Jury duty will be a waste of time. I will never be picked. And, if I am, the case will be a bore.
With these thoughts, I reported at 8 one morning to D.C. Superior Court. To my surprise, by 10 a.m. I was called to a courtroom for possible selection. Half an hour later, even more unexpectedly, I was being sworn in as a juror.
The case was about bail-jumping. The prosecutor told us that the defendant, a black woman, age 24, with no prior arrest record, was originally accused of a crime (we were not told what crime) in October of 1986. She first appeared in court on Nov. 8, 1988, and was ordered to return Nov. 30, 1988. But she did not return. She was arrested and jailed on Feb. 15, 1990. Now on July 25, she was sitting before us in starched sea-blue prison garb, waiting to be tried for violating the bail-enforcement law.
The defense was short. The lead witness and victim were one and the same -- a weather-beaten drifter who had a French-sounding name but preferred to be called "Porkchop." Walking uneasily to the front of the court, he first made an attempt to sit with the jurors before finally being guided to the witness chair.
Porkchop told us that after being hospitalized for a month because the defendant had thrown something on him, he had told the defendant that he was not going to "bother with her anymore."
The defendant, under questioning by her lawyer, said that she understood that to mean that Porkchop would not press charges. The prosecutor argued, however, that her misunderstanding was no excuse. She had signed an order to appear and had failed to do so. The case, said the prosecutor, was clear-cut.
A little after 3 p.m., with the two alternates dismissed, the jury was given the case. We knew each other only by our jury seat numbers (mine was eight) and, oddly, it stayed that way. But we talked about our feelings and our lives. My colleagues were black; I am white. Many of their experiences differed from mine.
The elected foreman (No. 1) told us he came "expecting to be Perry Mason and resolve a difficult case." We were confronted with a relatively petty offense, and yet, it was true the law had not been obeyed. The foreman said he had been jailed overnight once for unpaid parking tickets, so he knew about having to pay a price. Still, hadn't this woman who had already been in jail for five months done enough time? And why had she thrown lye (we surmised) on the victim?
Other jurors wondered if the defendant understood the language of the law, and whether her decision was willful. The majority, though, remembering how she had admitted on the stand that she had been told to appear in a letter, thought the mistake was hers.
Only one woman held out. Why? She told us that her daughter had recently been the victim of a savage attack on Georgia Avenue. "She walks like a retarded person now," the woman whispered. The family members knew who was responsible, but they weren't going to turn anyone in. They feared for themselves. The daughter feared for her children. Even the police said they probably wouldn't turn in the attackers in if they were in the family's shoes. The discrepancy troubled the woman -- the defendant was locked up for something minor, while society's meanest were free.
Everyone chimed in then. The code of the streets is the code of silence, they agreed. They said they learned to look the other way, going to and from work, living day after day in drug-war neighborhoods.
But the honesty in their own lives was firm. The woman next to me said she admonished her two daughters "not to come home with anything I didn't come home with." They all respected the law, at the same time realizing that often it does not apply to the worst offenders.
We went back to the courtroom and one by one recited a lifeless "guilty." I found out later, from an alternate juror who stayed to hear the verdict, that the defendant did, in fact, throw lye ... in self-defense. Porkchop had been hitting her with a hammer. My time had not been wasted at the courthouse. The honor was mine to serve. But the case itself and much of what I had heard have left me dissatisfied and sad. -- Eileen Shields West