom for every American. I’m not convinced he’s guilty so I can’t vote that way. It goes agin’ what I fought for.”
Heaviness filled the room and the impact of what he said swept across the faces around that table. It is fair to say that he almost changed 10 votes.
I was the youngest in the room but I had a peculiar experience that none of them possessed. I had once wanted to be a lawyer. As soon as I had my driver’s license, I dashed out of school daily and headed to the courthouse where I spent the rest of the afternoon listening to lawyers making their final summation. The storytelling was superb.
After college, I scored well on the law school entrance exam but another story interrupted, leading me down a different path.
“If you knew that he had been arrested before for a DUI, would that sway you?”
“He has.” I smiled.
The jurors all sat up. “How do you know?”
“Because his lawyer never mentioned his clean record and he would have.”
When we returned our guilty verdict, the judge was without mercy. “This is the fourth time you have been arrested for DUI. I’m about to bring down on you the full power and wrath of this court.”
On the courthouse steps, the gentleman approached, teary-eyed. “Thank you, young lady. I’d have voted to let him go and he might have killed someone. Maybe someone I love.”
Duty to country. It calls us all. In one way or another.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.