There is an ironic link between this month’s visit and the one we shared a month ago. Something in my circle of concern quickly became an element in my circle of influence, and in a most profound way.
What are the odds of being selected for the jury of a criminal case? It began with a room crammed full of 500+ residents from around the county, all assigned a random number. I know how this usually goes, because I’ve been a part of this process at least a dozen times over my time living in Florida. We sit around for a few hours, learn that all the cases on a judge’s docket have been pleaded out, and we return home with a kind thank-you for our service and a tongue-in-cheek promise that we’ll see each other again in one year and a day, when we next become eligible to serve our civic duties again.
The next stage of the process occurs when 36 random numbers are called upstairs to sit in an actual courtroom, where the judge explains the logistics of a case and attorneys ask the most curious questions to ascertain your views on obscure topics. Like, if you woke up to find your house (and only your house) doused in 500 gallons of water from the sky with no rain in the forecast and was told by your neighbor that a helicopter dumped it on your roof, would you believe them? Is this possible? Is there reasonable doubt this could occur? We all stare dumbfounded, unsure what is actually being asked. Then, the attorney shares that a wildfire had broken out five miles away earlier that morning. Does that now change your stance or thoughts?
So, I sat in the courtroom and shared my thoughts on hypothetical wildfires, a version of Schrödinger’s Cat paradox, and how strongly I feel about sticking to my principles or being persuaded by others. It was quite interesting and a stage in the process I had reached one time before.
After an hour of questions and several investigative looks from the attorneys not making the inquiries, a selection of the seven jurors to make up the panel for this case was made. I have to admit, I was anxious, because beneath all the logistics and procedure of this process, I really wanted to experience the judicial process outside of the countless episodes of Law & Order I’ve watched over the years.
When my number was called as the penultimate one on the panel, I felt this fuzzy feeling wash over me, as if I’d won some version of a legal lottery. Someone felt as though I would be an impartial and just peer to weigh the evidence and pass judgment on the future of an individual.
It was in that sobering moment that reality hit. I was going to be responsible for the future of another human being. If that isn’t in one’s circle of influence, I don’t know what is.
The details of the case were utterly fascinating, compelling, and it helped me appreciate why cases actually go to trial. There is rarely a clear-cut answer to the arguments presented, nor does every case get tied up with a neat bow like they do in an hour-long television drama. I’m happy to share the specifics of the case in private with each and every one of you—if your curiosity is piqued—but there is a different aspect of this process that I’d like to focus upon: white noise.
Too many times to count over the course of this case, one of the attorneys objected to a line of questioning. It was eerily similar to Jack McCoy from Law & Order standing and yelling the signature word—objection—and if you will, imagine an exclamation mark at the end for emphasis and implied disbelief that such a question would be permissible. But it’s what happened after each of these statements that differs from television life. The judge throws a switch, and the entire courtroom is bathed in a not-so-soothing aura of white noise. Everything that the judge and attorneys discussed was drowned out by the dissonant sound.
I can’t even tell you how frustrating it was to sit there and see the perturbed and animated facial expressions from the attorneys. How can you not want to know what information is being shared? Could it not benefit our interpretation of the truth that everyone seeks?
Once the closing arguments had been made and I sat in the deliberation room with my fellow jurors, we shared those same sentiments. Why couldn’t we know more? In reality, we understood perfectly why we couldn’t hear the complete truth, but it was a rhetorical question, one that tickles the curiosity of every human being.
But this is where that white noise comes in and plays a different role. Throughout the actual proceedings of the case, we were not to discuss the details with anyone, not even our fellow jurors. It could jade one’s opinion before receiving all the evidence and arguments presented by both the prosecution and defense. So, how did we fill that time in the deliberation room during breaks and legal arguments that required our absence from the courtroom as jurors?
We learned a bit about each other. What we did for a living. What our families were like. What we enjoyed doing, reading, and watching. How we felt about other things going on in the world, that were not related to the case, of course. It was fascinating, how seven random individuals from all around the county, all walks of life, and all ages came together—perhaps against their own will—to connect in an unanticipated way, but that’s where I found a small nugget of serendipitous wisdom in this experience.
It has been so easy to work myself into a rut of solitary confinement over the past several years due to COVID. Even after things had gotten better and less severe, the habits had already been formed. It became commonplace to spend more time at home than away from it, more time with close family and less with other acquaintances in a social setting.
It wasn’t until I was distracted by an external influence, much like that white noise in a courtroom, that I began to appreciate how we sometimes need a nudge toward change in order to find the truest version of ourselves again. Connecting with those six other jurors was something I desperately needed at precisely that moment.
Our jury struggled with the amount of evidence we had at our disposal and how we would arrive at a just verdict in the case presented to us. However, perhaps the more important takeaway from this entire experience was that, while it’s possible to create a situation where your fate rests in the hands of your peers inside a courtroom, it’s infinitely better to take control of your own future, perhaps with a bit of white noise to nudge you along.
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