Juries of one’s peers

Newly out of a San Francisco jury pool, though I hardly got wet, I am reflecting on this being-judged-by-a-jury-of-one’s-peers business.

The defendant, turning to face us as we filed into the courtroom, was a 60-something man with a kind face and gentle demeanor. I knew from the color of his skin and the neighborhood he called home that I had had advantages in life which he had not. I knew from the well-known attorney handling his case that causes I support were supporting the defendant. I was in the defendant’s pocket. But — a peer?

In short order, however, we were told the case involved heroin and handguns, causes I do not support. As a card-carrying Brady Campaign member, and someone intimately acquainted with addictions – even if only, happily, nicotine and alcohol – I am disinclined to be sympathetic to those who go around with hard drugs and 9 mm hardware. Plus, I was impressed with the prosecuting attorney; you could say I felt peer-ship with her. The two sides were a wash, and I figured I could be fair as the law requires.

About halfway through the first round of questioning one prospective juror brought up California’s three strikes law. No way, one after another of us said, could we convict someone of a relatively minor crime (details of which of course we did not yet know) when we knew he’d be effectively in the slammer forever. The judge rather pointedly explained we were forbidden from considering punishment – but the specter had been raised. DNA, someone asked? Uh oh, a whole row of scientist types had opinions. And don’t even get us started on what we think of police in general (vehement pros and cons, nobody near neutral) – the case is going to rest on who believes whom, and an awful lot of the who’s will be officers of the law. The eliminations began.

By the time we were thanked and excused, either by the court because we had obvious reasons we should be sent home, or by the opposing attorneys for reasons known only to opposing attorneys, dozens of seemingly level-headed citizens had come and gone, most of them peers whom I thought I’d want for my judges. It seemed worrisome.

Who was left? I don’t know precisely, since I was not among the remnant that remained. But in hindsight this is the group I believe was there: Quite likely at least one or two people from the defendant’s ’hood. At least one or two who believe cops are good guys and one or two who think anyone in a uniform is brutal and corrupt. Probably a recovering alcoholic, a marijuana smoker, and at least one or two people who think it is none of the government’s darned business what we citizens put in our bodies. A hunter. Someone who had been mugged. I met them all in the pool. Peers. The case is in good hands.

Which does beat having some autocrat chop off your head.

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