That’s what happened according to my husband Brad, who has trial litigation experience. I was in a room of 175 people called for jury duty in a criminal case. I was surprised that I, along with 70 others, were called to the courtroom. We filed into the courtroom. The defendant – a man named Mohammed with dark hair and skin – and his attorney scanned our faces as we sat down. I immediately felt sorry for the defendant, imaging he had been the recipient of harm, not a criminal. I wonder if this showed on my face.
We went outside the courtroom for about fifteen minutes and were called in again. Much to my surprise, I was named second seat in the jury. There were twelve of us, with six back-ups. Then began the questioning by the judge. This was a misdemeanor case of alleged vandalism. Ten people of the potential jurors had been victim of car vandalism. The judge asked each of these people whether they could be objective in this case. They wavered saying variations of “I’ll try” or “I think I can.” The judge was getting exasperated. “No, I don’t want ‘I’ll try’, I need to know whether you will or will not put your own vandalism experience aside.”
I was then questioned by the judge. I said I was a Zen Buddhist practitioner and teacher. I said how I was a defendant in a criminal case. I had turned into a parking space at Safeway, and a woman accused me of hitting her with my car, backing up and hitting her two more times. I was outraged and humiliated and suspected a scam. I told the court that I was shocked how easily criminal charges can be filed against someone. I didn’t say this to get out of jury duty, it was simply the truth. But I thought the plaintiff attorney wouldn’t want me and the defense attorney would.
We were dismissed again, while the judge and attorneys conferred. It was at this time that the attorneys were discussing their peremptory challenges. Each attorney could dismiss three jurors without a reason. When we returned to the courtroom, the attorneys proceeded with voir dire, the process of questioning jurors to determine if they would help or hurt their case.
They asked several people whether they thought “the criminal justice system is broken.” Most people mumbled opinions that the system was not broken; people make mistakes. Mumble, mumble.
I, on the other hand, said: “I read an article in the New Yorker about a young African American man, who was incarcerated for a very long time on false charges. Very sad. People of color fill the jails and prisons, while the white and affluent stay out of jail.” [I wish I had said, “Like the white criminal who is the President of the United States.”]
Questions to me started flying from both plaintiff and defense attorneys. I knew the plaintiff attorney would not want me on the jury, and for the defense, I would be a dream juror: aware of systemic injustice, personally aware that false charges can be brought, and yet articulate about the necessity of following legal instructions by the judge.
The defense attorney said,
“Ms. Byrum, what about my client?”
“I don’t know him.”
“Well, look at him, what do you think?”
“I think I would be sympathetic, but I would judge the case on the merit of the evidence produced.”
[I wish I said Buddhists are trained to sympathize with everyone.]
“What would be beyond a reasonable doubt for you?” [The standard in a criminal case.]
“If after all the evidence was produced, and I still could not be certain that this man was guilty, I would have to vote “Not guilty.”
It was bizarre. There were 17 other people, but I was asked question after question. Plaintiff attorney wanted me out, but she had to make sure there were not more “biased” potential jurors. Defense wanted me in and wanted to demonstrate I could be fair and reasonable.
After questioning, the plaintiff attorney said,” Thank you Ms. Byrum. You are excused.”
If I had known that I would have the platform of an entire criminal court, with 70 potential jurors, I would have come better prepared to give a speech about injustice in the criminal justice system.
The best long term outcome, however, was that at a break, a young software engineer asked me about Buddhism. She lives in San Mateo and I recommended the Insight Meditation Center. I think she will go. My one for sure bodhisattva act.