The Honorable Judith M. Hightower (front row, left) and her colleagues on Seattle's Municipal Court. Credit: Credit: Mike Folden
Last week was, for Christians, Holy Week. I spent it in court, which is not a bad place to be for Holy Week as a fair amount of the action during that last week in the life of Jesus also takes place before various judges.
On Tuesday morning at 8:30 more than 100 of us reported to the jury room on the 12th floor of the Municipal Court building on Fifth Avenue across from Seattle’s City Hall. As I got into the elevator a court worker asked, “Which floor?” “Twelve,” I answered. “The penthouse,” she said with a smile. “Best views in the house.”
She was right. The views of Elliott Bay were breathtaking and the jury room spacious and pleasant. In addition to the large, light-filled main room, there’s a roof courtyard with outside seating and an inside quiet room. Which is great since jury duty involves a fair amount of waiting. It was Tuesday afternoon at 2:00 before my name was called. I joined 14 others for the move to a ninth floor courtroom and the next stage in jury selection.
In the courtroom, in addition to the 15 of us, there were four court officials, one of them the judge. There were also the two attorneys, the defendant and, at the very back, two police officers. Of the 24 people in the courtroom, two were African-American. One of those was the defendant. The other was the judge.
Judge Judith Hightower’s courtroom is decorated with striking African art, from the judge's collection. As we entered, we passed a sculpture that was a series of masks, an interesting piece for a courtroom. On the concrete wall opposite the jury box hung a blazing quilt of many colors. “Speak to the quilt,” instructed the judge, “that way the digital recording system will pick up what you say.”
Judge Hightower welcomed us to her courtroom and gave us a rundown on what was about to happen. She also thanked us for serving, noting how important jury service is to the whole system. And she added that these days it was necessary to supoena 400 people in order to get 60 to show up. She also explained that this case was an assault case and that the two attorneys would now engage us in a preliminary conversation, after which six of us would be selected to sit on the jury for the trial.
I’d often heard that clergy were dismissed at this stage, as we are apparently suspected of being, as a group, too lenient. So I was surprised when I was selected. Late Tuesday afternoon, testimony began. As the first day wrapped up, Judge Hightower reminded us that we were not to discuss the case with anyone, including family, until after it had been settled.
The next morning's testimony continued into early afternoon. All the proceedings moved at a snail’s pace, which led me to wonder how the court-assigned police staved off boredom. Not very well to judge from their trance-like expressions.
But the slow pace, we were told, was “deliberate.” And in a society where “instant” is often not fast enough, it seemed appropriate, even comforting, to find that courtroom proceedings were glacial to the point of tedious.
By Wednesday afternoon, all the witnesses had testified, the attorneys had “rested” their cases and closing arguments had been made. We six jurors were escorted back to the jury room to begin our deliberations.
Four of us had already made up our minds: “guilty.” The other two disagreed.
Those two reminded the rest of us about a fundamental of American justice: Those accused are “innocent until proven guilty.” It's a familiar phrase, almost a cliche. But now it was taking on flesh and blood, that of a large African-American man who happened to be homeless. “Had the city proven its case beyond reasonable doubt?” asked the two jurors.
Reasonable doubt. Another familiar phrase which suddenly became very real.
The day ended with us still divided. As we headed home Wednesday evening, it wasn’t at all clear to me if or how we would reach the required unanimity.
When we resumed the next day with fresh energy and eyes, the heart of the issue became clear. None of us doubted that the defendant had indeed struck another person with sufficient force to render him unconscious. Moreover, none of us saw this act of violence as a great thing. But that was not the question.
The question, actually two questions, was had the defendant used what Washington State Law described as “legitimate” and “lawful” force in defense of his property? And had the prosecution proven, beyond reasonable doubt, that his use of force was beyond what the law allowed?
It turns out that “Innocent until proven guilty" means something. If innocence was the presumption, had the prosecution built a convincing case for guilt? By late morning our answer was “no,” and our verdict was “not guilty.” This was not an easy decision. We didn't deny or condone the defendant's actions, but the law did clearly permit use of force in the protection of property. Moreover, the police investigation failed to follow up on the claim of the accused that the other guy stole his wallet. Finally, the testimony had not made a conclusive case, beyond “reasonable doubt,” that the defendant had acted unlawfully.
I had new, and unwelcome, empathy for the jurors in the George Zimmerman/ Trayvon Martin case. I also had a new appreciation for the jury system and for my fellow jurors. You hear a lot these days that might lead you to think the state of humanity and of our society is pretty much hopeless. My jury experience had the opposite effect.
We six, three men and three women, were by all measures “ordinary” citizens. One guy was in construction, the other in renewable energy. One of the women worked in a customer service call center, another was a master gardener eager to transfer her tomatoes to her greenhouse. The third had recently gotten a degree in theology at a local seminary and was now studying improv comedy. As a group we proved thoughtful and reasonable, capable of principled disagreement without being disagreeable, capable of changing our minds.
Our deliberations put flesh on the bones of those big, abstract words and concepts (“innocent until proven guilty,” “beyond reasonable doubt”). These are the tough standards of our judicial system. It’s not the same elsewhere, as one of my fellow jurors reminded us. In other places, “you are guilty until proven innocent.”
I came away from my jury duty experience with a heightened appreciation for both my fellow citizens and our legal system. And that made Holy Week just a little more holy.
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