Can God Do Jury Duty?

Posted at 18:21pm on 26th April 2010

Dear Mel,

I hope you don’t mind me writing but I’m on Jury Duty next month and I’m feeling quite nervous about it. A friend in my church said she’d heard that you were on a big case a few years ago and that you might be able to advise me.

I’m worried I might lose my job - I’m a single parent – and I can’t afford to take time off. But mainly I’m just not sure what to expect, and the thought of having to decide if someone goes to prison or not is giving me sleepless nights. How do you live with yourself if you get it wrong?

I haven’t got any specific questions – just want to have a general idea what happens.

Yours,

Penny

Mel's Comment:

Dear Penny,

I can quite understand how you feel! For most of us a courtroom is the stuff of TV Drama and it rarely impinges upon our real lives. The thought of being part of that elite ‘other world’ and having the power to decide the future of another human being is, as you say, quite nerve-wracking.

JURY DUTY: THE PROCESS & PRACTICALITIES

Before I tell you of my experience – to reassure you – let me give a brief explanation of the system for those who may know nothing about it. In Britain and in the United States of America, trial by jury is a legal proceeding by which a person accused of a crime may be judged by ordinary citizens, much like him or herself. Following the jury’s judgement, as to whether the accused is guilty or not, the Court Judge will then apply the law.

The UK Government’s own website explains procedures in simple terms, and will answer all your questions about duty exemption, your employer’s obligations, subsistence (expenses for food and travel) and so on. There’s also an online DVD you can watch, and contact details if you have further questions to ask.

THE COURTROOM: WHAT TO EXPECT

What can you expect? Your jury summons is for a two week period - it may be more, but it won’t be less. However, there’s no guarantee that, having been summoned, you will be selected for a case. Some of the people who’d been summoned at the same time as me spent the whole two weeks in the waiting room doing nothing. Others were called up for two or three individual cases each lasting no more than a day or two.

I didn’t have to sit around for too long before being called into Court, but in that time I had the opportunity to chat to people, and to think through what jury duty entailed. It was what I could bring to the process that concerned me and I think, reading between the lines, that this is what’s behind the anxiety that’s depriving you of sleep.

PRAYING FOR A POSITIVE INPUT

The case on which I sat was one of paedophilia and, because of the complexities, the number of victims, and the length of time over which the abuse had occurred, it went on for several weeks. The accused had been abusing children with learning difficulties over a forty year period. Consequently, some of the victims taking the stand were now grown men; others, more recently abused, were still tiny children, who gave their evidence by video link. To say that it was harrowing to watch would be an understatement.

Like you, I wanted to be sure that the part I played in the proceedings would be a positive one. I prayed that God would use me. And when I looked around at my fellow jurors, I felt that I would have something worthwhile to contribute.

There were three or four men of my generation, one of whom was in business. The others looked unkempt and, frankly, lacked any real oomph. All the women were the age of my eldest daughter or younger; some had young families; some had jobs. They divided into two groups. Some were loud, and brassy-looking; self-opinionated and coarse. The others – thankfully those who travelled to the Court with me daily, by train - were quieter and softer.

EXPECT TO HAVE YOUR EXPECTATIONS CONFOUNDED

Authors and speakers use their powers of persuasion every day, in their work. Even through creative writing, authors are seeking to sway the minds of their readers: is this fictional character to be trusted? Does this moral stance have any merit? In journalism, the goal of a writer is invariably to show a different perspective to potential readers; to influence them, and bring about a change of mind; a change of heart. I felt sure that God would use my skills in these areas in that jury room.

How wrong can you be?

It is illegal ever to speak or write anything specifically concerning the deliberations of the jury; anything, in fact, which is beyond public domain. But what I can tell you is that in the first week of the trial, I felt increasingly diminished as a person. Marginalised by the group of vocal women, I felt that my opinions were seen as irrelevant; old hat. I began to doubt that God had any purpose in my being there, and I found myself feeling increasingly depressed at the prospect.

GOD MOVES IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS

It was springtime, and it was hot in the courtroom. Most of us sported bare legs and sandals, and at lunchtime – depending upon our inclination – we would either walk to the park, or to the shops. Within a few days one of the girls had worked up a blister on her foot.

I carried a large black handbag with me every day, big enough to contain my sandwiches a bottle of water, and a number of other items. Immediately, I was able to produce a Band Aid from its nether regions, and this was gratefully received. A day or two later, another of the women had a headache. A packet of Paracetamol was retrieved from the bottom of my bag. Next time, it was a pack of tissues for someone who had forgotten to bring a hanky, or a spare pen and note paper.

By week two, several of the women were beginning to look at me differently. Eventually, one of those who travelled with me daily by train, told me, shyly, that because of my large black handbag and the items therein, I had become known as Mary Poppins.

BE PREPARED TO BE HUMBLED

It wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind when I’d asked God to use my skills. In fact, looked at objectively, it was quite demeaning. But was this what God wanted of me, I asked myself? Humbly, I had to admit that in my heart of hearts I’d thought myself more intelligent than some of the men and women in that jury room!

By week three the harrowing details we were hearing in the courtroom on a daily basis were really taking their toll. Watching the distress of children who had been abused, and the effect of grown men crying in Court as they relayed their past experiences at the hand of their abuser, left none of us untouched. Some of the single women and the young mothers began to break down. Being naturally empathetic and tactile, I ached to show them support in the only way I knew. But would it be acceptable to modern young women?

And then God did something rather wonderful. They began to turn to me for comfort; the sort of comfort that only an older woman can give. As an author I had been, perhaps, somewhat aloof in their eyes. As Mary Poppins I could be trusted to handle their fragile emotions with care and compassion. I felt humbled, yet at the same time, uplifted!

THE VERDICT

When it came to be time to choose a Foreman for the jury, I was asked if I would fulfil the function. I declined – not in favour of the businessman, whose wisdom we had all benefited from – but for one of the scruffy men who had made his own compassionate contribution.

But ultimately God did use my persuasive powers to bring about justice! One of the boys, a teenager, claimed to have been raped. I believed him. A conviction for paedophilia carries only a comparatively short sentence, whereas a guilty verdict for rape would put the accused away for a very long time. Without risking being in contempt of Court, I can only say that, initially, not every juror was convinced. In the end, however, we were of one mind.

When the Foreman delivered the jury verdict of guilty on all counts, a disturbance at the back of the Court alerted us to the effect of our decision. We learned, later, that the young man who had broken down and had been led, sobbing, from the Court, was the one who had been raped four years earlier. If there had been any lingering doubt in the minds of any of the jurors they must, surely, have been dispelled. God had seen to it that justice was done.

Can God do jury duty, Penny? You bet he can! Ask, believe, receive, and he’ll be there guiding you through your stint of service. Put your trust in him, and his justice will prevail.

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