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December 11, 2017

The guilt of saying ‘guilty’

(Collegian File Photo)

When I arrived at the courthouse, I expected to wait for several hours and then be released, without having to serve on a jury. But as I left the courthouse, I was reflecting on the fact that I had just declared someone guilty.

After being summoned for jury duty and delaying it once to avoid a conflict with school, I had to do it. I walked into the waiting room for the jury pool and saw that most of the other people were in their 50s or 60s, thinking that I wouldn’t get picked when there were older and wiser people to be chosen.

I was soon proven wrong; the bailiff led the jury pool into the courtroom, my name was called and I was assigned a seat in the jury box. We heard the opening statements, testimony from a witness, cross-examination of the witness and closing statements. The defendant never spoke.

After the judge’s lengthy explanation of the law that we would be applying, one juror was randomly selected to be the alternate. The judge then explained that he always chose the juror who happened to be sitting in the seat closest to him to be the foreperson. I was in that seat.

I didn’t feel at all qualified for the position, especially since the other jurors were decades older than me. According to the American Society of Trial Consultants, “the majority (65 percent) of forepersons f[a]ll in the highest age group of 45 to 65,” and younger forepersons are less likely. Research also shows that, as the original term, “foreman,” indicates, forepersons are much more likely to be men than women. In addition to these factors, someone who has served on a jury before is more likely to be a foreperson.

As a young woman who had never served on a jury before, I was statistically an unlikely choice for a foreperson. However, Massachusetts is one of the few states where juries do not elect their foreperson, so these factors did not have an effect. Instead, judges are required to assign one, as the judge in this trial did. The only factor that contributed to this choice was luck, or a lack thereof, depending on how you view the responsibility.

The jury’s discussion didn’t take long. I had to check off our verdict on the forms that we had been given, sign the forms and press the button to call for the bailiff when we were finished. While the jury was waiting for the bailiff to escort us back to the courtroom so the trial could continue, I asked the others if I would need to say that the woman was guilty. A man who had served on a jury a long time ago answered that he didn’t think I would have to say the verdict. “That’s good,” I said, relieved.

We walked back into the jury box, where we remained standing. “Madam Forelady, has the jury reached a decision?” the court clerk asked. Apparently, I would have to speak. “Yes,” I said. He asked for our decision on the first charge, operating under the influence of alcohol.

“Guilty.”

He asked for our decision on the second charge, operating in a negligent manner.

“Guilty.”

In writing, I can let my answers stand alone. They’re removed from me. They float on the page or on the screen as independent statements, paragraphs of their own, unattached to a voice. In writing, “I said” is implied, but in the courtroom, I had to use my voice and say the words out loud. There was no distance between my words and me as a person. I could feel everyone looking at me and listening to me, and I had a responsibility to speak.

As I answered each question, my voice was shaking. I looked at the court clerk, since he was the one asking the questions. I didn’t think to look at the woman until the jury was walking out of the courtroom. I glanced at her, and she was looking at me. Her face was expressionless.

If I had to do it again, I would make the same choice. The decision was unanimous among the jury from the start of our discussion. Although we felt sympathy for her, we all agreed that her driving had endangered others, and could have injured or even killed someone. We hoped she would learn that her actions had consequences.

But the knowledge that it was the right thing to do doesn’t erase the guilt I feel about saying the word “guilty.” In the courtroom, I didn’t see her as a defendant, or as a criminal, but as a person. I thought of how scared I would feel in her situation, waiting to hear my fate. I didn’t want to deliver the distressing news.

Even though I know that I have nothing to apologize for, I still wish I could. It’s hard to know that you’re a defining part of what is probably among a person’s worst memories. As difficult as it was for me to deliver the verdict, I can’t imagine what it was like for her to hear it, and for her hope to be destroyed by my words.

I had taken an oath to fulfill my duty as a juror, I had participated in the deliberation and then I had said just three words. “Yes. Guilty. Guilty.” I had fulfilled my legal duty, but I still feel that I haven’t fulfilled my moral duty. I wish I could add two more words: “I’m sorry.”

Jessica Primavera is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at jprimavera@umass.edu.

Comments
One Response to “The guilt of saying ‘guilty’”
  1. SittingBull says:

    There are a number of forces in effect here. First, your reaction is quite normal for someone of your age and experience. In fact, you were almost certainly chosen by defense counsel in voir dire for this simple fact: your gender and age demographic suggested that you would be more pliable to the defense due to emotion and inexperience. Good for you for breaking the stereotype.

    Ahhhhh, but the second thing is much more sinister, ominous and deep-rooted. In our faux feel-good society, we have been programmed to believe that there are no bad people, there is no evil, wrongdoing can be corrected by an “I’m sorry” and so forth. Accountability is at an all time low and continues to sink, at least for criminals. You should not have felt even a tinge of remorse for voting or saying “Guilty.” Any compassionate person can understand that it is unpleasant to dole out bad news to someone, but society, and juries in particular, MUST be able to parse out the emotional unpleasantness of the moment to do what is right. Your empathy in this case may not have been misplaced, but in a more serious case with a more serious crime definitely would have been.

    Contrary to your statement, you DID fulfill your moral duty. You participated as a juror, considered the facts and applied the law appropriately, despite your personal feelings of guilt about doing so. That is acting morally and one can only hope more would do so. Remember, it is the people sitting in that defendant’s chair who put themselves in that position. In fact, of all of the people who are charged with a crime in America, 97% plead guilty to a lesser crime – in other words, they cut a deal because they know they are guilty. Of the 3% that go to trial, more than 90% end in conviction (more like 99% at federal level). What does that tell you? The overwhelming majority of defendants are GUILTY, many of them of very heinous crimes. The fact that they look nice in a suit or dress on the day of trial is intended to influence jurors into thinking that these people are not criminals, when in fact they are 99+% of the time.

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