Today continues the unseasonably moderate weather of this winter. Curious how the calm of this temperate moment both betrays and complements the collective confidence of the time. Shouldn’t it be worse? Is the worst over? Can we really return to reliable and recent more pleasant times? Of course, I’m describing how we feel about ‘the economy’, whatever this is and the feeling for which, like the weather, actually depends upon where you’re standing.
In Dr. King’s speech from 23 August 1963, which I listen to annually and only once per year, I noted three phrases: “Deeply Rooted in the American Dream”;”Let Us Not Wallow in the Valley of Despair”; and “Content of Their Character”. On the whole, have we made progress or enough progress or simply fooled and confused ourselves when we survey what we have done for and to ourselves over these past 49 years?! We don’t have segregated schools any longer; we merely, at least in my sons’s schools, separate the achieving and usually white students from their underperforming and usually African-American classmates by an organization of courses where effective segregation is classified as AP classes (Advanced Placement).
Our fears for the prevailing and tenuous economic climate are compounded by the unsettling political forecast in the year of another Presidential election, although it’s felt like this season never ends. As usual, we’re left to dress ourselves making the most of what we have and that which we have to do. Surveying this broad matter, I feel that although our various levels of government are certainly not the ‘enemy’ as often portrayed in these campaign cycles and usually by people who make their careers of working for these same entities of government, there is not much more that these entities should try to do as we have traveled far, far down the path of damage done through good intentions.
I served in the Durham jury pool this past week. This was my second time being called by Durham County and the fifth time for jury service including bank robbery and murder trials. Twice have I felt that serving on a jury ranked among the more memorable experiences of my adult life. In Maine, where one serves for two weeks in every five years, I was the foreman of a civil case where Sears was sued for failure to re-insure a young engineer and former military pilot from the consequences of his fault in a traffic accident where a medical doctor lost use of a leg. Clearly, the young man neglected to renew his insurance policy from All State, then a division of Sears. His fault was obvious but only to me and a sound engineer from the local television station who joined the other ten jurors in our deliberations. Our jury’s determination of guilty, meaning Sears should pay for the consequences of the engineer’s misfortune, was decided less upon the evidence and circumstances of the courtroom proceedings and more on the individual juror’s sense of how he or she would wish to be judged should the roles be reversed with the plaintiff. As one senior citizen and one single parent described their conclusions, “Sears can afford it” and “you just can’t trust computers, anyway.” When released from this civic duty, I evaluated and increased every single insurance policy that I possessed.
The bank robbery trial was a stupendous case of circumstantial evidence. Having ushered three cruelly frightend women into the vault of a soon to be closed and, therefore, empty branch bank, the disguised criminal sped from the parking lot in full view of the breakfast audience at the fast food restaurant across the street. Except for the exploded and smoking dye packet in the bag of stolen cash, they could have readily identified him. Instead, many could attest only to the model of the car, the certainty of a sole occupant and the color of the smoke which shielded certain determination of the driver. We had to rely on the evidence offered by the counter clerk at a convenience store and a manager at a grocery store where the wife and the girlfriend of the robber each attempted to convert red-stained one hundred dollar bills into other forms of cash. One would make small purchases, gum, and the other would buy ten thousand dollar money orders. The initial attempts at local laundering did not get them caught. It was the third trip to buy a bag of chips with a $100 bill and the second visit to the food store to cash the $10,000 money order purchased yesterday that caused management to note the behavior and to contact the police. The law got its man after all and it’s a generous process for reliably doing so.
I arrived at 8:30 am at the Durham Country Court House, in-line for the security scanner with sixty-four other selected voters and tax-payers curious about the jury process. I accepted and even hoped that I might be called to serve; I joined the others in superficially wishing that I would not. Our pool comprised mostly African-Americans, mainly women, several with Duke University affiliations and nearly all it turned-out with an opinion about domestic abuse. Before selecting a jury of twelve plus an alternate acceptable to both the prosecuting and defense attorneys, we learned a lot about each other and our admitted biases, experiences and resultant firm opinions. The case centered on an accusation of domestic abuse with two atypical circumstances: the first was that the accused was a woman and the second was that the accuser was a man with a prison record.
I realized that in a case of murder or a civil suit with a multi-million dollar claim that the average citizen has nearly no related experience, so selecting an impartial jury for such trial is an uncomplicated process. Assault is, however, an incident where many of us have either first or second-hand experience so are suspect in the opinions of attorneys hoping to benefit their clients. Thirty of our sixty-five were dismissed from contention. Profiles of the dismissed ranged from unemployed (young African American); admitted prejudice (against convicts by older white male); two young, employed African-American women without exposure to assault (who might not side with the accused?); a couple of men who just did not want to be on a jury and stated that they could not be fair; and others whom one attorney or the other did not wish to seat as is their procedural prerogative. Passing their discernment were women and men who had been personally assaulted; women and men whose siblings had been recently assaulted; a woman whose organization cares for victims of homicidal assault; and a woman whose daughter and child are currently under court supervision as the victims of assault.
In the end, this jury of thirteen comprised ten whites and three African Americans. Several of us considered if this was actually a jury of one’s peers given that the case was between two African-Americans. After nearly twelve hours together over two days, the judge released us and we quickly queued for the elevator to resume our usual lives. Justice was served, I’m sure, and I have no idea nor interest in the outcome of the case.
Even though we did not speak with one another in the course of waiting and wondering and sharing glances as yet another potential juror was dismissed which increased our own odds for being called, we accomplished something together. We demonstrated that amidst the imperfect process of justice in our broadly stratified community, both intellectually and economically, that a random selection of loosely qualified citizens could defer to common purpose in an unrehearsed effort to make a difference or at least a contribution to the strengthening of the ties that bind us.
I wanted to take the pool of these peers to lunch or coffee so as not to let the moment pass unacknowledged. I was emboldened by the stoic acceptance of their duty. Call it the commitment to the American dream. Without comment, we respected the selection process which resulted in a jury predominated by better educated whites sitting in judgment of lesser educated African-Americans. Call it not wallowing in preconceived prejudice. We perpetuated a remarkable and unpretentious outcome – a new jury is called nearly every day of the working week – without fanfare or hardly even a goodbye exchanged with one another. Call it content of collective character.
In the line for the 5th floor elevator, I felt as though I was the only one to see the shooting star in the sky. “Did you see that?!”, I wanted to ask those around me. “Isn’t amazing what just happened?!”, I wanted to tell somebody. But they had things to do and lives to lead and just wanted to get outside to enjoy the nice weather.