You learn a lot in four days on a criminal court jury.
You learn that the ponytailed public defender uses a whiteboard and markers, while the crisp-suited prosecutor, 10 years younger than opposing counsel, enhances her argument with PowerPoint slides.
You learn that a swatch of the city not far from where your great-grandparents ran a bakery still houses small businesses and apartments … along with crack users and streetwalkers.
You learn exactly how many pounds of pressure, for precisely how many minutes, applied to the neck of an overweight, asthmatic, drugged-out woman, will stop the blood from pulsing to her brain.
The charge was murder. The case involved coke, pills, prostitution, toxicology experts, a witness who couldn’t be located and a woman found dead under a mattress, strangled, jeans and underwear bunched at her knees.
In Judge DeFino-Nastasi’s no-nonsense courtroom, the players were costumed for their roles: defendant expressionless in his brown suit, police officers with blue shirts and shiny badges. We jurors entered in a hush and took our numbered seats. Cue the prosecutor’s opening arguments: She approached the jury box, lowered her gaze and said, sotto voce, “This victim did not die a quiet death.”
On the other side of the courtroom wall, a different drama unfolded. As in Downton Abbey, where the servants and the nobles occupy the same country estate but exist in disparate worlds, we jurors developed our own rituals and relationships.
There was the groggy morning shuffle to what became our habitual seats around the banged-up table. There were the cups of steaming coffee, the daily surrender of cell phones into a plastic bucket.
Among the 14 of us — 12 jurors and two alternates — there was, almost immediately, a mama and a papa. They each had served on multiple juries and spoke with authority (if not always with accuracy) about what we could expect. “Mama” wore glasses and carried a handbag; she talked with fond irritation of her sons and unabashed pride about her grandchildren. She said it was her mission to show those boys a “bigger world,” taking them for spaghetti marinara instead of Big Macs, driving them through the suburbs in hope that they would aspire to own a home.
We weren’t permitted to discuss the case during breaks, so we talked about everything else: cellphones, reality TV, flu shots, Pope Francis’ visit, the sorry state of Philadelphia schools, climate change and whether anyone still reads books (there was a librarian among us).
Back in the airless courtroom, while we tried to discern what really happened on one tragic night in 2012, I thought about the Constitution’s framers toiling through the sweltering summer of 1787, just a few blocks to the east. It was their notion that any crime ruptured the life of the community; when one person is injured, we all suffer. That’s why criminal cases are brought by the collective: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. So-and-So.
They also declared that everyone — the stiff-jawed guy at the defense table, and you, and me — has the right to be tried by a jury of our peers. We know what that didn’t mean in the 18th century: women weren’t among the jury pool, nor were black men, nor white men without property. A jury meant like-minded people—the butcher, the baker, the flag-maker — who probably knew the defendant already and were familiar with his strengths and foibles.
Did those good citizens understand that the best of us can make crushingly bad choices? Did they comprehend the larger forces — racism, class prejudice, power — at play in any crime? Were they able to give a defendant — there but for the grace of God go I — the elusive presumption of innocence?
Three hundred-plus years later, we jurors converged from all corners; we were male, female, black, white, Latino, Asian, straight and gay. By the end of an hour, I felt a forged-in-the-trenches bond with all of them.
But what about my compatriots on the other side? There was the jumpy witness who shook with tears when she looked at a photo of her dead friend; later, she vowed that she certainly had not inserted any pills into the rectum of the victim (I could feel my sister jurors flinch at that one). There was the impassive defendant who never spoke a word. Listening, watching them, I felt a gnawing sense of despair.
No matter what we ultimately decided, we would not make a dent in the lives of anyone involved. It was too late for the victim, obviously. The defendant would go to jail for a few years, or longer than a few, depending. And the twitchy witness, who ducked her head ruefully when asked if she was clean of her crack addiction — would she return to the streets outside the Carlyle Hotel?
Our entrance into this harrowing drama felt insignificant, and far too late. Where were we when the players here were babies, or third-graders hiding their bruises, or teenagers trying to blunt their pain with a needle’s worth of high? Where was the grandma (uncle, teacher, pastor, coach) who might have sat them down for spaghetti marinara and insisted they dream bigger than their crumbling block? Where were the people trying to remake a system rigged to bring advantage to the already-advantaged and blame to those born on the unprivileged side of the tracks?
I’m with the Constitution’s framers on this: a crime against anyone corrodes the well-being of all. But instead of trying to pick truth from the ruins, why not devote more resources to prevention, to protection, to the nourishment of every life that begins in our city? I’d give up four days a year for that, even without the $9 check and the yellow sticker.
After the last morning of testimony, I wanted a shower. But first, I bought a just-made pretzel from the Amish stand in the Reading Terminal Market and ate as though I’d been starved for days. The city swirled around me: pretzel-maker in her stiff white cap, toothless man playing accordion outside the market, somebody huddled in a dirty blanket in a Filbert Street doorway.
We had a verdict, in the end: murder in the second degree. But what about the verdict on us: the ones free to stroll out of that courtroom and return to our grandchildren and our work, our students and our houseplants, our apartments in which no one was snorting a Schedule II substance or squeezing anyone’s throat until she lost her breath. At least, not today.
Would we be changed by our time together, by that uneasy rub with strangers — peers, remember; cousins, really — whose lives lay just the other side of the flimsiest line of luck?