Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Sweet Land of Liberty: Religious Rights and Jury Duty

 

Every now and then, God, in his infinite mercy, sends an abundance of blessings, covers us with blessings. In a time in which I have found myself uncharacteristically  depressed and anxious about the path our country is taking, for one brief moment, the last few days, all depression has lifted and all anxieties have calmed.

One source of anxiety has been a personal matter, a family matter, and that has resolved itself graciously, happily, with a great feeling of relief and gratitude.

For Sunday, July 2nd, our priest had prepared us for a new set of studies, kicked off by an examination of Democracy and Religion. There were rules – 1) Be nice (that’s what they say in the South for ‘be civil’) and 2) Try to see the issue through the eyes of someone with whom you disagree.

The church hall was set up with twenty-four chairs. A half hour before he was due to start, people started pouring in, and we started pulling out more chairs, and more chairs and more chairs. He actually started off early with a reflection on our Old Testament reading, the story of Abraham and the almost-sacrifice of Isaac. (My Moslem friends correct me; they tell me it was Isaac. Let’s just agree that it was Abraham and a son, and perhaps the details will come clear on the other side of the great divide.) More people arrived, more chairs put out until we were out of chairs. Toward the end of the discussion on Religious rights and Democracy, I did a quick count of chairs and people standing and figured we had over ninety people – and one of the best Sunday School classes ever.

Our priest took a Socratic approach, asking questions, bringing in current topics. In these times of divided opinions, there was, surprisingly, a lot of laughter. My favorite moment was when we were discussing limits on religious freedoms, and things that there are laws against – live animal sacrifices, bigamy, sale of alcohol on Sunday before 11 a.m. – then one of the lawyers added “How about serving liquor to minors without checking IDs every Sunday?” That got a big laugh. It’s what we do; we use real wine in the communion cup, it’s Anglican / Episcopalian tradition. And yep, even young children get to take a sip. Oops.

As divided as we are, as it turns out, we have a lot in common. It takes a lot of courage to open up such a topic to the congregation. We all behaved. I think we all came away thinking we need more of this.

The very next day, yesterday, I was at the County Courthouse for my first ever call to jury duty. Well, this was my first ever call where I actually was living in the United States and able to show up. While we lived overseas, I would have to get on my VOIP late at night when the Clerk’s office opened and tell them I was living in (Germany. Kuwait. Qatar. Saudi Arabia. Jordan. Tunis. Take your pick.)

Jury duty is an exercise in tedium. At one point when the large selection pool left a courtroom, one of the potential jurors was going “Baaaa baaaaa baaaaa; we are all like sheep.” You park in one place and get on a trolley to the courthouse, you line up to enter the courthouse, you gather in a room and you wait to be called. You get instructions, you watch instructive videos, you get pep talks on your civic duty.

I had my eyes opened in a lot of ways. First, that I would guess more than two hundred people showed up, and this was a Monday between the weekend and the Fourth of July holiday. Many had to take time off from work to show up. We were supposed to be in “business’ dress, but this is Florida, and I guess ‘business dress’ is a matter of interpretation.

Groups would be called to go before judges for jury selection. There were many cases, so almost all of us were a part of one group or another. From my group, juries were being chosen for three trials, so they asked a lot of questions up front that would pertain to all three trials, then the lawyers for the prosecution and the lawyers for the defense would ask questions.

The questions surprised me. They named the witnesses, and the defendants were there in the courtroom; they asked if anyone knew the defendant or any of the witnesses. They asked about our prejudices for or against law enforcement officials, and could we overcome our prejudice to listen to the evidence fairly. They asked about our own court experiences, and they asked about our convictions for drug use, and other things. Many of my pool had served many times on juries and knew how things went. Many were reluctant, yet, there they were. Serving. Doing their duty.

Here is what really surprised me – at least in Florida, the defendant, who is sitting there through all the questioning, gets a say in who will be on his jury. I had no idea! We don’t see a lot of jury selection on TV (although the lady sitting next to me said I need to watch a show called Bull, where jury selection is what the show is about.)

None of the defendants wanted me, and I can understand why. They want people on the juries to truly be as close to their peers as possible, people who can identify with being arrested, maybe even convicted of a crime. They want people who might give them the benefit of the reasonable doubt.

How often have you been arrested? My son, who has been a part of the system, once told me that there are Americans who never have a brush with The Law, other than maybe a traffic ticket or a DWI. Now and then, I ask my friends. None has ever been inside a jail, but these days, a friend or two has a child who has become involved with heavy drug use, and has spent some heart-breaking time in the system.

It was a long day, full of tedium. I thought about the judge, and the lawyers, who go through this day after day, asking the same questions, looking out at groups full of people who maybe don’t even want to be there, going through the process to insure that our system is as fair as possible, day after day, month after month. I had no idea that the wheel of justice ground so finely, so relentlessly, on and on. I had no idea what stoic determination it takes to be a part of that system, and trying to make sure that while the state makes the case, the defendants rights are protected.

I’ve lived, as you know, in countries where justice prevails – occasionally. I remember living in one country, which was peaceful, and thinking to myself that they were educating a lot of people for positions they will never be able to fill, because they are not in the elite.

We have all seen, in every country, that those with the money to buy the best legal protection can often escape the consequences of their crime, but there is hope, for me,  even in making them stand trial.

I had no idea how proud I would feel at the end of the day, being a part of this huge effort, seeing how many of my fellow citizens, at great sacrifice to themselves, showed up. I had no idea what an education it would be for me. I had no idea how often those who least want to serve are those chosen to serve – and they persist. They show up.

I was in a room with maybe two hundred people from all walks of life. We were really just numbers, there to fill a systemic need. Some may even be, like me, a little cynical about how much justice our system really delivers . . . and we show up.

One of the defense lawyers yesterday asked us “Do you know what we are here about today?” and while we were all thinking about the charges, she answered “we are here about this man’s liberty. We’ll be deciding where he will spend his time in the next weeks, and months and years. We’ll be deciding his liberty.”

I’m glad I showed up.

Happy Fourth of July 🙂

 

Advertisements

July 4, 2017 - Posted by | Adventure, Aging, Bureaucracy, Character, Civility, Community, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Law and Order, Living Conditions, Pensacola, Quality of Life Issues, Social Issues, Stranger in a Strange Land, Transparency | , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: