Field Tripping By Kate Drabinski

Field Tripping: Jury Dutying

I finally got called for jury duty. This was my second summons in Baltimore, but the first got called off due to that most Baltimore of reasons: a broken water main downtown that closed all the courthouses for days, including my big day as a juror. Most folks would be excited to get to knock out their annual service like that, but I was really hoping it would finally be my time. I wanted to be a juror for the Law and Order realness, sure, but also to live out some of my political fantasies.

Maybe I would make it on the jury and then live out my jury nullification fantasy. Sure, the guy may have committed the crime, but my voice would convince the rest of the jury that because the law itself is unjust, we should acquit. I would be at the center of a revolutionary movement striking blows against the carceral state, one trial at a time.

Then again, maybe not. Some crimes just shouldn't be crimes, at least in my mind. I'd want to try the nullification gambit in a drug case, for example. Drug use shouldn't be a crime. Not only is getting high a human right, but drug laws don't actually solve problems. Addiction isn't solved by being tossed in a cage. The underground economies that underlie so much violent crime are made more, not less violent by drug laws. There's also the part where capitalism's violence gets off the hook when we spend all our time using "law and order" to police drugs, but that's a different column. When even our police chief—a guy whose job depends on our addiction to policing—argues that we can't incarcerate ourselves out of this shit, well, maybe we can't. Happy to nullify those laws.

But what about cases where someone has experienced harm, and we haven't yet built that restorative justice framework that offers an alternative to incarceration? If we understand that moving away from the carceral logic of the state requires challenges to racism, poverty, and other deep social, political, and economic problems, well, what do we do in the meantime? Could I really look in the face of someone who had suffered a grievous harm at the hands of someone—proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt—and say sorry, nothing approximating justice for you while I act for the revolution? Maybe not.

It's all a mind game, though, unless you actually get on a jury—and I didn't. The jury summons said to get there by 8 a.m., so I got there by 8 a.m., which meant I was just in time for my first wait of the day. I said hello to the few people I recognized—hundreds of people in a Baltimore line, and we're all bound to know a few people. I made it through security and shuffled into one of the holding pens, even snagging a front row seat, because I am who I am.

Unlike my fantasy of marching in to civically-duty, most of jury duty turned out to be waiting, and complaining about waiting with my fellow waiters. I quickly pulled out my book, hoping it would ward off the chatterboxes like it usually does on public transit. That didn't work. The woman sitting across from me, whom I affectionately nicknamed "Rag Lady," really wanted to talk. At first that was great as she shared the details of her work in the rag business. "Everybody needs rags," she told us as she spun out stories of the big bucks she makes selling rags to factories. I learned about the many different kinds of rags, how to tell what rag is good for what job, the margin on rag trading (hint: it's big), and more about rags than I knew there was to know.

And then she and the folks around me started bonding by talking about how terrible Baltimore is, how they shouldn't even be here because "we aren't their peers—we aren't criminals." Ugh. My fellow jurors-to-be weren't debating jury nullification so much as they were trying to figure out how to just cast a guilty vote and go home early. I moved my book closer to my face and tried in vain to shut it out and not intervene. Thank goodness I got called to join a jury pool.

I was in a pool for a murder case. That's the real deal. As much as I understand that murder is often the end point of a long and complicated road, I also understand that right now, the only thing we have to approximate justice (and it's a terrible approximation, if we're being honest) is trial by jury. I wasn't going to try to get out of this one, as much as the weight of serving on a jury like this would be overwhelming.

So I answered the voir dire questions honestly, including the one about having family in law enforcement (which I do), and waited it out with the 99 other potential jurors. I wasn't picked, and I'm not sure if it was because of my family connection or something else. I watched the lawyers on both sides strike jurors for all the expected reasons: The defense dismissed jurors who were radically unlike the defendant, the prosecution dismissed jurors who were like the defendant. White men were out, Black women were out, a huffing, puffing, eye-rolling white woman with a backpack made the cut.

I filed out with the rest of the relieved folks released from service. I was glad the guy who'd sat behind me left, too. We'd gotten into it a little after one of our breaks. He hadn't stood up in agreement with the judge when asked if we were more likely to believe a police officer's testimony purely because it came from a police officer. He told me, though, that he thought cops were more trustworthy because they'd given their lives to service as cops. "So why didn't you stand when the judge asked if you had that view?" I asked him. "I didn't think I was supposed to answer it literally. Cops just are more trustworthy than others." He didn't make it, but if he had? Or if Rag Lady were up there? Jury of our peers is the best we can do, and that's terrifying.

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