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Democracy in Action

by Ruth Rosen
In a piece published in Dissent, Ruth Rosen draws on her experience as a juror to tell us what democracy looks like.

Years later, I would tell my friends never to shirk their jury summonses. This is the most democratic experience you’ll ever have, I’d insist.

But when I first arrived at the Alameda County Superior Courthouse, located in what was the gritty area of downtown Oakland in the late 1980s, I had little desire to serve on a criminal trial. I simply assumed that no sane
assistant D.A. would accept me as a member of a jury because I was a professor, a Berkeley resident, and a lifelong liberal activist.

Turns out I was wrong. The young assistant D.A., impeccably dressed for success, immediately established that I was a professor of American history at the University of California, as well as a liberal who had lived in Berkeley for decades. I was sure I would be home within the hour. Then, she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “If I can convince you that a person recklessly endangered people driving under the influence of alcohol, would you be willing to convict such a defendant?” I hesitated, thought about it for a long moment, answered truthfully, and said, “Yes, I would do
that.”

Suddenly, I was serving on my first trial. As we listened to the witnesses’ testimonies, the evidence was overwhelming. The whitehaired, elderly African-American man who now sat in the courtroom casually dressed in mismatched pants and jacket had left a party, driven his truck down a hill, careened across the street, and smashed into a telephone pole. Several neighbors had witnessed the spectacle. When the police arrived, he could not walk a straight line. The breathalyzer test made them wonder how he was able to stand upright. He wasn’t just driving under the influence. He was
stone drunk.

As we filed into a stuffy, dim room to discuss the evidence, we sat around a long table that reminded me of the film Twelve Angry Men. But we were not twelve white men. The jury included ten individuals from ethnic and racial minorities. Half of us were women.

One man immediately pointed at me and said I should be the forelady because I was a professor and probably knew how to do these things. The rest immediately agreed. I accepted, not sure I really knew “how to do these things.”

We met for two full days because four members of the jury wanted to return a vote of “not guilty.” We took straw votes; we asked the judge to repeat his instructions; we asked the bailiff for transcriptions of certain testimonies. I understood and shared the moral anguish of the four. We all knew this was the defendant’s third conviction for drunk driving and that he’d likely go to prison. What we all wanted was for him to get help and become sober. But the judge, a warm, compassionate, Mexican American, had repeatedly instructed us, “You must not take into consideration the
possible nature of the sentence, only the evidence that has been presented. You must only decide whether the defendant is guilty of the crime.”

Four members of the jury concluded that we should tell the judge we were a hung jury. “No,” I said. “You feel strongly that he is not guilty and we owe you the time to convince us of your thinking and feelings.”

That meant we’d have to meet a second day. The room was still stuffy; the coffee acidic; the food inedible. By noon, we were hungry, tired, and exhausted. Still, I insisted that the four be given plenty of time to convince the rest of us that he was not guilty.

As tensions grew, I suggested we take a break and just get to know each other. We were a diverse group. I was the only professor. Among us were a waitress, an engineer, a domestic house worker, a city construction
worker, a retired trucker, a retired grocery store and a Wal-Mart saleswoman. Some had dropped out of high school; others seemed well
versed in California law. Half were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. A third were African Americans. Some labored for a
minimum wage; the rest earned varying degrees of middle-class salaries. Nobody was even remotely wealthy.

The break worked. We established an easy intimacy. We talked about our lives, our families, and our work. People dug into their purses and wallets to show off pictures of their kids and grandchildren.

Then, when the tension had eased, we got back to the hard work of dealing with a man none of us wanted to send to prison. I gently used skills that I had learned from teaching so many seminars. I gave the four who wanted to
vote not guilty all the time they needed to express their anguish. None of them argued that the man on trial was innocent; they just didn’t want him to go to prison. Neither did I. Gradually, the rest of the jury convinced them that they had to evaluate the evidence, and not consider the possible sentence. We took yet another vote, and this time we reached a unanimous verdict—”guilty.”

After living with each other for two days, we returned to the jury box with the invisible bonds we had forged inside the jury room. The judge asked if we had reached a verdict. I stood up, looked at the rheumy eyes of the defendant, and reluctantly told the judge that we had indeed reached a unanimous decision. The judge thanked us with considerable graciousness and, before he dismissed us, he acknowledged how hard this case must have
been for all of us.

I had a queasy feeling as I left the courthouse. “He shouldn’t go to prison,” I muttered to myself. “He desperately needs help.” But
then I thought of the kids who had been playing on that street and how his truck might have hit one of them instead of a pole.

I had missed a lecture and a seminar that week. But I knew I had been profoundly transformed by this experience. True, I had marched
in endless protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and cast votes every year. But I had never experienced democracy in such a direct and profound way. I had sat with eleven other citizens for two days. Together we had wrestled with tough moral and legal decisions, and when we parted, it was with genuine affection and respect.

As I walked down the stairs of the courthouse, the assistant D.A caught up with me. “Why did you risk putting me on a jury?” I asked her. She smiled. “Because I believed you and, the truth is, it was my first trial.”


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