The Meaning of Words

I had an interesting experience this week and I guess I can check it off my bucket list.  I never really was aware it was on there, but now I realize I’ve always wanted to do it.  I was a juror on a criminal case.  Perry Mason it was not.  CSI in whatever city it was not.  Law and Order it was not.  It was fascinating and very satisfying.

The sister I live with gets a jury summons at least once a year.  I got one once about 30 years ago, and was not chosen.  It was amusing, though, to be sitting beside the one guy who had perhaps the second best excuse in the world for being exempt from jury duty – he was the star witness in the trial we were to be chosen for.  The judge was outraged, but calmed down after being reminded that jury summons were done by the computer on a random basis.  I had another sister who got a jury summons for a trial where the defendant was a guy she personally knew.  That got her out of the pool.  My mom got to be a juror on a murder trial.  She was good.  She never mentioned the trial until it was over and they declared the defendant guilty.

The folks who checked us in were delighted to see so many show up.  Despite the fact that not responding to a jury summons gets you in trouble with the law, many often just do not.  There were about 24 of us this day.  The deputy checking us in said that once only 11 people showed up and they had to reschedule the trial.  Since they only needed six jurors for this trial  (I have no idea how they decide how many they need – have to find out some time) the 24 of us pleased them.  It was about half and half men and women.  One turned out to be a bail bondsman, but the defendant was not a client, so they left him in.  Another was the daughter of the retired district attorney, but they left her in.

The morning was taken up by voir dire – the questioning of the juror pool to see if they understand the charges, and to find out if they have any prejudices that would affect their determination of the defendants’ guilt or innocence.  The prosecutor was new, an assistant District Attorney who did a superb job of explaining reasonable doubt, since the case would really hinge on whether the jury felt there was any. The defense attorney reminded me of a television show character, with a bushy mustache and a big, booming voice.  He also was very professional and explained things well.  Between the two of them, I think they made sure we understood the terms that would be used in the case.

When the jury selection was made, I was delighted to be chosen.  They then sent us off to lunch, with the trial to begin afterwards.  When I got back, I was able to chat with the bailiff, who was a retired chief of police.  It was very interesting to hear about life in a courthouse.  One thing that was very different from the television shows was how friendly everyone was.  Of course, it is a mostly rural south Texas county legal system, and everybody knows everybody, and luckily it was not a tense, emotional trial we had to look forward to.

The judge and district attorney smiled a lot, but not in the “We know we’re going to win” style, more in the “we’re delighted to see people willing to do their civic duty” style.  The defense attorney did not smile as much, but his client probably would not have appreciated it.  I got the feeling the poor man (Hispanic, poor English, and easily confused by questions put to him) thought a jury of six white women were not going to give him a fair deal.  He looked more and more morose as the trial proceeded.

We six did admit to each other we were surprised no men had been chosen, but after some thought, agreed that most of them had not struck us as, well, reasonable as most of the women.  But we were all determined to be fair and thoughtful in our decision, never forgetting that a man’s future was on the line.  We had listened to police and professional expert testimony on the facts of the case, and examined physical evidence.

The decision we had to make came down to: Was there reasonable doubt or not in the situation?  Was the evidence and testimony overwhelmingly on the prosecution’s side?  Was there any reason to doubt the defendant was guilty of the two charges against him?  It really came down to the meaning of the legal terms in the charges and how the law interpreted them.  That’s where I was glad the prosecutor and defense attorney had explained them so well.

I was also very glad I was on a jury with five other intelligent, thoughtful women who were serious about their duty.  We did not discuss it for long, because we all pretty much agreed on our opinions from the beginning, but we did discuss it thoroughly.  We noted what we thought of the testimonies and the evidence, and then delved into how the meanings of the legal terms fit the case.  None of us were concerned about the defendant’s ethnic, economic,  or social background.  The subjects never came up.  All we discussed was how the legal definitions affected the case.  In the end, we agreed that, despite the evidence and testimony presented, we could see that what the defendant swore must have happened was just as likely as what the prosecution was certain had happened.  We found reasonable doubt that the defendant met the legal definition of the charges against him, and judged him not guilty.

There is an old saying that comes up occasionally when people argue:  “You say tomato, I say tomahto”, meaning “we’re using different words but we’re saying the same thing”.  But we don’t always.  We need to be careful what we say, how we say it, and when we say it.  Sometimes feelings can be hurt, and sometimes a life can be changed.  Sometimes we just need to think before we speak.  We need to think before we write.  We need to think, period.

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