Earlier this year I received a summons for Jury Duty. Being an over-the-top workaholic, my first response is to call the number provided on the summons and postpone my service date for six months. Lo and behold, six months later, I receive another summons like clockwork! I was in the middle of planning my book tour, so of course, I am caught off guard by it like any normal, self-absorbed millennial.
Though many have encouraged me to start blogging, I could never really find the impetus or catalyst to propel me to embark upon the habit...until now....until Jury duty. Not that my time of service in the NYC court system was particularly exciting, but it was certainly an experience, and I learned a lot about the system and about myself.
I rush to 111 Center Street by 8:30 the morning of my summons, and after hours in the TSA-style security lines and the DMV-style summons-checking waiting area, my service begins well after 10:30. We, the one hundred plus prospective jurors, sit in a main hall and listen to an African man tell us what to expect over the next two days. If you are not selected to the jury panel of a specific case in the two days, you are free to leave, your service complete. After another hour of checking my emails on the nonexistant wi-fi, I am called within the first batch of forty who will be briefed for possible selection within the first case.
The forty of us enter the courtroom, are quickly sworn in, and are introduced to the presiding judge. The first Supreme Court trial is against a young man for selling drugs to an undercover cop in close proximity to a high school. The judge acquaints us with the two sets of attorneys and the defendant, a young well-groomed black man who rises once introduced. He turns to his potential jurors and says something along the lines of, "Hello and good morning everyone. How's it going?" with a smile and a curt wave. This move is something I highly recommend to prospective defendants. I immediately acquit him in my mind. He asked me how my day was! He is a young, healthy black kid who smiled at me. I think 'Do the cops not have better things to do with their very talented undercover agents?'
The judge seems to want to hurry along the process and asks us to come to the front if we'd like to be excuse from selection. One woman stands up, is pregnant, and is excused. I can sense the african americans in the room itching to find an excuse to leave, not wanting to judge this man that could be their cousin, their brother, their son. Several people, including black people who were very evidently not Ethiopian, claim they are Jewish and must observe the upcoming Yom Kippur. I play the blind card, claiming I would not fairly judge visual evidence -- not necessarily an untruth. As I head back to the hall, I wonder if it's his smile and hello that propelled me to want to excuse myself from judging his case or simply the fact that he was black and 'a guy I could have a beer with.' I then wonder if it is because I have issues with the current drug laws and their implied prejudice or if I simply want to get out of wasting time sitting in a courtroom for weeks. I then think...if I really wanted to help him, I could have gotten on the jury and persuaded them to come to an acquittal.
At noon on day two I am called within a group of seventy for a stalker case. The Justice, much older than the one from the previous day, appears in no hurry and is very long-winded. He spends almost an hour explaining civic duty and courtroom manner. I do appreciate his clarification that upon being sworn in, those who do not believe in the biblical God or oaths may say "I so affirm" in stead of "I swear." I find it interesting that this older judge is the more progressive of the two. The judge speaks so much that we break for lunch before hearing any details of the case. He mentions the claimant's name, but it doesn't stick in my mind.
During lunch I see my ex-supervisor from the Corps at a Starbucks. I try not to be pleased that she looks old, tired and 'of yesterday.' I allow her to say an obligatory hello then scamper off. I then occupy myself with contemplating why she'd stood behind me in the line for ten minutes saying nothing, her underwhelming outfit, and her dark circles. I think about how much happier I am since having left the job to pursue music and writing and consider if I should have expressed that to her. The thought of music causes the though of R&B pop star Ashanti to invade my head space. As I scurry back to the courthouse I quell a growing urge to google her. It's not until I'm firmly ensconced back in the no-cellphone courtroom that I kick myself in the face for not googling her during lunch break. She is the claimant.
Apparently Ashanti is being stalked by a man named Devar Hurd. He sent her several hundred sexually inappropriate tweets. Initially I ponder at why a female pop star would care about a man sending depraved tweets. I receive dozens of grossly perverted texts from men simply because they'd gotten my number from the back of my business card. I then wonder, as a well-off member of a group called "Murder Inc," doesn't Ashanti have people that can 'handle' this? Perhaps I watch too much Breaking Bad, Ray Donavon and Scandal, but I've always assumed you don't bring a cop to a street fight. I do remain intrigued. The judge makes it very clear that no excuses will suffice for evading selection, and try as we may, he's heard it all before. Vacations may be forfeited. The defendant, Mr. Hurd, is introduced. He stands, flashes an 'I'm guilty and could care less about you' scowl then sits back down wordlessly (obviously self-represented).
In that moment I no longer wish to serve on the case. The judge explains that the defendant has already been in and out of jail for the case at hand, and all I can think of is that he either just needs mental and psychiatric help, or a bunch of bigger black men to 'kick his ass.' This is not your average Catcher-in-the-Rye-reading white guy. We're talking about a black man, already paranoid and delusional due to 'the system' who is obsessed with a pop singer. He could be part of a murdering gang, a gun-slinger, an armed robber. He should be dealt with the way the streets deal with such things.
They line us up outside to come in one by one with our excuses. I, twentieth or so in line, watch as some of the Jewish people who'd been previously excused and the pregnant woman walk in to the courtroom then back out to the hall to wait -- having been unexcused, and by the time they get to me, no one has been excused. Knowing the blind card will not work here, I walk in and decide to be honest. I say to the judge, "I'm visually impaired. I'm not certain as to the race of the defendant, but if he is of African decent, I do not believe I can judge fairly in this case." The judge responds with, "Yes, he is African American, but what if I told you the claimants are also African American?" I say, "I cannot judge fairly in case against a man of African decent." The judge looks over at the prosecuting lawyer, and they all nod. The judge excuses me from the case.
I, under oath and on a matter of public record, stated that I am racist.
I understand that in both cases race heavily influenced my decision to excuse myself from selection. We are all racially biased to some extent, as heuristic classifications are a healthy defense mechanism we as humans use for survival, especially during these times of swift social evolution. Fortunately yet unfortunately people often grant an automatic benefit of the doubt to minorities who suggest more erudite qualities. "Wow, she speaks intelligently for a black person." I tend to choose to ride that wave as far as it will take me.
It's that notion -- apart from simply not wanting to waste time serving -- that I believe coerced many of us to opt against serving in the trial of the first case. "Wow, he's a black man, all dressed up with a smile and a hello." Very southern, Sunday church-like. If it were a white man, we would not care as much, as adequate demeanor is expected. Almost every African American figured out a way to be excused not wanting to be part of a group that could convict this man, yet now he will find himself judged by a very non-black jury, for selling drugs to an undercover non-black cop near a non-black school. I lay torn at my decision to excuse. Regardless, I would not have deliberated fairly.
During the second case, my feelings become a little more black and white. There was no nod and smile, and I have no issues with the current stalker laws. I simply felt, as I always feel about black men: the system is so verily stacked against them in so many subtle ways that any subsequent paranoia, delusions and defensiveness should be no surprise. Our second case defendant appeared to me to be a black man who needs help. I, personally, am not for wasting the tax payers money by putting a black man in jail for tweets. He'd simply sit in his cell mentally exasperating his obsession only to come out and engage in more inappropriate tweets as he'd done after his previous jail-time. Again, my feelings on this case would be very different if he were not African American.
That was my very wrenching brush with jury service. Through this experience I've learned that I not only have no interest in sitting on a panel that could potentially sentence a black person to jail, prison or death, I could not sentence anyone to such a fate -- safe for someone who has directly hindered my personal pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
Thoughtwards is a blog celebrating forward thought and the diverse thinkers who think them.
M. Lachi is an award winning recording/performing artist and composer, a published author, and a proponent of forward thinking. Having studied Management at UNC and Music at NYU, M. Lachi employs both savvies in her creative endeavors.
For more on M. Lachi's music click here.