The Least Among Us

It is with a profound sense of relief that I report to you all that I have been excused from jury duty by dint of cancellation of the trial that was scheduled for next Monday. I maybe wasn’t supposed to do this, but I looked at the court docket last week and know the defendant was in court Tuesday to enter a plea, so I’m guessing he pled (pleaded? Merriam-Webster says I’m okay using either) guilty.

Once upon a time I was among a large pool of people summoned as prospective jurors for the trial of a prominent local person. Somewhere between 200 and 300 of us were handed questionnaires to fill out as we arrived, regarding personal information, familiarity with the defendant, questions germane to the charges against him.

I doubt these questionnaires even got skimmed, and the judge, a retired jurist brought in from a different district, seemed so impressed with his chance to be back in the big chair — or perhaps he was seeking maximum humiliation for the defendant — that he kept all 200-plus of us well into the afternoon, even though some were in their law enforcement uniforms, an automatic excuse to not be seated.

I’m sure many others were in the position I was, not eligible to serve for various reasons, including creditor to the defendant, which I was (and am, and always will be), but instead of asking for anyone to speak up, the judge kept everyone in the courtroom, ensuring we were watching the selection process.

Which was sort of interesting as an academic exercise, but there were so many of us stuffed into such a small space, and it was turning sweltering. At one point I was near a pregnant woman, and most of us in her vicinity were afraid she was going to pass out.

It was a nadir that clearly made me understand why people seek to get out of jury duty.

So when I was summoned this time and a few days later received an advance questionnaire in the mail, I thought that seemed like a great idea. Until I got to the second page.

The first page was rather basic demographic information I filled in about myself, plus what sort of music, television and reading I like, along with hobbies. I don’t really know what that might tell the prosecution and defense about me as a juror, but it was easy enough to fill out.

Then I turned the page, to where it started getting specific about the trial I had been summoned to. I still do not know the specific charges, nor do I know anything about the defendant or his alleged victims (actual victims if he has pleaded guilty), but the first question wanted to know if I had any feelings or experiences that might imply a bias toward either the prosecution or defense to learn that the trial would involve sexual assault.

The next question got more specific: sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust. The next question used the word “incest,” and farther down the page it included the information that the case involved two children.

Any willingness I had for jury duty evaporated when the nature of the trial became clear. I did not, and do not, want to learn the details of this case. In my estimation, the worst crimes someone can commit are of violence toward children, especially a violence like sexual assault that frequently leaves no physical marks. And if the perpetrator is a relative who causes the child/ren to think this is the normal way of the world, well . . . Reprehensible and heinous come to mind, but don’t do justice to the enormity of such awfulness.

When I discovered, via the court docket, that seven business days had been set aside for this trial, I went through a series of distinctly poor thoughts, about the inconvenience to my schedule and wondering how I was going to fit in all my mid-month business chores, plus Cattlemen’s Days and the Tour de France. And then I would think to myself that such inconveniences were nothing compared to what these children have likely undergone, and that I should be willing to give a week and a half of my life to ensure justice was done for them.

Do you see a problem with that line of thinking? In my vast experience of perhaps half a dozen summons for jury duty, and only one selection to the jury, I am aware that the presumption of innocence is an entitlement of the defendant. It is up to the prosecution to prove guilt, not the defense to prove innocence.

But no matter how I spun this — and spun and spun it, most of each day and much of the night — I could not find a way past a presumption of guilt for this defendant.

I figured the answers on my form likely disqualified me for service on this jury. My sister Terri spent many years in the field of advocacy for those impacted by sexual assault and domestic violence, and I served for about three years on the board of a local DV/SA agency.

From these experiences I know this sort of violence can often be difficult to prove, and prosecutors often require a preponderance of evidence to bring a case to trial. A man who worked for a state DV/SA agency told me something once that has stuck with me ever since: perpetrators of violence domestic and/or sexual are the most charming people you will ever meet, he said.

If you think about it, that has to be true in many cases, and that’s what makes it so hard for people outside the relationship to see them as the monsters they are. I wrote this on my questionnaire, and without knowing what the defense had planned, I said that if they were going to trot out his credentials as a hard worker or regular church-goer, a community volunteer, whatever, this might in fact sway me further against him.

A few years back a local woman accused her boyfriend of sexual assault after he injured her to the point of a hospitalization. His defense was that she “liked it rough” and that everything was consensual.

The boyfriend was a hockey coach for local youth teams, and our community response was as predictable as it was dismaying: fierce backlash against this woman, and public acclamation for the great guy. There were letters to the editor in support of him, and fund-raisers for his legal costs.

I can’t recall the outcome; perhaps the woman withdrew the charges, or possibly she bravely pressed on in the face of all this adversity. Whatever the criminal outcome, the coach moved to Colorado Springs — where he knifed his next girlfriend.

To its everlasting credit, the Gunnison newspaper printed coverage of the Colorado Springs violence. Maybe, just maybe, the local woman was right about what lay behind that facade of awesome coach and all-around swell guy — just the sort of role model we’d like for our teenage boys.

I doubt I am ever going to learn about the outcome for the defendant from my trial-that-isn’t-going-to-be. I am going to hope that the cancellation means he accepted a plea deal that isn’t lenient. I also further hope this case was brought early in his path of violence — I read last week on Yahoo of an activist who was raped over 400 times by her father, from age 4 to age 12, which works out to at least once a week for eight years.

And while I did stress about not giving a defendant his due, when this activist says 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will suffer sexual violence as children, I couldn’t and probably won’t ever get past the notion of putting the defense on the defensive and asking them to prove their innocence rather than granting them the luxury of presumed innocence — the same innocence they have ripped from their victims.

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