I had been living in Delaware for a little more than a year when I received a summons for jury duty. I had never had jury duty before and was not sure what to expect. Most people complained about the obligation, but I wasn’t exactly happy in my current job and didn’t have any vacation time. A jury summons in the middle of summer was like a vacation, in a way. I didn’t have vacation time or air conditioning in my job so I welcomed the opportunity to get a day away.
I arrived at the court house with a few books in hand and was directed to a large room with many other people waiting. It was decorated with local school children’s photography work, which interested me as a photographer myself. The room was full of people, mostly sitting quietly or chatting among themselves.
There was a man not much older than me in a white shirt and jeans arguing with one of the staff about how he was “mentally ill” and “didn’t need to be there.” The staff, as I expected, had heard it all and were in no mood for his nonsense. He was told in no uncertain terms to sit down and be quiet. He refused to settle down, and was beginning to worry me.
Eventually, I was called in for selection. Much to my surprise, I was chosen for a trial of second degree assault. They asked if any of us in the jury had been the victim of domestic abuse, or if we knew any of the people involved with the trial. Since I was new to the state, I didn’t and was allowed to stay on the jury.
The process was remarkably interesting to me. It did follow the protocol you see on television, but not as dramatically. The defendant was the boyfriend, the prosecution represented the girlfriend who was allegedly assaulted. The young man, not more than a few years apart from me in age, sat near his attorney, looking somber and frightened. He wore a suit, but had on white socks instead of dress socks.
The prosecution attorney, a pretty woman with long brown hair, took longer than necessary pauses in between thoughts. It would seem that this was done for effect, and after the beginning arguments, the story she painted made it seem quite grim for the young man.
During the testimony, though, we learned that the issue wasn’t just a matter of him hitting her, which he didn’t necessarily deny. What was left out of the initial discussion was that the girlfriend had assaulted him first. He was home from college and she was still in high school. He was taking her to school the day of the event, but she wanted to blow off school and smoke weed. He had become angry as they were backing out of the driveway, trying to convince her to go to school, and threw her bag of drugs out the window of the car. This set her off and she attacked him, scratching his face and neck. In an attempt to get this violent person off of him, he brought up his right hand and it met squarely with her nose, breaking it.
Her story pretty much fell apart on the stand. It was obvious that she was lying because she couldn’t remember her version. When they submitted into evidence the pictures of the damage she did to him, but couldn’t produce any evidence of her injury, there wasn’t much we could do. Without photographs or medical records of her injury, the whole story seemed like a lie.
While testimony ran long, we were given the option to come to a finding and stay a bit later or to come back the next day. The jury didn’t take long to make its choice, and we found him not guilty. Pretty much everyone came to the same conclusion, that he acted in self defense. We reasoned that if it had been any of us in that situation, driving a car while someone scratched at your face and neck, we would behave the same way.
On my way out to my car, the parking deck was pretty deserted, and I ran into the young man and his family. I realized that in that moment, there was a very real face to the obligation of jury duty, and that what most of us felt was just a hassle or worse, it had a very real impact on a person’s life. Had we found him guilty, he’d probably have to do jail time and have assault on his permanent record. With the finding of not guilty, he could go on with his life and leave this bad relationship behind him. It made me proud to take part in my civic duty as an American citizen, to know that I had made a difference.