Presumption of Innocence

On Monday, I had jury duty.

Jury duty is a pain the ass. It's a hassle, it takes all freakin' day, and if you're unlucky a lot longer.

Also, if you're really unlucky, it will give you a lifetime of nightmares.

I've never served on a jury. Every time I get called for jury duty, I spend all day in silence as judges and lawyers question potential jurors about their ability to rule on the case.

The cases are always horrific when I get summonsed. Last time, it was a death penalty murder trial. I wasn't anxious to go back on Monday and find out what new horrors were in store.

I sat in the courtroom as the judge announced what the charges were, and told us we'd all be sworn in to answer about being on the jury.

The charges?

"The defendant is charged with sexual assault by a legal adult (my stomach lurched as I glanced at the defendant, who was probably pushing forty) of a minor child."

The floor fell out from under me.

I looked at him, and tried to feel nothing. After all, it might be my job to presume he was innocent until proven guilty. I couldn't let myself think he'd actually done it.

The judge went on to explain the crime, which was committed four years ago. The victim was now ten or eleven years old.

When this man allegedly raped her (which the judge clarified as penetration of the vagina by the penis), she was barely older than my daughters.

I shook that thought off, too. Because I had to be impartial, right?

Out of the sixty some potential jurors there, thirty were called up to answer questions. I was second to last.

Being second to last, I got to listen to all the potential jurors before me answer their questions.

Before entering the courtroom, we'd all had to fill out a form. Included on this form was the question, "Have you ever been the victim of a crime?"

I had checked yes.

When the judge asked each individual juror about their "yes" answers, most declined. Approximately a third of the women, and two of the men, requested to speak about the matter privately. My mouth dried out. There are only a handful of crimes that, if committed against you, fill you with the kind of shame and guilt that makes it impossible to speak publicly. Not at all like the answers, "I was carjacked," or "I was mugged," or "It was a home invasion and burglary."

No, when you've been the victim of a crime, and you don't want anybody to know about it, that means that being a victim of that particular crime is shameful.

As person after person requested to answer the question privately, I got angrier, and more determined.

Finally, it was my turn. I smiled at the judge, wiping my sweaty palms on my knees and trying to keep my heart from pounding out of my chest.

"Mrs. Grover, it says here you've been the victim of a crime?"
"That's correct."
"What was that crime?"

I looked her in the eyes and kept smiling, trying to keep my voice even. "I was sexually assaulted, and stalked."

The defendants lawyers started scribbling rapidly on their notebooks.
"Did you ever go to court?"
"Were charges ever filed?"
"Did you report the incident to the police?"
"And why weren't charges filed?"
"Lack of evidence, I guess."
"What do you mean?"
"I waited too long to report the assault."
"I see. Mrs. Grover, will you be able to follow the law, and treat both sides fairly in this case?"
I looked at the defendant's lawyer. I didn't look at him. I couldn't.
"I believe so."

Behind me, I heard people shuffling in their seats. Another four hands raised. "I actually have something I'd like to speak to you about in private as well, your honor."

A few moments later, it was the lawyers' turn to ask questions. The defense attorney called my name.

"Ms. Grover, did you interact with the police?"
"Did they leave you with a positive of negative impression?"
"Definitely negative."
I took a moment before answering. "They didn't believe me."

The judge and lawyers left the chambers, calling people in one at a time to discuss their private matters. During that time the rest of us fidgeted, talked a little amongst ourselves. A few of the other jurors came up to me to talk, but didn't make eye contact, didn't say anything that was obviously on their minds.

After the last juror returned, we continued to wait. For over an hour, the judge and lawyers discussed which of us they wanted on the trial, which they didn't.

When the judge returned, one by one she dismissed jurors who had spoken with her privately. Then the man who had announced he worked with the Chicago Children's Advocacy Center, working with victims of childhood sexual abuse. Then, at last, me.

And the remainder of the jurors were told to come back in the morning for the trial.

Part of me was relieved. As I exited the courtroom, I finally allowed myself to believe he was guilty. An instant, overwhelming surety, now that I didn't have the obligation to give him the benefit of the doubt.

At the same time I felt a wave of guilt, that I could damn him so easily before his trial.

And then a wave of fury.

Fury, because statistically, one third of every woman in a randomly selected group will have been victims of sexual abuse. And that's what I had just seen in person, in that courtroom. And fury that when a problem is that embedded into our culture, that deeply rooted into what it means to be female, that dangerously ubiquitous, there is no such thing as a fair trial.

Not for the accused, and not for the victim.


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