A Stalker? or Misunderstood?

The defendant is a nerd of a guy in a blue suit and sneakers. He sits passively throughout his trial, eyes lifeless behind plastic framed glasses. His lawyer also has an unreadable demeanor. They seem to belong together, like salt-and-pepper shakers.

The plaintiff, a pretty young woman with long hair, twists her wedding band round and round. Her novice attorney in tailored suit and pearls, consults her documents and smiles at the jury, satisfied with those of us who have been sworn in.

The judge reads us the charges and explains our responsibility: determine the defendant's guilt or innocence on two charges of harassment. The first charge rests on whether or not he had the "intent" to harass the plaintiff on a specific day; the second on whether or not he willfully undertook a subsequent "course of conduct" over a specific period of time despite "reasonable warning." In other words, has he repeatedly stalked the plaintiff despite warnings?

Arguments are brief and witnesses few. The plaintiff's lawyer recounts three occasions on which the plaintiff has been followed by the defendant, "terrorized," we're told, as she tries to flee from him. Two policemen testify that she is weeping and traumatized when they respond to her 911 calls. The plaintiff tells us she is afraid now to shop alone. Men frighten her.

Defense suggests the encounters were random coincidences. In closing arguments, he approaches the jury box, legal tome in hand. He admonishes us to pay close attention to the letter of the law, then reads a series of definitions, and concludes, "By definition, then, you cannot find the defendant guilty! You have no case here!"

He's good. Reasonable doubt creeps in.

In the deliberating room, the foreman reads the charges, and the definitions of "intent" and "reasonable warning." On the first vote, eight women raise their hands for "guilty;" the four men on the jury raise theirs for "not guilty."

"Why didn't she say anything? That would have been reasonable warning!" one guy says. "Maybe she was being provocative," another man says. "You know, wearing something..."

The women look at each other and try not to overreact. "I don't care if she was naked!" I growl. "You don't harass women!"

Then a businessman offers a string of Talmudic arguments in which he lays out all the ramifications of what could be meant by "reasonable" and "intent." The intent thing bogs us down. Did he know what he was doing, really? Did he mean to do it? Did she only think he intended to "alarm, annoy, or harass?" After all, he looks a totally harmless and pathetic creature.

Am I jumping to conclusions too fast, having a knee-jerk response that obliterates the ability to judge wisely and attend to the legal ramifications of our mandate? I keep remembering the Clothesline Project, the row upon row of decorated T-shirts commemorating women dead as a result of violence. I wonder how the defendant knows where the plaintiff worked and lived, what car she drove. Her lawyer hasn't introduced this issue; are we allowed to consider it?

The businessman, now the lone holdout, brings us back to language. He's intelligent and thoughtful while the rest of us grow tired. His monologue on semantics is important and worthy of attention in a legal context. I consider changing my vote. Then I think of a terrified woman in a supermarket, a mall, a shop. And I think of all the women killed by stalkers because no one took them seriously.

We go through more dialogue and debate. I waver. Finally, on the fine point of whether or not the definition of intent says "and" or "or," the businessman yields, joining the majority. Guilty on both counts.

When the judge thanks us privately, we learn that the defendant was jailed once already for stalking and faces further charges. The man who thought the plaintiff was imagining things looks sheepish. The one who thought she was provocative apologizes and asks me again about the Clothesline Project. We applaud the businessman for his commitment to justice. The system, we agree, works.

On the elevator, I see the defendant with his mother. I am sad for her. But I am absolutely certain we have deliberated well.

* Elayne Clift, a writer in Saxton River, Vt., holds faculty positions at Yale University and Vermont College.

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