In the Courthouse

I was not looking forward to serving my civic duty.  I am actually in a state of perpetually ‘too busy,’ as most of us are.  Yet, jury duty called and it does not take kindly to being ignored.  So I showed up on a Friday in February and I stood in a long line to go through the metal detector.   Then, before I was even dismissed for lunch, I read the entire book Wonderstruck in a wonder-less, window-less stuffy space.  In the end, juror number 140910890 was chosen and I was deemed ready to pass judgment in a small trial.

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At issue was a man who was invited by a friend to a spinning class and he went.  The only problem was that years ago, his older brother had taken out a restraining order against him and his older brother showed up at that spinning class, too.  It got more complicated than that, but I kept thinking that it should never have gone this way in the first place.  How could two brothers hate each other so much?  How grieved must their mother be?
As a jury, we thought the eldest brother presented himself as arrogant and obnoxious, and his physical demeanor was that of a bully.  Not one of us would have wanted to be around him in a social setting.  Yet, we wondered, How is it that the younger brother, the shorter, softer spoken brother, is the one with the restraining order?
Some in the jury felt certain that the mere fact that the defendant had a restraining order against him made him a person of poor judgment and character.  I felt conflicted as I wrestled with the legal meaning of the word intent and also the defendant’s actual intentions that day morning when he woke up and that hour when he was confronted by his brother.
In the end, we did what juries do and we made a judgment; this time it was guilty. 
As we left the courtroom, both lawyers approached us to ask questions of their performance.  To be honest, both lawyers were truly terrible.  The prosecution was painfully nervous and at times confusing.  We later learned this was his first case.  The defense was ill-prepared and disorganized.  I gave the prosecution some public speaking tips.
But out of the corner of my eye was the defendant and his wife, standing and waiting for their lawyer.  I had such compassion for him.  I thought I would never make the series of mistakes he made on that day.  Yet, I wanted him to know that each one of us on the jury saw how difficult his older brother was to be around.  We also saw how he did not wake up intending to violate the restraining order that day.  We hoped the judge would give the most lenient sentence possible taking into account these other factors.
Then the guilty and his wife quietly told me their sad story.  They told me how the older brother’s negligent and irresponsible behavior resulted in a terrible accident for their son, and it has left him permanently disabled, unable to walk or use the bathroom or feed himself for these 10 years.  Dreams they had for their son died as his uncle’s selfishness flourished.  It led to a great argument between the mother of the boy and the eldest brother, and the guilty felt compelled to step-in and defend his family and that led to the restraining order.
After hearing the story, I offered to pray for them and left quickly and quietly.  I was sick to my stomach.  I sat in my car and cried.  I was so upset I could not drive.   I was so very sad for the cruelty that life had dealt that family.  I also felt my own guilt greatly.   I did my duty and I passed judgment, but I did it as an outsider looking down.  I was certain I would never be in the situation the guilty was in.  I would have made better choices and I would have had more control to begin with. 
Now, I was not sure about that at all.  My definition of good choices and self-control changes when it comes to protecting my family.  I was just like him.  I would be guilty too.
Part of what pushed my heart so much was the knowledge that I was probably the only juror that approached the guilty and that I would be the only one that would know more of the truth.  The other eleven jurors were going to get in their cars with a smug feeling that they were better than the guilty.  They would go home and tell their roommates and families the story of this case and in their version of the story they would judge themselves better than him and remain in that boastful, proud state.
And that is perhaps all of life.
We live in a life that requires us to make judgments.  We hire one applicant for a job over another.  We spend our limited time on one friendship over another.  We vote for presidents and DWTS contestants.  This is just life.  Judgments are made.  Sometimes, in order to keep the weaker and more vulnerable safe, we must judge and protect.  Wrong must be called wrong.
Yet, we cannot go on thinking when we judge that we are better, especially in some moral context.  When we do, we are like ill-informed jurors, never knowing or understanding the full truth.  Each person that walks in front of us has a life-time of stories that we will never know.  There is a background narrative that shapes their choices at every turn and we are completely unaware of it.
When I was juror I sat in an elevated box looking down, both physically and morally, and I judged.  In life, I am going to endeavor to spend more time in the halls of the courthouse.  I want to stand shoulder to shoulder, look eye to eye, listen and then offer to pray.
Here’s to changing my focus,
  • Jeanine
In the Courthouse, is part of a personal series in which I explore the love God is calling us to in 1 Corinthians 13.  This post as well as, Pixels and Puzzle Pieces, and Confessions of a White Girl are an exploration on ‘Love does not boast; it is not proud.’  Directions is the first post that kicks off the series, and Waiting and Wiggle Room (Love is Patient) and Plus One (Love is Kind), follow from there. Us is the story of love’s kindness offered to me.   If you want to get notifications about future posts sent to your e-mail so you don’t miss them, then you can subscribe at the side bar or the bottom of the page, depending on the device you are reading on. Cheers!

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Comments: 3

  1. Carry May 4, 2015 at 6:08 pm Reply

    Brilliantly put. I worked as a municipal prosecutor for six months while I was in law school. One of the most heart-breaking parts of the job was facing people daily who often made bad decisions because they were in bad places or didn’t have the knowledge to make good decisions. They were not inherently bad people. Unfortunately, our legal system is imperfect, just like the people who created it. Justice for the masses often means injustice for a small few. Were that it was different.

  2. Jana Thomas May 4, 2015 at 6:13 pm Reply

    Oh Jeanine this is an awesome blog so beautifully written and a challenge every reader should take to heart! Well done my dear friend!

  3. I Want… | Jeanine Smith... Online... February 8, 2016 at 4:23 pm Reply

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