Friday, January 14, 2011

Voir Dire: My Day In Court

When I reported for jury duty this morning, I was fairly certain of the stakes. Last night I’d been surprised that my high summons number didn’t give me a pass on even having to show up, but once I listened to the pre-recorded message from the clerk’s office and adjusted to the news that my presence was actually required, I thought my day at court would play out predictably. I thought the commitment would surely be just for today, and that any chance of being placed on a jury was remote. My one previous experience of being brought into the courtroom for voir dire had ended predictably, with the judge sending me back to wait with the jury pool on the basis of my being a physician, and the case involving physician testimony about injuries to the plaintiff in an accident.

So I wasn’t prepared to feel anything when my number was among those called in a group to go to a courtroom upstairs for jury selection. The defendant looked relaxed—-too relaxed, as though this was just one more spin round the dance floor for him—-sitting next to his attorney at the table. The defense counsel and the state’s attorney were both decades younger than me, as I expected. The judge made mention of the fact that he had been called out of retirement to help clear up the court’s docket, and he looked the part: gaunt, white-haired, his voice a little tremulous. The defendant was charged with theft of a car, unauthorized use of a car, and resisting arrest.

I had just enough prior experience to expect the first question posed by the judge: Had any of the prospective jurors been convicted of a crime, been the victim of a crime, or had family members that were convicted of a crime or were victims of a crime? More than half the jury pool stood. As it turned out, my summons number was at the low end of the group that had been called, and I was first to approach the bench. The attorneys and the defendant all leaned in close to listen to my exchange with the judge.
“State your juror number, your name, and your reason for standing,” the judge instructed us.
“Juror 481," I said, and I gave my name. "I stood because I have been the victim of a crime.”
“Can you tell us, Dr. Hoffman, what that was, and approximately when?”
How does he know I am a doctor? Oh, right, they asked for my profession on the jury questionnaire.
“I was forced off the road and robbed at gunpoint when I was 18. And my car has been stolen three times in Baltimore City since I moved here in 1987.”
“From your residence?”
“Two times from outside my residence. Once from the doctor’s parking lot at the hospital.”
“Anything else?”

I hesitated. Only the group at the bench could hear what I was telling the judge. I had raised my right hand and sworn that I would tell the truth. Did that mean that it had to be the whole truth? Or would merely some of the truth do? I thought of other crimes I’d been the victim of: burglary, twice. Chased through Baltimore's Mt. Vernon Square by a gang of rock-throwing homophobic teenagers, who my companion and I managed to outrun, in my early 30s. Minor assault, a few times, but mostly by mentally ill patients, in care settings. The crimes against me as a child? Not for polite company. Did I continue to elaborate?

No, I did not.

“Those are probably the salient instances, your honor.”
“And do you believe that those experiences will affect your ability to be fair and impartial in hearing this case.”
“No, I do not, your honor.”
“Good,” he said. “You may return to your seat.”

I turned from the bench, and as I sat down among the prospective jurors again, I realized I was welling up with tears. The attention of the courtroom had shifted to juror number 483, at the bench. I put my face in my hands, and wondered at my response to the interaction that had just transpired. I stifled anything like a gasp.

I have often advised trainees in my profession to be prepared for never-ending surprise. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’ll see something for which you feel utterly unprepared. You think you’ve seen death in all its forms in front of your eyes, and then you’re bowled over by the miscarriage of a second-trimester fetus in the moments between your helping the patient onto the ER exam table and your return with a bag of saline to start an i.v. You think you’re hardened to the grim possibilities in life and then a seventy-year-old great-grandmother who’s caring for her small great-grandchildren because their mother is a prostitute and their grandmother died of AIDS confesses to you that she herself is shooting heroin into her veins every day.

Even so, I was not prepared for the utterly new dimension for me in today’s voir dire. To stand in front of a judge, to whom I have sworn to speak the truth, and to say “I have been a victim.” And, equally the truth, “I do not think this marks me with a defect in judgment, or fairness, or impartiality.” And then to hear his response: “Good.” No attempt on his part to argue the opposite—-because he did not believe the opposite. True, he was probably gratified that I didn’t try to use the events to wiggle out of jury service, but I do not think, nevertheless, that he believed the opposite.

“Good.” That single word of acknowledgment and affirmation from some old gentleman with the mantle of legal authority resting on his shoulders packed more punch than I could have anticipated.

The contrast to what I have experienced for a lifetime, not only that someone’s criminal act was actually leading to a criminal prosecution, but also the contrast to the usual supposition that I could not be trusted to know if in fact I was a victim, the supposition that if I have been a victim I am too biased to take part in any discussion of the appropriate response to such events, the supposition that someone besides me is whole enough to make sober judgments where I am clouded and irrational, took my breath away.

After the rest of the questions were asked and answered, after three quarters of the prospective jurors left for reasons of conflict or stated bias or wives about to deliver babies at home, I approached the bench first, as my summons number would dictate. The state had no objection to my being seated on the jury. The defense attorney, earning his keep, used a peremptory challenge to thank me for my service and send me home. But I, lowly prospective juror, almost negligible in my importance to this process, left with something I had never experienced before in my life: a whiff of actual justice, rendered to me by a judge in a court of law in the jurisdiction in which I have resided for most of the past 20 years. No one knew it but me, but it was to me that it mattered most. Even a whiff of justice, it turns out, could make me grateful for my day in court.