Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
November 1st, 2003

In God We Trust

Especially if a Juror Has a Plane to Catch


The big red stripe ran the length of the white envelope proclaiming, Juror Summons Enclosed.

Jury duty.

I decided to take a positive attitude. Why not? They do pay forty bucks a day; it’s a good way to get a view of the justice system; and if I don’t do it, how can I expect anybody else to?

What I didn’t plan on was the weird community that develops in a group with a shared secret—the details of the case—nor on the visceral nature of jury deliberations. Not to mention the huge brass letters on the wall above the judge’s head, “In God We Trust.

Be careful what you wish for…

I was selected for a jury on a mugging trial my first day. Getting home late that night I caught the last 15 minutes of CSI , in time to hear the character who was just arrested ask Grissom why he thinks that “the twelve people too stupid to get off jury duty” would ever believe the evidence presented.

Who’s your client?
We were told not to talk about the facts of the case to anyone, not even our fellow jurors. I found myself excited en route to each day of the trial, knowing that I was closer to deliberations, when at last we could talk. Not that no communication happened in the courtroom. There was the eye-rolling of a witness (which matched my own thoughts) regarding the public defender, especially when he called his client, the defendant, by the victim’s name. Over and over again.

Odd one out
I was not prepared for the physical intensity of deliberations. As the last holdout for a not guilty verdict, it surprised me how easily some of my fellow jurors came to the opposite conclusion. The guy who had a flight to catch that afternoon was particularly sure of the defendant’s guilt.

What I wanted was what the judge told us we couldn’t request—proof to a mathematical certainty that the defendant was guilty—fingerprints, DNA, anything. What we had was the eyewitness account of a convicted felon, a few scratch marks, and a potentially implicating comment the defendant made while being arrested.

I sat in the jury room, wanting to throw up or cry or both. I agonized over the scratch marks—the one piece of evidence that was tipping me in favor of a guilty verdict.

What’s God got to do with it?
Sitting in the jury box I kept being drawn back to those big letters above the judge’s head: In God We Trust. God is about the truth, about things covered in darkness being brought to light (Mark 4:22).

That differed drastically from what went on in the courtroom. We did not see all, only what we were permitted to within the constraints of the law and the judge’s allowances. Even our charge for a verdict was only to find guilt or the lack thereof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” thus presuming that doubt would remain, truth not necessarily found.

Beyond a reasonable doubt

Eventually we voted unanimously for a guilty verdict. At the defense attorney’s request, we stated individually that we agreed with the verdict. Suddenly many who were so sure in the privacy of the jury room, had the softest voices.

I’ll never know for certain if we did the right thing, and I’m not altogether happy about what I learned about our justice process. Rather than being about “the truth” it seemed more a game of skill between two attorneys to see who could be more persuasive.

Next time I see that big red stripe in the mail, I won’t be so eager.

Courtroom photo from U.S. district from the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Author : Elizabeth Bonwich
Elizabeth Bonwich writes from New York City.
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