Yesterday, 3/29/2011, I was a juror and today I feel like I’m the one who put the last nail in the coffin of justice. I did my job, but I couldn’t deliver justice. I participated in a system that no longer works and by doing so allowed the illusion to persist that we are a nation of laws and that justice in America is blind. In so doing I helped validate a system that allows injustice to persist. I can’t change today what I did yesterday. And yet I can’t honestly say that had I done something else, it would have made any difference at all. My heart is breaking.
I was called to be a juror. It was a case involving an individual who was charged with driving under the influence. In the jury room I and others struggled with the facts in the case; i.e., Did the prosecution prove its case? After long deliberation all of us finally agreed that the defendant was guilty of the crime for which he was accused. I don’t believe we made a mistake in that regard.
Before I was seated as a juror, I agreed that I could and would follow the instructions of the judge. In the end, even though I was aware of what I am about to share with you, that’s what I did: I simply did what I was asked to do.
We were informed that as jurors we were officers of the court, but we were never told what that means exactly in legal terms. I assumed it simply meant that I, like the judge and the two attorneys in the room, have a duty to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States (which is to say, the defendant’s rights, and every citizen’s rights) against all enemies, foreign and domestic, to the best of our ability. It was our duty to be vigilant, honorable, and steadfast in making sure that justice was done.
But can any ordinary citizen today get a fair trial? I’m not at all sure that it’s possible. Our police officers are charged with policing certain members of our society while other members of society are not policed (or properly regulated) which can make it possible for some criminals to do great damage and unravel the very fabric of our society leaving the rest of us to pay the price. In fact, the crimes of those of whom I speak, work to impoverish, more than anyone else, the most defenseless citizens among us, many of whom become trapped in persistent poverty, homelessness, and despair because of our failure to enact fair laws or uphold laws that are already on the books.
To make matters worse, unthinking lawmakers often try to make up the losses caused by these unprosecuted criminals by unraveling the social safety net that was put in place to prevent the most vulnerable among us from having to face the level of hopelessness that the crimes I’m talking about help create.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution promises citizens equal protection under the law. But there can be no equal protection under the law if some people are considered to be above the law, and when the law only prosecutes the weak and vulnerable members of society for the crimes they commit while allowing the most dangerous criminals among us to profit from their crimes and go free. Where’s the justice in that? I don’t think there is any… so what are we to do?
In the final analysis, what convinced me to find the defendant guilty in my case, was my carefully considered decision to accept the arresting police officer’s testimony to be, in and of itself, proof beyond a reasonable doubt… because I believed the officer to be a decent, honorable man who was doing his job to the best of his ability and I believed he was qualified to recognize that at the time of the arrest the defendant was highly intoxicated and unable to safely operate his motor vehicle.
But that police officer was cheated, and so was the defendant, and so was I and so were you by this proceeding because the laws of this land are not fairly enforced. Only certain people are prosecuted for the crimes they commit. Only certain people are investigated, arrested, and face a day in court for their crimes, even when we all know that grave and serious crimes have been committed that diminish all of us. The system is broken and by participating in it as if it were not, and narrowly focusing on instructions of judges and other people in authority, we keep the injustice in place, and by doing so participate in the demise of our Constitution, the rule of law, and our children’s birthright — the right to live in a just, fair, and decent society.
You might argue that it was not my job to do anything other than sort out the facts of the case and find the defendant innocent or guilty of the crime for which he was charged. You might argue that that’s the only way the system can work; i.e., with each person doing his or her job to the best of their ability — that my suggested grievance needs to be pursued somewhere else. For example, if I had removed myself from the jury box, what good would that do. Someone else would have taken my place and maybe that juror would have been less diligent than I was in sorting out the facts of the case. Would that have been a better choice?
The system is broken. It doesn’t work. The problem is that everyone is not doing their job, particularly those at the highest levels of government and at other powerful institutions that form the backbone of our society. Today, in America, there is no “somewhere else.” There’s only here and now wherever we are, whoever we are.
When my time came, I couldn’t think of what else to do other than what I did do, and yet when I had the chance to speak up for justice in the courtroom, I didn’t do it. I can’t change yesterday, but can say something now, even as I doubt that anything I might say will make any difference at all.
Following a judge’s orders can only forward the cause of justice if every officer of every court, and every citizen in every city and state, does his or her duty to see that the full measure of justice is done, that the Constitution is preserved. Otherwise our country is lost.
As I see it, We The People, are in great and imminent danger of losing everything we hold dear. If we can’t find a way to restore the integrity of our Constitution — and soon — the Great Experiment will be over, and we will at long last know the answer to the question in Ben Franklin’s mind when, after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had adjourned, he was asked by a woman on the street as to what kind of government had been decided upon. Ben’s answer:
“A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
When presidents and/or other government officials can declare and prosecute illegal wars; commit ongoing war crimes; suspend habeas corpus; ‘render’ suspected persons to other countries to be tortured; detain suspects indefinitely without a legitimate trial or defense; suspend attorney/client privileges; search homes, cars, persons and private communications without a warrant; torture a suspected whistle blower for keeping his oath of office and telling the truth; refuse to investigate and prosecute known and suspected criminals for their crimes; authorize special agents to commit murder and other offenses; infringe on the right of citizens to exercise their right of free speech; and deny citizens equal protection under the law among other assaults to our Constitution, one can’t help but wonder if we already know how the question in Ben Franklin’s mind has played out. Perhaps the question before us ought not to be can we “keep it,” but rather are we going to try to get back, and if not now, when? And if now, how?
“Liberty lies in the hearts and minds of men and women;
when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it;
no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it… ” —Judge Learned Hand
- Cornel West and the fight against injustice (dandelionsalad.wordpress.com)