Monday, October 19, 2009

Fellowvoyagers of the Jury

Last Tuesday I was among two hundred fellow citizens who were summoned to appear at the county courthouse for jury duty. Another 200 had been mailed summonses but weren't required to appear. The courtroom, a lightfilled space done in cream and robin’s-egg blue, was packed. We sat in rows like church pews, and were each given a questionnaire, clipboard, and pen. The title of the case was typed at the top of the questionnaire. I was surprised that we were all here for a single case. I had been called for jury duty in Brooklyn a few times and though the juror pool there was several times larger, there were always a number of trials going on at once.

I completed the questionnaire, handed it in, and returned to my book, The Haunting of Hill House. As I sat in the crowded room I thought that the more apposite Shirley Jackson work to have brought along would have been The Lottery, although the people gathered here didn't seem like a restive, bloodthirsty mob as in that story, just a large group of citizens, dutifully and quietly waiting in their seats for whatever proceedings to begin.

I grew restless, put down the book, and looked out the window at the changing leaves in the courthouse square. Eventually there was movement at the front of the room. A door opened and in walked the judge and others, including three men in suits. The judge called everyone to order. The prosecutor introduced himself, as did the defense attorney. He indicated his client, who was now seated - one of the men in suits. He hadn't stood out to me at all. From what I could glimpse from the back of the room, he appeared to be in his early twenties, with an owlish, washed-out look, and an alert, hopeful expression, though I may have imagined that.

The judge announced the charges against the defendant. They were unambiguously and unspeakably serious to the extreme. They involved the rape and sodomy of a child or children, under age eleven.

Hundreds of people were assembled here on account of the defendant. I wondered what he made of that. I would imagine that entering a courtroom packed with people who wouldn't be there except for your actions would make an impression.

A jury of twelve plus two alternates was to be selected. I had a very high number, near 200. We were divided into four groups of roughly 50, with the first group asked to stay for voir dire, the second to return a half hour hence, and the rest excused for a long lunch break. When I returned, the judge cordially thanked and dismissed us, with the brief explanation that the first two groups had been sufficient to pick a jury. I went home.

The trial was to start the day after next. Having partaken in the ritual ceremony of appearing for jury duty, and then though not surprisingly, finding that my services weren't required, I found that my interest in the case had been piqued. I realized that I had formed a desire to observe the trial. I verified that I had the legal right to do so, but it was an unusual thing for me to do and I had to think about my motives. The evidence and testimony were bound to be extremely disturbing, graphic, and difficult, given the nature and severity of the charges. One of the prospective jurors stood up to say that he was acquainted with someone on the witness list - an emergency room nurse. It wasn't difficult for me to imagine the powerful case that the prosecution could put on, but (assuming that these weren't false allegations, or a case of mistaken identity) I wondered what credible or mitigating defense could possibly be mounted given such charges.

Thursday morning was cold and grey, with a thin drizzle. I arrived at the courthouse a little late, after ten. I recognized the defense attorney, who was was outside the building talking to a woman and a couple of others, whom I surmised to be the defendant's mother and family. I thought, maybe the trial’s on break already, or hasn't started yet. I passed through the metal detector and went up the marble staircase to the courtroom. It was empty except for a small group of men in conference, who looked up at me. I turned and left, and ran into a court staff member who politely asked, may I help you? I said that I was looking for the trial, and stated the name of the defendant.

"That's finished," she said, without elaborating.

I was surprised. There's no way the trial could have begun and ended in a matter of minutes. I suppose the defendant must have taken a plea. I wanted to ask what happened but held my tongue. I may have had a right to attend the trial, but I doubted I had any additional right to information, barring a formal FOIA request, or reading whatever account might appear in the paper.

I thought, what an extraordinary thing for hundreds of people to be summoned and caused to appear, and then for the trial not to happen. The defendant had exercised his right to request a jury trial. Did he change his mind at the last moment? He must already have been well aware of the might of the state to prosecute and incarcerate him. (The defendant, if I heard the judge correctly, had committed the alleged crimes early in 2008 - was he on retrial? had he won some technical point on appeal? if so, could this have given him false hope?). Was it to make a point to him that a large pool of potential jurors had been assembled? Were we there to scare the bejeezus out of the defendant? Was it only at the point of entering the courtroom to face a silent crowd, out of whom a small number would bear witness to the evidence and ultimately pass judgment, that it was to sink in to him that the outcome, from his standpoint, would be hopeless?

Two hundred people at $40 per day, plus 400 people notified at 44 cents each postage. This case may have been notorious in the county. I had no knowledge of it, perhaps because I don’t regularly read the local paper, but I imagine there would have been a need for a large pool of jurors in order to prevent a tainted jury.

The state had caused hundreds of people to set aside whatever else they might have been doing otherwise that day. Perhaps we had been summoned to convene so as to make an impression on us, that the state wished to dramatize that this is the line, this is precisely the unconscionable level of criminal behavior that is unequivocally intolerable in our society. (I can also imagine a possible political explanation, since it's election season.)

As I had noted on my questionnaire, I had no knowledge of the case and, indeed, still don’t know any of the facts. I speculated about the defendant. The nature of his crimes – horrific. But he may have been easy enough to catch. He was evil, with (to say the least) no respect for boundaries, but my impression was that he was probably rough and uneducated. I imagined that his tactics relied on brute force, and that, crimes committed, he didn’t have the cunning or wherewithal to keep from getting caught. He didn’t have the practiced finesse, charm, look, and manner to develop and pull off a Jekyll-and-Hyde “double life.” As an out-of-control animal he may have been easy enough to identify and to catch, and without financial resources or clout to keep things hushed, to be made a public example of. I think, in contrast, of all the smooth predators out there who manage to conceal their crimes, or to keep things barely under control, or just barely legal, and lead their entire lives living a lie, maintaining a convincing veneer of propriety and rectitude, all the while giving rein to unethical impulses but in a manner carefully controlled to conceal the truth.

I thought also about the Madoff trial & verdict, how ceremonial his judgment day had been. I remember the Manhattan federal courtroom being described in quasi-religious terms, with the golden light of justice pouring through cathedral-like windows onto the assembled crowd of victims and other members of civil society, convened together to see the moment of justice arrive. Madoff, and this country rube – two vampires, sucking the lifeblood out of their victims, each on either end of the social scale. But each case was, in its way, played up to the public in a ritual, theatrical way, monsters made public, while vast nameless legions of all manner of lesser vampires aren’t called to account.

I’m aware of a theory in science that speculates about the moment in history – the year 2037 I believe is the year projected – when it is thought that machines will actually be able to think and will then begin to subsume humans. I sense that some look forward to the so-called “singularity” with (to my mind) misplaced, creepy, breathless anticipation. I believe that this moment has arrived already, in the form of machinelike corporate organisms that have been developed to have a will, mind, and rapacious appetite of their own. These corporate vampires and the people who run them seem to be taking over our society – my America, as I ever experienced and understood it – and it seems that having systematically infiltrated government, they may be beyond the reach of prosecuting, unstoppable.

I think of another twist on the notion of singularity – of humans whose impassive intellects and/or wild-animal drives are wholly untempered by “heart” or humanity. They are soulless machines of sorts, too. Is this what the human species is evolving into, in seeming symbiogenetic synchronicity with soulless machines, and corporations? This co-emergence, the new totalitarian hegemony - is this the “singularity”?

I left the courthouse, went back to my car, and decided to stop at a favorite shop of mine, which among its delights offers discounted remnants of fine fabrics. Indulging my true aesthetic taste in home furnishings is usually beyond the bounds of my budget, so it’s been a joy and creative outlet for me to fashion beautiful items for my home, precisely as I like, for a song.

I found a cheerful plaid that I thought could transform our summery rattan settee and chairs into a cozy “lodge” look for winter. I spotted a roll of another fabric as well – flannel printed with a charming idyllic scene of starfilled sky, rustic cabins aglow with lanternlight, and evergreens dusted with snow. The fabric is perfect for a small child’s snuggly bedsheets – a cozy, safe, charming scene, where nothing bad could ever happen - I wanted to enter the image myself. Absurdly I thought of the defendant, and of Madoff. They certainly aren’t sleeping on sheets like this – though budding vampires (tucked to bed in their parents' sheltered retreats) might be. I thought, wow, I would hate to go to prison for any reason, not only to lose all my freedom, but to give up the comfort of bed and soft covers.

I purchased the plaid and headed home. I needed thread. I broke my vow not to ever set foot in the new Greenport Hypermarket 2.0. Normally I get my thread at a little shop in town.

It hunkers like an aircraft carrier at the rear of hundreds of acres of asphalt. As I drove into the lot, I felt as if I was entering onto the grounds of a penitentiary or vast military installation. I believe this brutalist design is intentional. Increasingly there are engineered to be two very divergent realities for Americans. I hover uncertainly somewhere between the two realms.

I stepped through the doors into the dwarfing space. The people (as was the case at Hypermarket 1.0) look damaged or disfigured to me, in some way grotesque. I say this with a sense of compassion, but also of horror. You see poverty here, in every respect, including poverty of spirit. It is all too possible for an American in poverty today to experience virtually nothing but overscale brutalist spaces designed and reserved just for them. Many institutional buildings of recent decades have a similar look. Windowless public school buildings. Juvenile detention centers secured with barbed wire (as I drove past Brookwood the other day, I glimpsed a lone heron at the edge of a gulley or cistern there). Hulking, windowless big box stores. Military installations. Hardened flows of asphalt obliterating the scorched earth. At the east and west horizons, minimized mountains, mute in the distance, rendered irrelevant in the desolated landscape.

A dystopian, totalitarian vision of America has been steadily coming to pass. America today looks and feels very different from the America I grew up in when I came up in the sixties and seventies. The landscape is disfigured. The people look disfigured.

The other day a comment on Salon, written by "fellowvoyager," caught my eye. He wrote that William Torey Harris, U.S. Secretary of Education from 1889-1906, in his book, The Philosophy of Education, opined that “The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places,” since in his estimation, “School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.”

I think of Plato’s cave. I haven’t read it in years, but I think of the multitudes who live their entire lives in the dark, never seeing a ray of light or so much as a shadow that would give a hint that there is something beyond the cave.

The Chosen are entitled to beautiful iterations of reality, along with a liberal education. Laboring classes are damned to an alternate reality, along with strictly circumscribed education, in order to keep them in their allotted places. Torey wrote, “Ninety-nine out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”

No Child Left Behind. No Stone Left Unturned. The deliberate destruction of all that is good and simple and lovely and light, of the spark of the divine in human nature. The deliberate destruction of nature. No Tern Left Unstoned.

Hypermarket 2.0 may be phasing out thread. Why would it want people to sew? I purchased a spool of beige, the last one on the rack.

I know how to sew. I made beautiful crafts as a girl, and bought my materials at a corner stationery – an emporium in miniature - that I could walk to from my house. At the shop’s wooden counters I pored over inviting stacks of colored felt, packets of buttons and sequins, laces, ribbons, rainbow displays of thread in spools and embroidery floss too...

I didn’t stick around to check but I would bet that raw crafts materials at Hypermarket 2.0 are ugly and synthetic.

A child can’t walk to Hypermarket 2.0 on his or her way from home or school.

I enjoyed a liberal public education. I sat in lightfilled classrooms and pored over books in handsome libraries and studied at home by lamplight and was taken to museums and on fine days took walks in the woods and I listened to music and to birdsong and I ate delicious good food and read and read and formed a notion of what a fair society should be like and developed a conscience and thought about others and thought about equity, not just efficiency.

And so the other day I went home with my beautiful cotton plaid from the exclusive, rarified shop (where I buy only remnant scraps but am nonetheless always pleasantly treated), and my thread from the dehumanizing hangar. At times I set foot in either realm, but am not of either.

(It was right in the middle of the two extremes, that little corner stationery in the middle-class neighborhood where I grew up. That was a paradise for me. Everyone loved it, commuters grabbing coffee and the paper next door to the train; children like me with a couple of nickels, considering the comprehensive confectionary display; comic books, news weeklies, fashion glossies - all manner of magazines, including off-limits ones with paper wrappers. There was something for everyone in that perfect little shop.)

Nowadays I drive my car from place to place, I take walks, I pull up warm covers at night. I’m not in prison. I’m not at either extreme of a spectrum of vampires. I’m not a vampire at all, I don’t believe.

I’ve seen the shadows, the hints of light, of beauty, of nature, of high ideals, of peace and comfort, of satiety, of joys. I know there’s an alternative, beautiful reality possible.

I’m a member of a vast jury pool. I’ve seen a lot of evidence, I still remember, and this is what I think.

No comments:

Post a Comment