March 12, 2012

My Lenten Detour

I was considering giving up the sin of judging others for Lent...and beyond. Then I remembered I had jury duty.

I had served twice before. I knew the drill. You show up on Monday, you bring a book -- expecting lots of down time -- and you're released to go back to your own life by Wednesday afternoon. (If anyone thinks we no longer have a draft, I would argue that we do, and we call it jury duty.)

As I walked from the parking garage to the courthouse, I could easily spot my fellow jurors. I thought about how odd it is that we're plucked from our normal lives and kept in the basement of the courthouse for a few days, silently hoping that our names will be called so that we can be released from the boredom of said basement. This time would be different though. This time I would silently pray that my name would not be called.

The last time I served was 25 years ago and I sat on a jury for first-degree burglary, which meant the house was occupied when burglars broke in during the night. We came back with a guilty verdict, sending the defendant to prison. The time before that I served on a civil jury, deciding a case involving car repairs. What I remember most about that first experience as a juror was that by Tuesday afternoon when my name was finally called, I felt as though I had won a trip to Paris. Whether that was my youthful naivete or just the tedious boredom of the jury room, I don't know. I just remember that getting out of that basement felt like freedom.

As it turns out, our city has become much more violent over the last 25 years. When I read the paper looking for jury verdicts following my most recent service, I think there were three murder trails and one rape trial decided by the jury pool that I was part of. When they called panels of 38 and 45 for voir dire on Monday morning, I knew that was a bad sign. Shortly after lunch on Monday, my name was called to another panel of 45.

When we arrived in the courtroom, there was another drawing. Thirty-six of the 45 of us were called into the jury box for voir doir. We soon learned that the defendant had been charged with murder. There were a few of us who had come back with guilty verdicts in previous trials and I think most of us assumed that we would be thanked for our time and sent back to the jury room. The voir dire continued through the afternoon and into the next morning. We were sent downstairs as the attorneys made their final selection, most of us hoping not to be selected. When we were called back up, the names of the final 12 jurors and 2 alternates were read. As we neared the end, I began to breathe a sigh of relief and started to pick up my purse. Then my name was called.

I don't think there was anyone on that jury who wanted to serve on a murder trial. I know I didn't. It was surreal to find myself listening to opening arguments. But we did it, because that's what we were called to do. And it was a privilege to see the lengths that the courts and the attorneys will go to in order to ensure a fair trial. I wouldn't have thought it possible to truly presume innocence, but I learned that it is. That's something I need to apply better in my own life.

On the final day, as we entered the deliberation room, roughly half of us were either undecided or leaning not guilty. As we talked through the testimony and the sequence of events, one by one, we each joined those who were convinced of the defendant's guilt. We talked about the difference between no doubt and beyond a reasonable doubt. After several hours of deliberation we came back with a unanimous verdict of guilty.

I had prayed all week that we would come back with the right verdict. I had prayed for discernment and clarity. For each of us, I think it was something different that persuaded us of guilt. That's how God speaks to us. We each recognize something different in His voice.

Soon after the verdict was read we found ourselves surrounded by deputies. Other jurors had noticed the anger in the eyes of the defendant's family members who were seated in the gallery. We had kind of joked about wanting security as we returned to our cars (which we received), but suddenly the personal ramifications of the verdict began to feel real. It would have been so much easier on a personal level to say "not guilty". But it would have been the wrong thing to do.

As the judge spoke to us after everyone else had been released, he quoted the scripture from Matthew 7 about judging others, and assured us that we had not judged the defendant. We had judged his actions.

Our Christian walk is much like jury duty in that we follow where we're called to follow and we do what we're called to do, even when it's something we would never choose for ourselves. We know our Master's voice, and we respond to His commands. My prayer is that I'll get better (and faster) when it comes to saying, "Yes, Lord."

My first act of following His directives will be to go back to my original Lenten intention and work on that judgment thing, learning to freely apply the presumption of innocence. For I am judged as I judge others.

Until next time,

I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Philippians 4:13


  1. Very interesting discussion of your jury experience/s. It can not be easy. I am praying that I will never be called. And you're right. There's more of a need than ever before for good people to serve. Thank you for your service.

  2. Interesting journey you have just finished Margaret. It gave me pause to think how I would have reacted in your situation. I've been called for jury duty many times and have never been selected to serve on a trial - let alone a murder trial.

  3. you made me feel like i was there, but i am very
    happy i wasn't. i love the kind admonition that
    you were not judging the person but his actions,
    and you were 'forced' to do so as your duty.

  4. Have I told you lately how much I enjoy reading your blog? Well I do! Catching up on the reading today :)