Yesterday, I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I served on a jury in a felony case.
The sole defendant was accused of stealing, in concert with another woman, more than $1,000 worth of women’s garments from a nearby branch of a national, mid-level department store chain.
The defendant was a young woman, in her early 20s, I’d guess. She had no prior arrest record. She’s a legal immigrant of Hispanic origin. When she testified, she was well-spoken and seemed bright. She has a job and attends community college classes and participates in a training program sponsored by her employer. One of her colleagues testified as a character witness, insisting that the young woman is completely honest, so much so that she is trusted to handle cash at the workplace. This colleague flat-out refused to believe that the defendant had committed the crime for which she was being tried.
But a store security officer testified that she saw the young woman and her companion conceal the garments in bags and leave the store without paying for them.
The defendant testified that only the other woman had stolen the goods, and that she didn’t know what her friend had been doing.
It didn’t ring true, for a lot of reasons, including the fact that she had signed a confession.
The jury deliberated for hours. We all took very seriously the fact that our decision would affect the rest of this young woman’s life. No one wanted to make a mistake, and we weighed and discussed the evidence carefully, even painstakingly. We read the judge’s instructions over and over, to be certain that we all understood them.
In the end, the 12 members of the jury could only conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the young woman had acted in concert with the older woman to shoplift the items.
That didn’t mean that we didn’t feel sorry for her. We believed that she was a nice, hard-working young woman who was influenced by the older woman and on one afternoon did a stupid and felonious thing.
But there’s no such verdict as “not guilty by reason of temporary stupidity”.
We had no just choice but to find her guilty of grand larceny. But we all hated to do it.
I had heard once, I think after the Scott Peterson trial, that jurors who convict don’t look at the defendant when they return from deliberations. I remembered that as we resumed our seats in the jury box, and I made a conscious decision to look at her. We convicted a real person, one who was created in the image of God and had inalienable dignity. I felt an obligation to acknowledge her by looking at her, as a part of accepting the burden of responsibility for the decsion that I had made.
As the verdict was read, her face seemed to go from stunned to deeply sorrowed. And then she started to cry.
As the judge and both lawyers talked openly about the sentencing phase, she looked directly at me, and our eyes held each other for several seconds. She didn’t look angry; she just looked sad, and kind of lost.
After the verdict, sentencing was relatively easy. We gave her a sentence near the low end of the guidelines. She wept again when the sentence was read, probably tears of relief.
It is not an easy thing to convict another person, especially one who seems like a nice young person, generally playing by the rules, who probably would never have been in any serious trouble if not for someone else. But the right thing is rarely the easy thing.