Madame Foreman: My Time on a Jury

Disclaimer:  During the winter months, I am taking a break from my usual blogging about bees, gardens and all things related to the natural world.  So far I have written on topics as varied as exorcism and cocaine hippos.  If this wild ride isn’t for you, I understand.  Check back in the spring for my more traditional blog posts. 

My legal training began in 1986 when the TV series LA Law first aired.  I was mesmerized by these good looking, well-heeled lawyers.  Susan Dey played Deputy DA Grace Van Owen, and I was captivated by her power suits and general badassery.  I listened to all the opening and closing arguments and felt after several seasons I had a good grasp on the American judiciary system.  To be fair, though, the series only trained me in California law.  It wasn’t until I immersed myself in the reruns of Law and Order that played non-stop on the TNT cable channel through the early 2000’s that I rounded out my formal legal training.  The New York lawyers on Law and Order were much grittier.  They made regular visits to Rikers Island to interview witnesses and routinely threatened suspected murderers with the death penalty.  It was a necessary element of my legal training.        

With this extensive television based training in the US judicial system, I began my first term of jury duty.  At that point in our lives, my husband and I were living in Ohio and were fully enmeshed in the corporate world.  We had Blackberry phones and full calendars.  My days were loaded with meetings and conference calls and stress.  Jury duty seemed like a summons to go on vacation, and I was excited to answer the call.  I was asked to report to our township’s municipal building, which was a refurbished firehouse. 

The first thing I noticed was that the judge wore a suit not a black robe like on TV, and he looked oddly similar to my doctoral advisor.  I had trouble focusing.  Did Professor Caruso have a twin, or was he just a doppelganger?  Would the ruling actually count if the judge didn’t wear a robe?  Even Judge Wapner and Judge Judy wore black robes.  Something seemed off to me.  The judge went on to explain that this would be a civil trial and not a criminal trial.  In criminal trials you are asked to decide a verdict that is beyond a reasonable doubt.  The burden is not that high in a civil trial.  In a civil trial the burden is that the plaintiff proves the case beyond the preponderance of evidence, which is a much lower standard.  Basically you have to decide that there is a better than 50 percent chance that the plaintiff’s claim is true.    

The case in question involved a two car vehicle accident at a four-way intersection.  The driver of the pick-up truck was suing the driver of the car.  The truck driver was represented by a father and son legal team that took turns handling the case.  I’m sure that the father was extremely pleased to have his son following in his footsteps and storming to court with him, but the whole thing felt to me like it was just take-your-son-to-work-day.  The defense attorney was a stern looking man with a flat top haircut.  He was very intense and approached the case with the vigor I would expect of a lawyer appearing before the United States Supreme Court.  He reminded me of Sam the Eagle on The Muppet Show.

The crux of the case was that the plaintiff would not settle with the insurance company, and he was seeking damages for the replacement of his truck.  He claimed the accident was caused by the woman driving the car.  Both parties brought one witness each to testify that the other party was at fault.  Both the plaintiff and the defendant testified, and both gave the impression of being a few bricks shy of a full load.  After a day and a half of testimony, the jury was asked to decide the case.

We were ushered into a conference room and sat around a long, rectangular table.  One man and eleven women were on the jury.  Immediately a heavy set middle aged woman with short cropped salt and pepper colored hair began to assert herself.  I will call her Wanda.  When the group began to discuss the need to pick a foreman, Wanda pointed across the table to the man, who I will call Dale, and said, “Well, he’s the only man so he should be the foreman!” 

Wait, what?  Was Wanda asleep for the last 100 years?  Why did the foreman have to be a man?  Was it because the women of the jury might get their periods during deliberations and swoon and need to take a nap under their parasols?   Dale shifted uncomfortably in his seat clearly not wanting to accept the role Wanda was ready to thrust upon him on behalf of the group.  Apparently male genetalia alone did not make a person accept the responsibility of jury foreman.

I looked around the room, and my eyes fell to a petite woman who appeared to be in her early seventies.  She had curled and colored hair and wore a white knit sweater.  She reminded me of my grandmother, Mimi.  The woman in the white sweater looked nervous, and her eyes grew large.  She clearly looked uncomfortable with Wanda’s desire to appoint a foreman without any discussion.  Yet she cowered in her chair, not wanting to confront Wanda. 

I felt something in me snap.  Wanda’s swipe against women’s rights didn’t bother me. I worked almost exclusively with men. If I became upset with every slight against women, I wouldn’t make it through a work day.  What bothered me was that Wanda was so willing to bully everyone else.  “Nobody bullies my Mimi,” I thought.  “I’ll do it,” I said.  “I’ll be the foreman if nobody else wants to be the foreman.”  Dale looked relieved and gladly acquiesced.  Wanda looked confused unsure of what sort of power play just happened.  Clearly she was a woman who successfully pushed around people.  The group quickly voted me as their foreman.

The only reason I volunteered to be the foreman was because the woman who I never met and who never spoke reminded me of my grandmother.  I just assumed that woman was like my Mimi because they were about the same age and build and wore knit sweaters.  As I reflect on the event all these years later, I think about what a generalization I made.  Yes, the lady wore a knit sweater, but she may have also chewed tobacco and kept a switch blade and bottle of whiskey in her purse.  She might have beat her children and kicked puppies on her way to work.  I’ll never know.  I didn’t ask.  I made a judgment based solely on her looks and my own personal biases. That’s the problems with humans and juries. We all bring our own biases into the jury room.  

After much discussion and review of the evidence, we couldn’t make a decision.  We agreed that neither side had proven their case.  “The burden is on the plaintiff,” I said.  “If you think that there is no way you can make a decision because both sides presented equal and cancelling evidence, then we have to decide for the defense,” I said.  Everyone looked relieved that I had found a way out of our predicament. 

“The guy’s still out of his truck, and that should be worth something” one of the jurors said. 

“No problem,” I said.  “The verdict doesn’t have to be unanimous.  Just sign that you don’t agree.”  Just like that, the case was decided.

We went back into the court room.  The suit wearing judge asked if we had reached a verdict and then asked that it be read.  Here is where things got embarrassing for me. In that pivotal moment, I drew upon all of my Law and Order training and stood to read the verdict because that’s what you do when you are on a television show.  As I was reading the verdict, which was a long pre-printed paragraph, I remembered that nobody asked me to stand up.  While all eyes were fixed upon me, I continued to read and sit down simultaneously.  I just kept reading and sat back down in my chair like a moron.  This was my moment in the spotlight to read a verdict aloud proudly on behalf of the American justice system, women’s rights, and my Mimi and I sat down in the middle of it!  As one gets older in life, you reflect upon things you wish you could take back and do over.  I wish I could have a do over on the reading of that verdict.  If given a second chance, I would have remained standing for the entire verdict.  The verdict we delivered was the correct one, but my presentation of the verdict was terrible.  Fortunately I won’t have to watch myself deliver the verdict again.  Real life, unlike Law and Order, doesn’t have reruns. 

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