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Dispatches from Jury Duty: Los Angeles County

Serving on a jury is-aside from paying taxes-the most tangible connection that our citizens have to their government. We asked people to share...

Serving on a jury is-aside from paying taxes-the most tangible connection that our citizens have to their government. We asked people to share their experiences as temporary civil servants. This is the first.I am listening to a 10-year-old girl list the ages of her five siblings, the names of her 4th and 5th grade teachers, and the gifts she received last Christmas. She is answering questions from a man she first met three minutes ago. Her father is also in the room. His name is Francis Dillon.My role in this conversation has nothing to do with my occupation, and I did not volunteer to be here. The man asking the questions is a city prosecutor, and he is representing the "people" in People vs. Francis Dillon. This prosecutor alleges that Francis Dillon pushed his girlfriend to the ground and punched her three times in the face during a dispute over an alleged infidelity. I'm here because 233 years ago it was written down as law that the only people who can determine whether this prosecutor is correct are myself and 11 other citizens of this city who know nothing about Mr. Dillon's family, the law, or one another. And we all just want to back to our jobs.Trial by jury in America predates America, originating when the early colonies were burgeoning outposts of the British crown. As tension grew between the colonies and their motherland, the British revoked trial by jury and appointed magistrates with sole authority to determine culpability. This was fresh in the minds of those who drafted our original bill of rights, and innocence until proven guilt and the right to a trial by a jury of peers became cornerstones of our grand experiment.None of this could have been further from my mind as I trek downtown for the mandated 7:45 a.m. call time. I follow a stream of people heading for the elevator. Rarely does one enter an elevator and know that everyone else in it was brought there for the same reason. Customary elevator etiquette does not apply here. Someone with a sense of humor starts humming "America, The Beautiful." Others join in. It's like taking an elevator to Hell, but we're all intent on doing our damndest to make the best of it.Someone starts a conversation about how they simply cannot be selected for a jury trial today because they are desperately needed at their place of employment. Everyone within earshot echoes the sentiment, and in a game of one-upsmanship, we all go around and state what we do for a living and why our respective universes are in peril if we can't return to work posthaste. The only convincing claim comes from Sharon, the lone statistical analyst on a cancer research project at USC. If she gets chosen to sit on a trial, it will literally slow down the rate at which we as a people understand cancer and its causes. None of us can top this; we all politely retract our complaints.By this time we are on the ground floor of the courthouse, navigating the maze of tensabarriers that lead to metal detectors and X-ray machines. The jury summons had warned us that we would be subject to "airport-style" security procedures. The primary difference between courthouse security and airport security, though, is that it doesn't seem to matter if these metal detectors go off; everybody sets off these metal detectors. Metal-seeking wands are waved, but the beeps they produce don't seem a cause for concern.The details of the trial are always the first thing people want to hear, but I will not dwell on them here. Briefly: The victim of the alleged assault-and the defendant's daughter, who witnessed it-both testify before us that no such assault occurred. The testimonies make it clear that at least half the people were lying under oath, and as a jury, we have to do our best to sort through the parts we believe to be true, and evaluate those parts with respect to the law as it has been explained to us.After nine hours of deliberation, we find the defendant guilty of the highest offense being charged: domestic battery causing a traumatic condition.After reentering the courtroom, the judge asks if we had reached a unanimous verdict. I tell him we have. He asks me to give the verdict forms to the bailiff. The bailiff then brings them to the judge, and the judge opens the envelope. He passes a single sheet to the clerk of the court and asks her to please read our verdict. The preamble on the form seems a lot longer than I recall. Finally, the word "guilty" is spoken.The defendant displays no emotion, and says nothing.After a few brief words from the judge, and with his thanks, we are dismissed.As we exit the courtroom, a polite young woman asks if we have any feedback for the defense attorney: He passed the bar exam a few weeks ago and this was his first case to go to trial, she explains. The victim and the 10-year-old girl we'd seen on the stand are also in the hallway, seated a few feet away.After we're done providing our feedback, the victim shouts at those of us still in the hallway. She demands to know how we could find her boyfriend guilty after she had testified that no assault had even happened. She demands to know why we would try to break up her family.Guest blogger Chris Butterick is the director of operations at GOOD. Do you have your own story about what it was like to serve on a jury? Send your thoughts and feelings about the experience to submissions (at) goodinc (dot) com. Image (CC) by Flickr user David Gallagher

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