Summoned, and Willing to Serve

The call to jury service is a summons, and the only form of public service most people ever do, except for voting. Twelve of us are selected to hear, to ponder, and to render judgment.

The court uses subtle means to impress us with the gravity of our task. We enter through the same door the judge uses, as the bailiff intones, "All rise!" And everyone stands, just as they do for the judge.

The prosecutor says he will prove that the defendant operated a motor vehicle while impaired by the ingestion of a chemical, in this case alcohol. The defense attorney says the state has no case.

The only witness is a recruiting-poster highway patrolman, crisp in uniform and in speech, an utterly believable expert, who says the defendant was driving, was drinking, and was impaired. He leaves no holes.

The defendant admits everything but impairment, and in the absence of chemical test evidence, we are left with "he said" versus "he said." The judge reads us the law, and we retire to deliberate. Seven women and five men will decide whether one man will be free or fettered at day's end.

There are no ground rules for juries, no guidelines. We proceed by reviewing the central theme of our charge - that impairment "to the slightest degree" is sufficient for conviction. We try to resolve contradictions in the testimony. A middle-aged woman wonders how she can get pulled over by the handsome, young trooper who made such an impressive witness, and there are chuckles.

But everyone is taking the task seriously. A man's liberty is at stake here. Are we predisposed to believe the trooper just because he is a cop? Is there something we're missing, some factor we're not considering?

This case is at the bottom of the scale of drama and consequence. No courtroom fireworks, no lawyerly brilliance. Just the question all juries must face: "Did the State prove its case, beyond a reasonable doubt?"

We all agree that it did, after full and sober discussion. I rise in the courtroom to answer the judge's ritual question. "Your Honor, we find the defendant guilty."

We are ushered out before the sentence, and just before we leave the jury room for the last time, a retired teacher has some words for the rest of us.

"I think this is what the old Englishmen had in mind when they invented the jury system," she says. "I have felt ever since the Rodney King and Simpson cases that our justice system is out of whack, but this little case has set my mind at ease. It still works." She picks up her crossword puzzles and leads us to the elevator, turning in the hall to say she has learned something else. What's that we ask.

"Defense lawyers wear better suits." Case closed. Judgment rendered.

* Steve Delaney, a former Monitor Radio host, lives in Vermont.

No courtroom fireworks, just the question all juries must face: 'Did the State prove its case, beyond a reasonable doubt?'

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