The Burden of Justice: Participation
Recently, I served on a jury. The process is likely familiar to many of us; you get a summons in the mail and immediately curse your bad luck, you defer the day as many times as the system will allow and when the day of reckoning finally arrives you go and spend the day praying that you won’t be picked.
For me it worked in much the same way.
The trial I was selected for involved a man accused of Continuous Sexual Assault of a Child.
In the simplest terms, Continuous Sexual Assault of a Child is an allegation that an adult sexually assaulted a child or children under the age of 14 and that at least two of those acts took place at least 30 days apart from one another.
A charge of continuous sexual assault of a child under 14 is, in some ways one of the most serious offenses a person can be charged with outside of capital murder in that it carries the punishment of 25 years to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Child sexual abuse is not something that most people want to think about or spend much time talking about and it is probably fair to say that most people would not want to spend much – if any time – hearing about the details of what happened to the child victims. To be honest, just the process of voir dire (jury selection) made me sick. As potential jurors we were interviewed by the judge, the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney about our perception of our ability to remain open and objective about the evidence presented as well as our perception of our ability to find the accused not guilty if sufficient proof is not presented during trial and our willingness to consider the full range of punishment if we did find him guilty.
After listening to days of testimony I – and my fellow jurors – found the accused guilty and rendered a sentence that was long enough to make sure that he would never walk free in public again; and then we were done. The judge thanked us for our service and this group of 14 people (12 jurors and 2 alternates) said goodbye and went back to our lives…changed forever.
Changed because we had spent 6 days with strangers talking about the most intimate, upsetting and weighty topics. As intimate as the process was, however, I don’t even know the names of all of the jurors. During the trial we were only referred to by our juror number so that – as the judge told us after the trial – the defendant and his friends and families wouldn’t know our names in case they wanted to exact revenge. She told us that our identities would be sealed in the court records but that the records were legally available to anyone who could demonstrate a need to know. In other words, another judge in the future could unseal the records and release our names.
Since the trial, I have been thinking a lot about my fellow jurors and wondering if they are having as much trouble as I am returning to my normal routine.
I also have been thinking a lot about the children who were – and still are – the victims. The abuser is now in prison and they are safe from him being able to have physical access to them but they are still not safe. The adults who spent years in willful, deliberate ignorance and blindness to what was happening are still in caretaker roles in the lives of these children. The adults who chose not to see, chose not to hear and then later chose not to get them the psychological help they needed are still in “parenting” roles.
Then there are the extended family members of the abuser – the perpetrator’s parents and relatives who now blame the victim for coming forward. Who are now punishing the victim for coming forward – for being the cause of sending her abuser to jail.
And finally, there is the abuser. He is now a permanent part of my life. I am permanently tied to him in court records, memory and in a sense of relationship that I did not ask for and certainly did not and do not want.
I feel proud of being part of a process that took a serial child predator off the street and am hopeful that this action will prevent almost certain future harm to the same and other children from happening but I am also sickened that his disturbed behavior is now indelibly burned into my brain.
That’s the thing about justice and freedom and democracy – it is messy. In some ways it is like being a surgeon – you can’t heal your patient without causing some harm and getting your hands covered in blood.
In order to put their accuser in jail and hold him accountable for his actions children had to come to court and explain in graphic detail which parts of their young bodies he touched with what parts of his body. They were required to describe what it felt like, where it happened and the sounds he made while he was doing it. I pray that finally having their voices heard and validated will eventually bring some healing but fear that the more likely outcome is that another scar was created from the trauma of the re-telling.
I – and my fellow jurors – are now forever stained with the blood of democracy and justice. My fellow jurors and I made the best decision possible in an imperfect system to protect the innocent and punish the guilty but it comes at a price for everyone involved.
Democracy and justice are contact sports – they require showing up, being present and sometimes they require getting hurt for the greater good. I am grateful that my sacrifice was small in comparison to those made every day by our police, fire-fighters, soldiers, sailors and marines. I have a new and deepened respect for the burdens of living in a free society.
So, would I do it again? What is going to happen when the next jury summons comes? I am going to go willingly to serve because even imperfect and incomplete justice is better than none at all. If a jury had not been found these children – and others like them – would still be waiting for the person who harmed them to be brought to justice. Thankfully some parts of living in a democracy are simple, clean and easy: casting a ballot in the privacy of a ballot booth, signing petitions on-line from the privacy of my home, writing checks to support causes that I believe in.
Now I know those things are not enough – there are times when it is necessary to get messy – to volunteer to do the harder things. When I watch the news and don’t like what I hear I am going to be asking myself different questions.
As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said:
“Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country.
This is your democracy.
Pass it on.”