I served on a jury the first year I could. I was a shy, eighteen-year-old art student. The crime was indecent exposure. Initially, I approached jury duty as a curiosity. I wanted an up-close view of criminality and justice, two forces generally hidden from my life. From the safety of the juror’s box, I watched the trial unfurl with voyeuristic eagerness. Threatened women intersected with desperate men, and private masturbation with public space. There was the gray-skinned defendant who seemed on the verge of sliding off his chair and under his table. There were the two accusers: one a bespectacled NPR intern, the other arriving late in turquoise flipflops and a rhinestoned t-shirt. There was the cat-eyeliner-wearing judge who offered a paean to the beauty of American justice. I took many notes, but mostly on what I imagined these strangers’ lives to be.
The sense that serving on a jury offered an exciting opportunity to people-watch vanished as the door to the deliberation room clicked shut. The weight of our responsibility as jurors suddenly struck me. We twelve strangers were tasked with integrating our disparate conclusions into one unanimous decision. This decision would dictate whether or not a man would be burned with the “sex offender” brand, and whether or not he would spend his foreseeable years in jail.
For the first time, I examined my fellow jurors. They were much, much older than me. They seemed like solid New England folk; they were high school teachers and nurses, mothers and fathers.
The first juror to speak was a woman who identified herself as a professor at a local college.
“I hope we can all agree that we want to come to some kind of decision, that having a verdict is the best outcome,” she said.
Everyone nodded. Of course, I thought, weren’t we there to make a decision?
“As humans, we can achieve collective wisdom,” she continued. “Our democracy stays alive through this collective wisdom. I want to propose that we agree to defer to the wisdom of the majority.”
The other jurors and I continued to wag our heads. Except, wait! The judge had emphasized the importance of coming to a unanimous decision. But unanimity seemed like a naively high standard. Besides, what were the chances of being the lone dissent? We agreed to abandon unanimity for the safe familiarity of majority rule. Our first act as jurors was to disregard the law. I barely registered the irony.
Our majority leaned towards innocence. The prosecutors’ argument rested on a previous conviction of the defendant for a similar crime in the same geographic area. I thought that there were too many weirdos in the world to conclude guilt from this parallel. Most of the others agreed.
The professor did not agree. She found the crime specific in its perversity. She could not accept that two distinct individuals would masturbate in public. And while she expressed skepticism of the rhinestone-bedazzled defendant, she “trusted” the glasses-wearing one. The professor proceeded to convince the majority to join her in convicting the defendant. The specific language she used dissolves in my memory, but I clearly remember the way her voice seemed louder than anyone else’s. This loudness did not reflect the merits of her argument, but rather the force of her confidence. She was an alpha intellectual, someone who assumed a position of conversational dominance with ease.
I also remember feeling very young and very invisible. I sensed from the condescending smiles and perfunctory non-responses of the other jurors that my identity as a teenage girl rendered my opinions insignificant. In a sense, the other jurors were right. My life experiences as an introverted and sheltered child limited my insights into the Way the World Works. Yet the intimidation I experienced shrunk me into mute passivity. I continued to believe the evidence too thin to convict, but I chose not to force a hung jury. I voted guilty.
Trial by jury represents a dream of an equal society. The members of our jury could easily be arranged along vertical axes of power: child vs. adult, high school graduate vs. Ph.D, woman vs. man. As jurors, these hierarchies were ostensibly leveled. The unanimity requirement means that a single dissent can destroy a verdict. It demands that no voice be glossed over, since every juror holds a final stake in the decision. This decision marks a moment when our vertically arranged society can become – if only for a moment – horizontal.
My jury experience fell strikingly short of this dream. Our dismissal of the unanimity requirement reflected our collective failure to respect its equalizing intention. Our conversations, too, reflected the vertical nature of society. Class differences manifested themselves in our deliberation; I tempered my voice according to my position in the social order, and I think other jurors – the less educated and less wealthy ones – did as well. That the dominant role in our group was assumed by a woman represented a slight upset of the normal social hierarchy, but the effect of unleveling the group was the same as if she had been a man.
The classic representation of a jury is, of course, Sidney Lumet’s film 12 Angry Men. The film depicts a jury’s deliberations over a murder trial. At the conclusion of the film (spoiler alert!), Henry Fonda’s protagonist succeeds in persuading his fellow jurors to find the defendant innocent. The audience is supposed to feel that justice has been served: Henry Fonda’s argument is the Right One. But would Fonda’s rightness have been so clear if his critics had been less buffoonish? And what if he had persuaded his peers to convict rather than to acquit?
My experience on a jury was nearly identical to the one presented in 12 Angry Men. Like the jurors in the film, we were not twelve deliberators, but one persuader and eleven persuadeds. Differences in status subtly directed the exchanges between jurors, as they did in the film. But I was not Henry Fonda. Through my silence, I allowed a possibly innocent man to be sent to jail.
Rina Goldfield lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She teaches art and other subjects to children and adults. She sporadically makes paintings and drawings.