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To Sit In Judgment, Page 3

The deliberation process has its moments of levity, usually at the expense of the attorneys. (“It’s not like Law and Order, folks...” they often warned.) For the most part, however, the discussion was quite sobering. We examined all the scenarios we could manage based on the evidence, but it was the court reporter’s read-backs of testimony -- her voice efficiently monotone, sans tears and cross-examination drama -- that seemed to have the greatest impact. The unadorned facts were chilling; the room, silent.

As deliberations came to a close, I stopped checking my phone messages. During breaks, I stared at the freeway from a window in the waiting room. For variation, I looked out the other window at the county jail, another wing of the building. Every day I walked by the inmates’ visiting elevator, but never once saw anyone get on or off. In the lobby, I saw five men handcuffed together. At home, my plants withered from neglect. I was moody and my family’s discussions about what to have for dinner seemed excruciatingly trivial. Conversely, my walks in the park had heightened significance for their invaluable solace. Sometimes, I found myself missing the other jurors because it was with them only that I could discuss my grave thoughts.

And then, it was over.

The defendant looked up through raised eyebrows as the verdicts were announced.

“Guilty...sexual assault...Guilty...oral copulation by force...”

He arched into his seat throwing his head back, then folded forward, elbows to ribs, twisting the heels of his hands into his eyeballs as if to wake himself from a horrifying nightmare. His sobs increased to a warble, louder and longer with each word pronounced by the court clerk. An ingrained shame in spectatorship compelled me to look away, but I could not move my eyes.

“Guilty...corporal injury... Guilty...sexual battery...”

When the man’s howl became so loud as to drown even the booming voice of the court clerk, the bailiff took him away, where his desperate pleas echoed through an unseen hallway. My intestines began to twist; I dabbed an eye in a futile attempt not to bawl. When the defendant returned to his seat, he put his head down on the table, in a crash pose of sorts, until the reading of the verdicts was over and he was again removed.

 I came home to the family polka of the weekday dinner hour. Later, I told my husband about the case, though after two weeks of verbal and emotional restraint, it was akin to explaining the plot of a Virginia Woolf novel. The verdict itself -- hours before, a dramatic blow to one individual, the long-awaited protection for another and a damning indictment of what the human species has not accomplished after a million years of evolution -- seemed harshly simple. I had done my best as a juror, and yet, was overwhelmed with a sense of futility. Another woman abused; another man to waste away in prison; two more children in a violent, impoverished situation.

In an orange jumpsuit at the sentencing, the man pled for mercy. Between himself and the mother of his child, he insisted, it was “an altercation, nothing more.” He was not a violent man, not an animal, not a rapist. He could have shown her a good life, he insisted, if only given the chance. Indeed, it was she who had hurt him, saying she wanted to end the relationship.

Altercation. A smooth, civilized, multi-syllabic word listed in the dictionary as an argument or dispute. Perhaps the only difference between this “altercation” and those in the past is that Dinky made a police report and pressed charges; records of the pretrial discussions about keeping past domestic abuses out of the courtroom certainly suggest that possibility. When I  learned that the man had a long record -- drug and firearm possession, car thefts, flight from a police car, a gun pointed at an officer -- I understood why his attorney had advised him not to testify. He protested the current verdict for several minutes. Finally, his mother, sitting a few rows away from me, motioned him to sit down so she could speak. Looking years older than at the trial three months prior, she implored the judge not to take her only son. She and her daughter and granddaughter all had jobs but they needed a man at home. She hadn’t seen her grandson in two years, that is, since the incident. The sister pled too. She had heard that her nephew’s mother was pregnant again, the stepfather was using drugs and the family was evicted from their most recent apartment. The judge listened patiently to these recitations of broken lives, then imposed a ten-minute recess. When we returned, the room was quiet.

Twenty years, the judge announced, after a lengthy discussion of factors, mitigating (the man’s drug addiction) and aggravating (his past parole violations). This time she did not look up or smile when she spoke. The mother sunk her head into her hands. The sister bolted from the room to join the chorus of women who wailed outside other courtrooms in the hall. The defense attorney told me later that it was not as severe as it could have been, considering that the prosecutor had pushed for consecutive terms rather than concurrent. With parole, the man would serve about 16 years.

Even now, I can only think of the boy who will be twenty by the time his middle-aged father is released from prison. Hopefully, he won’t remember the violence between his parents. Since spousal abuse and child abuse are often found together, I’d like to think that because of the trial, he was spared at least some kind of  harm. And yet, like his father, he, too will have grown up without his dad. Likely, he will have no memories of the grandmother or aunt who cherished him as a baby. He will have been moved from one public housing project to another, raised with at least two half-siblings by different fathers. Will he, like both his father and stepfather, bear a gun, a drug addiction and felony record? Will he one day sit in that same brown chair his daddy did? He’s only four years old, but the odds seem stacked against him. At the courthouse, my name has been erased from the official record. For a little boy I have never seen, however, the results are permanently engraved.


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