Several years ago (before I went to Iraq) I was called for Jury Selection.
My first thought was, “Damn it! I cannot afford this; I live paycheck to paycheck.” I was living in Commerce, Texas and though I had a decent and secure job, the pay did not support my lavish lifestyle: Beer, Cigarettes, a three DVD per week habit, computer games… Not to mention dog food, cat food and Lance food. Gasoline was not an issue: I had no car.
On the appointed day I dutifully showed up at the Hunt County Courthouse (in a borrowed car) along with about one hundred twenty thusly cursed potential selectees. They assembled us into a large room and passed out the questionnaires. It was quite noisy and seemed disorganized. I don’t recall any of the questions, save one:
“What is your religious affiliation”?
That was easy: “I scribbled ‘atheist’, which was an honest answer and one certain, I surmised to exempt me, as Hunt County probably has more churches per capita than most counties in Texas.” Brilliant!
Imagine my disbelief (no pun), when I was selected.
The trial, as it turns out was for a felony charge of robbery and assault. I will summarize to the best of my recollection. The defendant was a young man, say, twenty something. The plaintiff, a young woman, also twenty something.
The alleged crime: The defendant (white male) broke into the trailer-house of a third party again twenty something, with the intent of stealing a shotgun and maybe a few beers. By the way, all the principles in this event were white and actually knew each other and were supposedly ‘friends’.
The defendant was unaware that the trailer was occupied by the young woman, who happened to be engaged to a fourth party, but claimed to just sleeping in the trailer, “because she had gotten too drunk to drive home.” The owner of the trailer was not home at this time.
Once discovered by the young woman, the defendant threatened her by leveling the shotgun and promising with utmost sincerity that he was about to blow “her fuckin’ head off.”
That’s the gist of the complaint.
The testimony took most of the day, and then we retired to our chambers. Hunt County Courthouse is not a new facility (1929).
The jury chambers were musty but reasonably well lit, due to the several large windows in the room. We were on the third floor of the courthouse and could see ‘freedom’ on the streets below. We seated ourselves around a wonderful solid oak conference table which reminded me of the dining room table my father had in his Victorian Era ‘Marcom Manor’. All that was missing was the fireplace and the crystal balls and the pewter figurines of demons and witches and dragons.
On the walls were old paintings of Texas pastoral country scenes, one requisite Texan Ranger on horseback with a Walker-Colt six-shooter in hand, and one poster showing “Justice is Blind” frayed at the edges and stuck to the wall with yellowed scotch tape, probably added some years after the paintings as an after thoughtful motivation, or reminder, or inspiration. Who knows?
First order of business was to select a foreperson. To my dismay I was elected through no fault of my own. I was trying to fly under the radar, and apparently had failed miserably. And after all that stealth training with the SEALs too! Shit.
We began the laborious debate on the testimony and evidence. Personally from the get go, I was leaning toward a guilty verdict, but not ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ at this initial point. As I recall, our first ‘secret’ ballot, which I called for right off the bat, just to see where we were, reflected an equally divided jury. Clearly we had some work to do if we were to come to a unanimous decision. We spent what little was left of the rest of the afternoon kicking the testimony around and getting to know each other.
Seated just to my left was a white man, about my age sporting a crew cut and an out-spoken demeanor. By his words, it became immediately clear he had an education and was also of the mind no gray area existed here. The guy was guilty. “And what he needed was to find Jesus Christ.”
There was an elderly gentleman at the opposite end of the conference table who had a mild-mannered air, quite soft-spoken. He could go either way.
Much to my surprise a woman I had known years before, who was still married to a good friend, fellow Honey Grove native, and also a co-worker of mine from the Seventies was also there. Not sure which way she was leaning.
An elderly blue-haired lady sat next to her, and I could just tell, she did not feel the young man deserved prison. (The crime called for a minimum fifteen year sentence, as the defendant had a previous record. In Texas, I think it must be two strikes and yer out)
The rest rounded out our ‘Twelve Angry Men’ scenario.
At the end of the afternoon, and having taken one more secret ballot and having not come anywhere near to a unanimous decision we departed to return the next morning.
Jury Duty, Texas Style Part Two