It would have never occurred to me to share this story, from years ago, had I not overheard a recent conversation while waiting for a friend in that great, all-American conference room, also known as Starbucks. A man and woman were having a heated discussion about the upcoming elections.
Evidently, one of them had also gotten a jury summons that day which added significantly to their irritation over having to “waste the whole day” as a juror. They were throwing out ideas that might work in order to get out of such a total “pain in the ass.”
It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut. I used to be just like them. Jury Duty. Yuck. What a giant drag. When I was selected for a jury, I was absolutely disgusted, even more so when I found out the case was criminal.
Criminal cases were notorious for lasting much longer. All I wanted was, OUT!
So, Whodda Thunk…that becoming a juror would have a profound and indelible effect on my life, even to this very day. I changed my mind and it changed my life.
I came into this world wrapped in Americana from the get-go: born in Houston, of American parents, always a Girl Scout, flags waving in our front yard for every Fourth of July. So, this post is not about my harrowing experiences, of making my way to America.
This story is about a huge realization…..yes, I was an American. But never before, had I remotely considered what it meant to be a “citizen”, actively honoring my heritage.
It only took three days, seeing our system at work from the inside for the first time, to change my entire attitude…from being snarky and put-upon about having to sit on a jury to being so grateful that I got to do it.
The charge in the case to which I was assigned was for aggravated robbery which meant the guy on trial had used deadly force: in this case, a gun.
The defendant was Hispanic. About 40. The vivid red slash mark, spanning ear to ear, along with multiple deep scars on his forehead and cheeks fragmented his already ominous, scowling face. If you were casting for the quintessential “bad ass” for your next Western, he would have been your man.
As we learned, during the course of the trial, this man was the ring leader of a gang created specifically to rob illegal aliens within his own community. His band of outlaws preyed on families living “under the radar”. Because of their immigration status as illegal, if they reported any of the crimes/atrocities to the police, they would risk being deported. So, they made an easy target for the most heinous of predators, who could rape, murder, rob, and terrorize these families any time they felt like it.
Law enforcement rarely put a stop to the escalating carnage because, more often than not, they weren’t informed in the first place.
Another revelation occurred during this trial. I think about it so often now, as I see more and more undocumented people pouring into our country without proper indoctrination or processing….it never occurred to me how much danger illegal aliens put themselves in to come to our country if they are here on the “down low”. For so many, the desire to experience The American Dream becomes a daily nightmare.
This trial would have never happened except for the action of one very, very brave man named Javier, who stood up to testify against the “leader” of these banditos. Javier said, “Enough.”
The defendant and his gang had broken into Javier’s home. Javier and his 8 siblings were forced to watch their mother being raped by “the leader” while held at gun point, as the rest of gang ransacked their house, stealing anything of value.
Being illegal himself, Javier knew if he went to the police, that he would most likely be deported within a matter of days. He also knew chances were good that the network of other bandits both in Houston and in Mexico would be alerted to kill him before he could come back from Mexico to be the primary witness for the trial. Javier decided his life would be in danger either way so he went double-down on his commitment to see justice served. He had placed himself on the “hero’s journey” to try to save his family and friends from the ongoing terror of these vicious and random attacks which had been going unreported for years.
The day he was set to testify, Law & Order could not have crafted the scenario as gang members filed into every available seat. The cavernous courtroom was white-knuckle quiet. When Javier walked in to take his oath before testifying, the only sound was the whoosh of air coming through the AC vents. Javier did not blink. He stayed the course and told his story in gut-wrenching detail.
We, the jury, delivered a guilty verdict a few hours later.
After finding the defendant guilty, we then found out we were supposed to also set the punishment, which was scheduled for the next day.
We were then informed that the defendant had been found guilty of other crimes and had served prison time previously. Because he was a repeat offender, we were given options for sentencing. We could vote for the maximum sentence but with parole in fifteen years. Or, we could opt to send him to prison for life, without the possibility of parole.
Life in prison. Forever. Suddenly, no matter what he had done and no matter his violent history, the rest of HIS life was now in OUR hands. A somber silence permeated the deliberation room as we sat around the table to vote.
Only one juror voted for life WITH the possibility of parole. Knowing our final verdict had to be unanimous, we voted again.
Here we were, twelve total strangers, having just met the day before. Now, we found ourselves in a highly charged discussion about the value of life itself. The values and beliefs of twelve, very real, very raw people were on the table for review. Tears flowed between all of us, as we asked for extra boxes of Kleenex. Another moment flashed through me….our varied backgrounds fell away…we were in this together…because we bonded over doing the right thing.
We voted again. Still, one dissenter.
As another vote became a stalemate, we broke for lunch. Maybe the light of day in the “real world” and a good burger would change this person’s mind. Nope. A full stomach had only strengthened his resolve. That resolve….of one man….would turn the tide of the ultimate outcome. The convicted felon would receive a chance at parole in fifteen years. The deal was done. This one juror’s iron-clad belief and commitment to second chances in life ultimately won out.
The rest of us were definitely NOT in agreement with the option for parole, but this one man was adamant about his position. Although there was mounting frustration and obvious anger, no one shouted him down. We actually agreed on the spot to respect his beliefs and to honor the system we were working within..
I saw our legal system actually work during those three days….immersed in a process originally created in the spirit of justice for all …for all of us (whether free man or felon) to benefit from. I got to feel what it was like to be an advocate for a very brave man named Javier. I came away deeply moved by his courage to care for his family and his community, at great risk to himself. It moves me still….my life, as an American has never required me to make that kind of “do or die" decision.
I also realized my decisions and those of my peers, during this trial, DID create a much-needed ripple effect…shining a glaring light on the bigger picture involving an entire community of people who were being terrorized in their daily lives. Until this trial, not one of us on the jury had a clue about the predators who were taking advantage of people living in our country without citizenship.
Truth be told….being part of the sentencing process, we discussed the weight of the emotional responsibility for deciding the fate of another person’s life. You might think, as an arm-chair quarterback, that the decision would be a cinch…throw the bum in jail and throw away the key. But, you had to have been there.
I was born an American but I became a “citizen” when I had the opportunity to be immersed in the process. I entered that courtroom three days before, feeling “inconvenienced”, sharing sarcastic remarks and plenty of eye-rolling amongst the rest of the jury pool. I left, profoundly honored to be a citizen of our country. I also left with a heightened awareness of what it means to become determined to affect an outcome and to see the power of an unwavering commitment in the face of the most daunting odds. Javier risked all the odds to show up in court. The lone juror did the same thing for a very different reason. Their individual commitments to “do the right thing” according to their own personal value systems, held fast.
My mind and my heart opened and changed in so many ways, during those three days. Changing my mind and shifting my perspective would forever change my life, from such a smug, entitled attitude into profound and permanent gratitude…for my life and our country.
Take-aways….so many, I made a list.
Be careful about ‘parroting” the popular opinions of the masses. Look more deeply to see what’s aligned with your own beliefs. Bitch less….often.
Be ready to change your mind once your own life experience gives you the opportunity to do so. Be open to revelation.
Know that you really DON’T know what goes on in anyone else’s life. Judge less. Being an armchair quarterback is a total time and energy suck.
Realize how much more we are alike than we are different. Even our differences dissolve with an agreement on a common outcome.
Commitment is a very powerful thing. COMMIT to something bigger than you. Then, take action.
Be brave according to your values. Don’t let yourself be swayed to fit in.
Realize how much your participation in your community matters.
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