The judge almost danced in his eagerness to welcome those of us in the jury pool, explaining how the building wasn’t intended to be a district court and that he knows the fold-down seats were woefully flat and hard to sit on.
Noticing two Orthodox Jews in the audience, he mentioned that the box of donuts on the table for us to enjoy came from the kosher Dunkin’ Donuts on 10 Mile, so they were safe for everyone gathered there to eat.
And then, as the defendant filed in with her attorney and her boyfriend to sit behind in support, and the police officer with the prosecutor, a dapper court official chose names from a bin and I was selected as juror #6.
I didn’t really want to be there that day, but I was fascinated nonetheless by the process, and had no good reason to avoid jury duty. It’s our civic responsibility, right, and besides, it gave me time to grade the papers piled high from the college writing class I’m teaching this semester.
I sat in the jury box, taking my responsibility seriously, as the judge went through all the questions intended to weed out the inappropriate jurors and arrive at a solid six with one alternate who would decide the defendant’s fate.
Except when it came time to ask us if we could presume innocence until/unless proven otherwise, I found that I couldn’t.
The judge had read us the very long citation: driving while intoxicated at 1 a.m. on 8 Mile Road with a breathalyzer test that registered a blood-alcohol level of something like .8. I don’t remember the number, but I remember thinking that if all of those details were true, then surely the gal must’ve been driving drunk.
And I realized, I had a pre-existing bias that would not be fair to her.
So I raised my hand, my face flushing red, and admitted my woeful state. I’m very sorry, your honor, but I am concerned that I may have a bias that she is already guilty before hearing any evidence.
I was sorry indeed. I didn’t think myself one to jump to conclusions.
But I am a mother of four precious souls who might one day be driving along a darkened road fast at night and not see someone coming who drank a little at a party and was convinced she was ok to drive home.
All the possible outcomes of such a detail swirled in my head and I knew I could not be impartial.
So I was dismissed.
My very moral 14-year-old was so disappointed with me.
“Why couldn’t you presume innocence?” He demanded. “What if the details were fabricated? What if the breathalyzer test was made-up? What if….what if…what if…”
And he’s right, I suppose. Innocent until proven guilty is one of the fundamental tenets of the American legal system.
Except we decide guilt without ever hearing evidence and presume innocence where there is none.
We take one look at a person and decide what we think about them, deciding their fate in effect, by what we see. We let the stories in our heads take over before we ever have a chance to hear the real story.
Honestly, I didn’t want to hear an attorney convince me that she wasn’t really drunk or she wasn’t really a danger. I didn’t want to hear that it might be ok to drive drunk.
And I really didn’t want to hear that a police officer could once again make up stuff to trap an innocent victim. There is just too much swirling around us to make it possible on that day, for me at least, to see the truth amid the mist of societal assumptions.
Aren’t we doing the same thing in this presidential election? Hearing what we want to hear, seeing what we want to see reflected in candidates we might not otherwise choose?
This time, though, I believe I can presume innocence until guilt is proven. At least that’s the story I’m telling to explain why some people are making choices that are inherently dangerous.
We tell ourselves what we want to believe. It’s the only way to go on living.