When we filed into the jury box for the last time, I had not slept a full night in two weeks. The defendant eyed us expectantly from his chair. The attorneys focused on the wall straight ahead, steeling themselves. My knees quivered as I handed the verdicts to the court clerk and looked out into the gallery, where two weeks prior, I had sat, dreading jury duty as the infamous waste of time.
People chomp candy bars and yawn in front of giant movie screens on which men subject women to the most graphic brutality. However, when it came to serving on a rape trial, the prospective jurors in the criminal division of San Francisco Superior Court were decidedly queasy. Indeed, there was a faint, but collective, groan in the gallery when the allegations were announced -- six felonies including rape and corporal injury. With a patch of canary yellow peeking out from beneath the sleeve of her black robe, the judge smiled easily and spoke with the soft directness of a relationship therapist.After the court clerk distributed questionnaires pertaining to our personal experiences with the crimes charged, almost a third of the 70+ prospective jurors accepted the judge’s offer to discuss their experiences in private. One such woman returned from the judge’s chamber sniffling. In the courtroom, pleas for dismissal were numerous: A graphic designer in his twenties said his wife had been raped twice and he knew he couldn’t be objective about a man accused. A woman with tattooed arms said that she had dated a police officer and knew too many of them to trust their testimony. Another said she had already formed an opinion about the defendant based on his body language -- slouched in his chair, chin on chest, eyebrows raised. Others, respectively, could not send a human to prison, listen to a weeping witness, tolerate descriptions of explicit sexual acts or accept the testimony of one witness without corroboration. One man, wearing a royal blue blazer and toting a paperback on spirituality, claimed that he was capable of great compassion, though at the last trial on which he had served, “fortunately, the defendant changed his plea to guilty and saved everyone a wad of time and money.” By the end of the second day, the pool had thinned considerably. When the prosecuting attorney asked the remaining candidates if anyone, for moral or religious reasons, could not stand in judgment of another person, I could have spent four hours pondering the question. Jury selection, however, is a process of condensed answers and relative degrees of feeling. I remained silent and soon became Juror #11.
As the judge read us almost an hour of instructions from the state code, I was impressed with the gravity of our responsibility as jurors -- particularly after her added injunction that, though she would be listening, we were the judges in the case. Far from the tired, crusty magistrate I had expected to find in criminal court, she joked occasionally, leaned forward to look at people when she spoke and set a tone of irrevocable respect for the proceedings of the trial and the rights of the individuals in it. Still, I bristled at her admonishment not to form opinions about the case or discuss it with anyone; I figured most people nodded to that part of the oath, stuck to it for the first few days and then proceeded, blithely blabbing, as usual. I would learn otherwise.
The evidence began with the “complaining witness” as she is called by the public defender, or the “victim” as she is called by the prosecutor. The 25-year-old woman in a wide-striped suit wept through most of her recollections of an assault that purportedly occurred while her mother was out of town and her children, ages three and six, were asleep in the next room. She said that her son’s father, the defendant, entered her apartment unannounced and, upon discovering another man’s phone number on the table, backed her into her mother’s bedroom, beat her with a denuded umbrella stick, threatened to sodomize her, forced her to orally copulate him, and then raped her. “Bitch, I oughtta kill you,” was the resounding phrase. Throughout this narration, the defendant shook his head from side to side, fuming. The prosecuting attorney, with her soft voice and impeccable grammar, balanced the weapon on her fingers, thumbs extended, the way a waiter might display a just-flamed skewer before removing the brochettes. The message? Deadly if handled without care. With a composure directly opposite in proportion to that of the witness and defendant, the prosecutor walked slowly about the courtroom, proffering photographs of the woman’s bruises. The witness/victim managed her tears for a few sporadic minutes, but broke down completely when the attorney played a tape of the defendant’s phone messages from prison, begging the mother of his child to listen to her heart and drop the charges against him.