Summoned

How Jury Duty Restored My Faith in America

The world will be saved by flawed and broken people, or it will not be saved at all: this is an aphorism I have embraced over the years since I became a Christian. Before that, as a young idealist, I tended to believe that some sainted class, party, or person would rise up and lead us to the political Promised Land. But my conversion, by way of bringing me to a deep understanding of the ubiquity of sin and our inescapable need for divine grace, taught me that we should not wait for saints to show up, Godot-like, and hand us a more just world. Like it or not, it is we sinners who will need to work that vineyard and harvest that fruit—lest it die on the vine, waiting for the pure picker to arrive.

As a Christian I embrace the intrinsic power and necessity of love for enacting social change; and while I’m not optimistic about the realization of a more robustly democratic and loving political order, I am hopeful, reflecting my belief that God and his creation are always and everywhere good. Having said this, I must admit that both my hope and my faith are being tested this political season. Donald Trump—and many of his supporters—can have that effect on a person (see “The Voice of the Faithless”). Yet I recently had an epiphany of a sort and a corresponding renewal of that faith. The occasion for this unexpected renewal? Jury duty.

As a democratic theorist, I have written glowingly about the virtues of the jury system, that profoundly democratic rite whereby twelve ordinary women and men decide the guilt or innocence of a fellow citizen and render justice. Yet since I myself had never been called to serve, my perspectives remained highly theoretical. When the summons came from the City of Saint Louis, I was more than a little excited to see how the system actually worked in real life. The experience did not disappoint.

I showed up to find myself in a cohort of ninety-six potential jurors. We were sent to a courtroom to meet the presiding judge, a no-nonsense African-American man with a sharp sense of humor. He established quickly how little tolerance he had for people who could not follow the rules, or who refused to speak clearly and loudly when called upon. After enjoining us to discuss the case with no one and to answer all questions with complete honesty, he introduced us to the case at hand. An older man stood accused of sexually abusing a young girl. That was hard enough in its own right; worse, the accusation had been made ten years after the fact, leaving the prosecution with an absence of witnesses and physical evidence.

But the case itself is not what provided my revelation. That came from the voir-dire process, in which both prosecutor and defense attorney question prospective jurors, seeking to find the right mix of people to serve the cause of justice in any particular case. In the voir-dire process as it was applied to our panel of ninety-six, sometimes individuals were singled out. Sometimes a group question was asked, and those who raised their hands were questioned. Sometimes the questioners went up and down each seated row. Much of the questioning was tedious and repetitive. Yet bit by bit, in a pointillist kind of way, a picture emerged—a picture of America, one that became beautiful and full, as I sat there and watched each dot take its place on the human canvas.

To begin with, the sheer diversity was stunning. Our group contained both male and female citizens, of course, but also black Americans, white Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and possibly others. There were old, young, and middle-aged Americans; rich, middle-class, and poor Americans; PhDs and the barely educated; straight and gay Americans. There were military veterans, lawyers, teachers, college professors, engineers, nurses, construction workers, librarians, shopkeepers, a policeman, an architect, a number of city employees; stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home dads; business people of one kind or another; unemployed citizens; and even a young guy who looked like a gangbanger right out of central casting. There were people who spoke English as a second or even third language. They came from Bosnia, Laos, Vietnam, India, Mexico, Honduras, Somalia, Japan, Russia, and Western Europe. There were Catholics and Protestants, but also Muslims, Jews, and adherents of other world religions. Whatever our visible differences, we were all American citizens; and all our diverse paths and choices had led us to this place on this day, to serve our city and its laws. It made me smile. This is what democracy, rightly understood, looked like.

 

AS IMPRESSIVE AS the diversity was, with its embodied representation of the American ideal of “from many, one,” still more impressive to me was the palpable responsibility and outright civic earnestness manifest among the citizens collected in that courthouse. Because this was a criminal trial of a sexual nature, the questions asked by lawyers and judge—intended to probe our capacity to be fair jurors—were often personal and difficult. “Have you or anyone close to you been sexually abused?” “Have you or anyone you are close to been the victim of a violent crime?” And: “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?” Those who answered affirmatively to that question were then asked, “Do you think the police and the court system treated you fairly?”

In many cases the answers were painful. Perhaps a quarter of our group had been arrested at some point. Many were for DUI, drug possession, or underage drinking. But some had resisted arrest or assaulted a police officer. Some had been convicted of larceny, theft, or criminal trespassing, and one or two of fraud. At least two had been arrested on multiple occasions for possession with intent to distribute, or for drug trafficking. One man admitted to hitting his wife once, when she was “drunk and out of control.” These allocutions were done without a hint of bravado, but also without an overabundance of shame. I am certain more than one of us knew that, had certain nights in our lives gone just a little differently, we might also be admitting such sins to a room full of strangers. Interestingly, in the vast majority of cases my fellow potential jurors said that the police and courts had treated them fairly.

The tougher stories were from those who had been sexually abused or assaulted, or were close to someone who had been. Even when these stories were told matter-of-factly, the pain and suffering remained evident. I was shocked at how many had either experienced rape, abuse, and sexual harassment themselves, or had friends or relatives who had. While the stories were bleak and disheartening, to say the least, I was struck by the courage of my group-mates in sharing them, and by their capacity to keep moving forward in their lives despite the evil they had endured or witnessed. Here they all were, after all, ready to serve.

Perhaps most fascinating, from an intellectual perspective, was watching my fellow citizens wrestle with the demands of the law and with their own internal voices of reason and conscience. This was a case with more than a few legal complexities, and some of the questions were posed in problematic ways—for instance, “If the accused did not defend himself in his own voice, would you be inclined to think he had something to hide?” While we all could understand, in theory, that it is the state’s job to prove its case and not the defendant’s job to prove his innocence, it’s hard to accept that an innocent person accused of something terrible would not want to get on the stand and tell you he didn’t do it. That’s a steep hill for common sense to climb, and I watched people struggle with the question, even as I struggled with it inwardly myself. Everyone knew what the “right” answer was. But some hesitantly answered that yes, a defendant’s not taking the stand under such circumstances would make it hard for them to believe that he was not guilty of at least something. I am not here to say whether they were right or wrong, only that the evidence of a real struggle and introspection affirmed my sense that I was sharing the room with human beings who wanted to do the right thing—and who also realized that doing so can be complicated.

 

THE LATE WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY Jr. once famously said he would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the phone book than by the faculty at Harvard University. That’s a pretty big nod to the democratic experiment for a self-professed elitist and arch-conservative—and, as a child of the middle class with social democratic leanings, I was certainly with him on this score. Yet as this election cycle grinds forward with Donald Trump as the nominee of Buckley’s old party, I have to admit that Harvard’s faculty are starting to look pretty good to me. Witnessing the effusions of support for Trump via cable news and social media, I have felt my faith in my fellow citizens waning. Although I can understand the frustration, inequity, and fear that are feeding this new version of American populism and xenophobia, I know—both as a citizen and as someone who studies politics and philosophy—that Donald Trump is not the solution for what ails this country; and it’s hard for me to grasp the sheer level of vitriol and hatred currently manifesting itself.

Yet while this is no doubt a slice of the American pie, it isn’t even close to the whole of it—as I learned to my relief when I ventured out from my home in the academy to spend time with a real cross section of American citizens. My day of jury service (I was eventually sent home) put me in company with some of the tired, some of the poor, some of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, along with many other makes and models of the American electorate. Almost to a person I found them to be honest, reflective, truthful—and, yes, flawed, broken, and sinful. I imagine that those who cared to look saw the same traits in me. Knitted together as we were, on this particular day in that particular space, I knew that we were stronger as a collective body than any of us would be alone.

This knowledge reconfirmed me in my belief that we are better people than the politics of the day suggests. Flawed, broken, filled with grace and the capacity to do what is right, we will help each other recognize and reject false prophets, demagogues who see strength in uniformity rather than the pluralism and diversity that truly mark the children of God. My summons to jury duty, and the company of souls summoned along with me, helped me remember this important fact. And that, as one of my favorite songs by John Mellencamp says, is America—something to see, for you and me.

Published in the October 21, 2016 issue: 

Christopher M. Duncan is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of political science at Saint Louis University.

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