Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Everyday People Truly Are Amazing
If you put 23 ordinary people in a room, told them that their decisions would have major impact on someone's life, then left them alone to talk, would you expect it to work?
That's our grand jury system and I must confess that I had my doubts. We've all sat at meetings where one person monopolized the agenda, either droning on and on or asking questions that clearly had nothing to do with the issue being discussed. I figured that's what a grand jury would be like.
I was wrong.
I'm sitting on a grand jury, having finally run out of reasons why I couldn't do it when that notice came in the mail. I tried, believe me. I went in carrying my daughter's copy of "Eating Animals", hoping I'd be considered a radical vegan liberal and rejected. They didn't care. (Read it, by the way. We should all know what's in the meat we feed our children and how it's created. It's not the way you picture it and it's only allowed because we're in denial.) Back to the grand jury.
After three days of work, I'm surprised at the consistently clear thinking, the intelligent questioning, the focus on the issue and the refusal to be sidetrack that I'm seeing from every member of this jury. We're a diverse group - all ages, all races, residents of small cities and people from the country.
We've heard cases so complex we've needed pages of notes to keep up. We've had to have the finer points of law explained to us. Let's just consider drunk driving. There are plenty of fine points - a law that applies if you refused to take a breathalizer test. Another set that applies if you take it, how badly you fail, a subset that applies to who's in the car with you, even a myriad of variations for all the various substances you might be taking.
I, for instance, didn't know that if you're taking a prescription medication with drowsiness cautions and you drive - and you're pulled over, you can be charged. It makes sense, I know, but somehow I never connected those dots. So even if your medication never bothered you before, you 'd better think twice about driving a car if the bottle warns you not to operate machinery while taking it.
That's just an example. Think of anything that's illegal and trust me: there are dozens of variations that apply to the basic charge. We're learning it all on the fly.
But I've watched 23 of us wade through all the distinctions on several different issues, discuss them briefly and intelligently, and come to conclusions that seem rational and measured. Maybe that doesn't surprise you but it honestly surprised me.
I've heard the same evidence as the other jurors and then been amazed by questions that indicated they'd zeroed in on something I didn't even notice. And it isn't one really smart juror - they're questions coming from every part of the room.
Maybe it's all the police and courtroom dramas. Maybe television has trained us how to think like investigators. Or maybe a group of people can be a lot more effective than we sometimes give them credit for.
I expected sitting on a jury to be an interesting experience. I knew I'd learn something. What I didn't expect was to have my faith in humanity's intelligence and basic decency so strongly confirmed.
We'd all rather be doing something else. We'd all rather be somewhere else. And every single person among those twenty three everyday people is taking this responsibility very seriously; trying very hard to listen, to understand, to make judgements based on what the court expects of us.
None of us can talk about the cases we've heard; we'll never be able to explain what went on. But the process, despite some pretty obvious inefficiencies, works.
And in a world where it seems that so many of our systems are just not working, it's a real comfort.