Jury Box

Jury Box: To Sit in Judgment

By Lisa K. Buchanan, who has been writing for magazines for 35 years.

When we filed into the jury box for the last time, I had not slept a full night in two weeks. The defendant eyed us expectantly from his chair. The attorneys focused on the wall straight ahead, steeling themselves. My knees quivered as I handed the verdicts to the court clerk and looked out into the gallery, where two weeks prior I had sat, dreading jury duty as the infamous waste of time.

People can chomp candy bars and yawn in front of giant movie screens on which men subject women to the most graphic brutality. However, when it came to serving on a rape trial, the prospective jurors in the criminal division of San Francisco Superior Court were decidedly queasy. Indeed, there was a faint, but collective, groan in the gallery when the allegations were announced-six felonies, including rape and corporal injury. With a patch of canary yellow peeking out from beneath the sleeve of her black robe, Judge Anne Bouliane smiled easily and spoke with the soft directness of a relationship therapist. After the court clerk distributed questionnaires pertaining to our personal experiences with the crimes charged, almost a third of the 70-plus prospective jurors accepted the judge’s offer to discuss their experiences in private. One such woman returned from the judge’s chamber sniffling.

In the courtroom, pleas for dismissal were numerous: A graphic designer in his twenties said his wife had been raped twice and he knew he couldn’t be objective about a man accused. A woman with tattooed arms said that she had dated a police officer and knew too many of them to trust their testimony. Another said she had already formed an opinion about the defendant based on his body language-slouched in his chair, chin on chest, eyebrows raised. Others could not send a human being to prison, listen to a weeping witness, tolerate descriptions of explicit sexual acts, or accept the testimony of one witness without corroboration. One man, wearing a royal blue blazer and toting a paperback on spirituality, claimed that he was capable of great compassion, though at the last trial on which he had served, “fortunately, the defendant changed his plea to guilty and saved everyone a wad of time and money.”

By the end of the second day, the pool had thinned considerably. When the prosecuting attorney asked the remaining candidates if anyone, for moral or religious reasons, could not stand in judgment of another person, I could have spent hours pondering the question. Jury selection, however, is a process of condensed answers and relative degrees of feeling. I remained silent and soon became Juror #11.

As the judge read us almost an hour of jury instructions, I was impressed with the gravity of our responsibility as jurors-particularly after her added injunction that, though she would be listening, we were the judges in the case. She joked occasionally, leaned forward to look at people when she spoke, and set a tone of irrevocable respect for the proceedings of the trial and the rights of the individuals in it. Still, I bristled at her admonishment not to form opinions about the case or discuss it with anyone; I figured most people nodded to that part of the oath, stuck to it for the first few days, and then proceeded blithely blabbing as usual. Later, I would find otherwise.

The evidence began with the “complaining witness” as she was called by the public defender, or the “victim” as she was called by the prosecutor. The 25-year-old woman in a wide-striped suit wept through most of her recollections of an assault that purportedly occurred while her mother was out of town and her children, ages three and six, were asleep in the next room. She said that her son’s father, the defendant, entered her apartment unannounced and, on discovering another man’s phone number on the table, backed her into her mother’s bedroom, beat her with a denuded umbrella stick, threatened to sodomize her, forced her to orally copulate him, and then raped her. “Bitch, I oughta kill you,” was the resounding phrase.

Throughout this narration, the defendant shook his head from side to side, fuming. The prosecuting attorney, Kimberly Toney Williams, with her soft voice and impeccable grammar, balanced the weapon on her fingers, thumbs extended, the way a waiter might display a just-flamed skewer before removing the brochettes. The message? Deadly if handled without care. With a composure in inverse proportion to that of the witness and defendant, the prosecutor walked slowly about the courtroom, proffering photographs of the woman’s bruises. The witness/victim managed her tears for a few sporadic minutes, then broke down completely when the attorney played a tape of the defendant’s phone messages from prison, begging the mother of his child to listen to her heart and drop the charges against him.

Equally wrenching was the cross-examination by the public defender, Mark Iverson, a young attorney whose vocabulary alone made him a devastating inquisitor for a woman who said “pacific” when she meant “specific” and didn’t know what a diagram was.

With a disobedient cowlick, wiry build, and agile gait that made it easy to imagine him on a tennis court, the public defender focused on inconsistencies in the woman’s testimony: Initially, she reported the incident to the police as an intrusion by an unknown burglar, then later said the defendant broke through the door. In still another rendition, she kissed the defendant when he arrived that night. Through a series of detailed questions about dates, signatures, and work history, the attorney established that the woman had lied about her income on her public assistance forms. He also asked about a previous incident in which her parental rights had been temporarily terminated because of an alcohol addiction. Was it possible, he pressed, that the bruises in the photographs resulted from an intoxicated stumble the day before the incident? The woman sunk her forehead into her palm and adopted a rhythmic mantra of “I don’t remember, I don’t recall” even to queries about the size of her apartment.

By this point I began to appreciate the judge’s admonishments not to form or discuss opinions about the case. We had frequent breaks, and I was happy to spend them on the pay phone, returning work-related messages and trying to find a bakery that would put a horsie on a cake for my stepdaughter’s ninth birthday party. Over the weekend my husband and I discussed the news and which shade of green to paint our living room. The courtroom scenario of my weekday hours seemed to take place in a separate world outside my own. It was clear that a tragedy had occurred between Dinky and Duke (not their real nicknames), as they had once affectionately called each other, yet I found myself-with a tolerance for television violence lower than the average fourth grader’s-curiously unshaken.

That illusion lasted until Monday. However, it was not the graphic descriptions of the alleged crime that unnerved me but those of the slow disintegration of what had once been a family. We heard from nine other witnesses, including the woman’s supposed “best friend,” a neighbor who seemed eerily reluctant to testify. We heard about Dinky’s part-time job as a janitor. We heard from the police officer who had taken her report through a Plexiglas window in one of the city’s busiest stations. Dinky had later married the man whose phone number had been on the table the night of the incident, but he was a muddle on the stand-seething at the defendant, defensive about his felony record, and unable to stifle a disconcerting tendency to lapse back 30 years to Vietnam where his helicopter was shot down. The defendant’s mother, a self-possessed woman who worked for the school district, was obviously shattered by the tragedy between her 35-year-old son and the woman who had produced her grandson and was once “like a daughter” to her.

The defendant had pleaded not guilty to all six charges, but at the trial we heard his voice only once-in recorded phone messages to the mother of his child. His movements, however, were far from silent. Like a cheetah pacing a cage, he shifted often in his chair, looking small in a shirt I assumed was provided by counsel and still creased from the package. His indignant sighs and agitated pencil-tapping made it clear that he considered himself unjustly accused, though his version of the incidents I was not to hear until after the trial. Forced to deal with the most difficult of the judge’s instructions-not to draw any inference from the defendant’s decision not to testify-we jurors were left with essentially this: life-size color photographs of the woman’s bruises and the defendant’s complete denial of having caused them.

As the trial progressed, it was increasingly hard not to talk about the case with the other jurors. My neighbor in the jury box was a man in his midthirties who made pesto from his garden and read books by Borges. I rode the bus sometimes with Juror #2, an art dealer in his twenties with a clipped beard and dry humor. Ever derailing an urge to discuss the forbidden subject, I grew to appreciate the power of conversation as a dispeller of tension. At home it was peculiar not to talk to my husband about such a weighty concern; our treasured bathtub conversations sometimes fell silent. My sleep grew restless; my dreams featured grocery store cameos by the defendant’s mother and erotic episodes with the bailiff.

When at last we entered the jury room, I didn’t know what to expect. A friend of mine had served on a civil trial in which a juror opened deliberations by announcing that she hoped they could “make it snappy.” A neighbor had served on several criminal trials and was known to declare, “I fry ’em good.”

Fortunately, our gang of twelve was more than admirable. We did not rush through anything or grow impatient with ponderous, thorny discussions. Explicit descriptions were not a problem; when examining the finer points of rear-entry penetration and whether or not a man can sustain an erection while enraged, strangers get comfortable with each other quickly.

It was far more difficult to deal with the subjects we were instructed not to discuss. Our job was not to react emotionally but to evaluate the credibility of testimony and decide if the evidence supported the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. Written instructions further cautioned us not to be influenced by pity or prejudice, mere sentiment, conjecture, or sympathy. We were not to consider penalty or punishment. In retrospect, this meant: Try not to think of the degradation and brutality of this woman’s daily existence if her son’s father has raped and beaten her, but we lack the certainty to convict. Try not to think about the degradation and brutality that will plague this man’s daily existence if we do have the certainty to convict. Try not to think of a boy starting preschool with Dad behind bars for allegedly beating and raping Mom, or the half sister in first grade not wanting to elaborate on How I Spent My Summer Vacation.

Jury service can be a monklike experience, involving a concentrated mental diet designed to purify the mind of all impediments to disciplined thought. Conversation is determined by the hour, restricted first to The Topic (in the jury room), then to All But The Topic (at lunch and in the hallway). Conscripted for service, a juror is addressed by assigned number, travels by police escort to group meals, and is an individual only to the extent that his or her thoughts and utterances are of interest to the state. Vocational pursuits and individual accomplishments are temporarily suspended. Time becomes irrelevant in the jury room-a compact, windowless, austere chamber, noticeably free of telephone rings, computer bleeps, crowd chatter, and background music. My initial musings as to which juror would be the jerk of the bunch (unless it was me, I never found one) now strike me as cynical. To the contrary, that a random selection could produce a diligent, harmonious group was an unexpected plus.

The deliberation process has its moments of levity, usually at the expense of the attorneys. (“It’s not like Law and Order, folks …,” they often warned.) For the most part, however, the discussion was quite sobering. We examined all the scenarios we could manage based on the evidence, but it was the court reporter’s readbacks of testimony-her voice efficiently monotone, sans tears and cross-examination drama-that seemed to have the greatest impact. The unadorned facts were chilling, the room eerily silent.

As deliberations came to a close, I stopped checking my phone messages. During breaks I stared at the freeway from a window in the waiting room. For variation I looked out the other window at the county jail, another wing of the building. Every day I walked by the inmates’ visiting elevator but never once saw anyone get on or off. In the lobby I saw five men handcuffed together. At home my plants withered from neglect. I was moody, and my family’s discussions about what to have for dinner seemed excruciatingly trivial. Conversely, my walks in the park had heightened significance because of their invaluable solace. Sometimes I found myself missing the other jurors because it was only with them that I could discuss my grave thoughts.

And then, it was over.

The defendant looked up through raised eyebrows as the verdicts were announced.

“Guilty … sexual assault … Guilty … oral copulation by force … ”

He arched into his seat, throwing his head back, then folded forward, elbows to ribs, twisting the heels of his hands into his eyeballs as if to wake himself from a horrifying nightmare. His sobs increased, louder and longer with each word pronounced by the court clerk. An ingrained shame in spectatorship compelled me to look away, but I could not move my eyes.

“Guilty … corporal injury … Guilty … sexual battery … ”

When the man’s howl became so loud as to drown even the booming voice of the court clerk, the bailiff took him away, where his desperate pleas echoed through an unseen hallway. My intestines began to twist; I dabbed an eye in a futile attempt not to bawl. When the defendant returned to his seat, he put his head down on the table until the reading of the verdicts was over and he was again removed.

I came home to the family polka of the weekday dinner hour. Later, I told my husband about the case, though after two weeks of verbal and emotional restraint it felt akin to explaining the plot of a Virginia Woolf novel. The verdict itself-hours before, a dramatic blow to one individual, the long-awaited protection for another, and a damning indictment of what the human species has not accomplished after a million years of evolution-seemed harshly simple. I had done my best as a juror and yet was overwhelmed with a sense of futility: another woman abused; another man to waste away in prison; two more children in a violent, impoverished situation.

In an orange jumpsuit at the sentencing three months later, the man pleaded for mercy. Between himself and the mother of his child, he insisted, it was “an altercation, nothing more.” He was not a violent man, not an animal, not a rapist. He could have shown her a good life, he insisted, if only given the chance. Indeed, it was she who had hurt him, saying she wanted to end the relationship.

Altercation. A smooth, civilized, multisyllabic word defined in the dictionary as an argument or dispute. Perhaps the only difference between this “altercation” and those in the past is that Dinky made a police report and pressed charges; records of the pretrial discussions about keeping past domestic abuses out of the courtroom certainly suggest that possibility.

When I learned that the man had a long record-drug and firearm possession, car thefts, flight from a police car, a gun pointed at an officer-I understood why his attorney had advised him not to testify. He protested the current verdict for several minutes. Finally, his mother, sitting a few rows away from me, motioned him to sit down so she could speak. Looking years older than at the trial, she implored the judge not to take her only son. She and her daughter and granddaughter all had jobs, but they needed a man at home. She also hadn’t seen her grandson in two years, that is, since the incident.

The sister pleaded too. She had heard that her nephew’s mother was pregnant again, the stepfather was using drugs, and the family was evicted from their most recent apartment. The judge listened patiently to these recitations of broken lives, then imposed a ten-minute recess. When we returned, the room was quiet.

Twenty years, the judge announced, after a lengthy discussion of factors, both mitigating (the man’s drug addiction) and aggravating (his past parole violations). This time the judge did not look up or smile when she spoke. The mother sunk her head into her hands. The sister bolted from the room to join the chorus of women who wailed outside other courtrooms in the hall. The defense attorney told me later that it was not as severe as it could have been, considering that the prosecutor had pushed for consecutive terms rather than concurrent. With parole the man will likely serve about 16 years.

Even now, I can only think of the boy who will be 20 by the time his middle-aged father is released from prison. I hope he won’t remember the violence between his parents. Since spousal abuse and child abuse are often found together, I’d like to think that because of the trial he was spared at least some kind of harm. And yet, like his father, he too will grow up without his dad. Likely, he will have no memories of the grandmother or aunt who cherished him as a baby. He will have been moved from one public housing project to another, raised with at least two half siblings by different fathers.

Will he, like both his father and stepfather, bear a gun, a drug addiction, and a felony record? Will he one day sit in that same brown chair his daddy did? He’s only four years old, but the odds seem stacked against him. At the courthouse, my name has been erased from the official record. For a little boy I have never seen, however, the results are permanently engraved.