Law and Order: Jury duty edition

For about two weeks in December, I served on a jury. It was a fascinating and intense experience, and I hope to post further entries about my experience. For me, of the hardest things about being on a jury was not being able to talk about the trial until it was over, and when it finally ended, I needed a mental break from it. But now, here I am, finally ready to write about my experience.

To give you a general sense of the case, it was a murder trial. The victim was an adult male, and he died from a gunshot wound to his back. He was shot at close range in his own apartment. Further details may or may not make an appearance in future posts, but they shouldn’t be necessary to understanding the rest of this post.

Slightly more relevant to this post is the timing of the trial, which spanned two weeks in the middle of December. I missed a total of nine days of work (the first day was jury selection), and we reached our verdict on what would have been my last day of work before my December break (also known as Christmas break to most students and teachers). This meant that, when I returned to work last week, I hadn’t seen most of my students in a month, nor had I seen my colleagues.

It meant that, even though the trial ended two weeks ago, I found myself answering questions about it when I returned to work last Thursday, and this week as well, as I ran into the various colleagues I hadn’t seen since early December.

Though each conversation was different, many of them went something like this (though not always in this order):
Them: so, how was jury duty?
Me: It was intense. Fascinating, but intense.
Them: did you convict?
Me: There were three counts. We convicted on the third.
Them: What kind of case was it?
Me: It was a murder trial.
Them: Wow. That must have been tough.
Me: Uh… actually, it wasn’t that bad. Mentally exhausting, keeping track of all the details, but not so intense emotionally.

And why wasn’t it hard? It was a murder trial. It should have been. But these conversations served to remind me of something I’d noticed while serving on the jury: most of the time, it didn’t quite feel real.

The truth is, I spent much of the trial feeling like I’d stepped into an episode of Law and Order. Sure, the prosecutor wasn’t as dynamic, but the defense attorney felt like he’d stepped right through my TV (or computer) screen. He paced as he thought. He stroked his chin. He came up with dramatic lines, and he had just the right accent. And sure, the testimony was a lot less dramatic, and took days instead of minutes, but it felt like the longer, more toned-down version of what I’ve seen so many times on TV.

Because I watch Law and Order, I knew what to expect. The judge explained to us how the trial would run: opening statements, witnesses for each side, direct and cross examinations. He explained to us that lawyers might have objections, but that they bore no ill feelings toward each other, and that it was all a normal part of courtroom procedure. I listened to his explanations, but I knew all of that already. And when the trial started, I never felt lost. I felt like I’d done my homework. I knew what to expect. I felt at home.

Because of Law and Order, I also understood a lot of the jargon before they defined it for us. Phrases like Crime Scene Unit (or CSU), DD5 (police paperwork), and rape kit (more formally called sexual assault evidence collection kit, but both terms were used over the course of the trial) didn’t need to be explained for my benefit, and those are only a few examples. When the lawyers explained their objections (though they didn’t always explain), I understood what they were referring to, and I could guess at the reasons when they didn’t explain, or when they said, “objection to the form of the question,” even though no one ever says that on TV.

And when they showed us images of the victim’s body, that also felt less than real. He was lying on the ground in a messy room, with a small pool of blood beneath his head. He was wearing clothing, and he was on his back. There were close-up shots of a single small hole in his upper back, where the bullet entered his body, but it wasn’t messy. It was just there. There was no messy exit wound. Just a few other minor injuries: scratches, and a bruise. It was exactly the sort of murder scene they’d stage for a TV show. Realistically messy, but not too graphic for prime time. And maybe that’s why it didn’t feel real.

In an odd way, the fact that it was a murder case made it easier to sit through, because there was no victim alive to testify in tears. There were also no witnesses to the murder itself, so no one could give us a blow-by-blow of what happened. Only one witness got choked up, and only for a moment. The victim had been his friend. But everyone else just said what they had to say with almost no emotional outbursts. The courtroom, overall, remained calm.

Or maybe it was easier because it felt just like TV, and that made everything feel less real.

I think that maybe this was a good thing. Certainly, it made the trial easier for me. Every night, I came home exhausted. I wanted nothing more than to sit and watch TV (which was, of course, complicated by the fact that nearly every TV show I watch involves crime). But it was only the exhaustion that comes from the hard work of constant focus, not an emotional exhaustion. I wasn’t anxious or wrung out. I was just tired.

It also made things easier for me during deliberations. I had an easier time reaching a decision, because I didn’t feel some deep-seated need to get justice for the victim no matter what, and I didn’t feel drawn to take pity on the defendant. I had the facts in front of me, and that was all there was to work with. I came to a conclusion, and discussed and debated with my fellow jurors, but I don’t think I was ever emotionally invested in the conversation. It was all purely intellectual for me. It didn’t weigh on me that a man’s freedom hung in the balance. All that mattered were the facts of the case.

But I do still wonder whether there’s a downside to experiencing the trial in this way. Is it bad that it didn’t quite feel real? Would I have argued harder or thought more deeply if I had been worrying about just how significant an impact our verdict would have on the lives of real people? Or would emotions have clouded my judgment? Was it better that I was able to approach the case from a place of emotional distance? I’d like to think that, overall, my many years as a loyal Law and Order viewer helped me to be a more informed, more diligent juror, but some part of me wonders if maybe I was missing out on something with that approach.


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