Jury Duty in the United States of America
This week I served on a jury for the first time. It was an extremely boring and annoying experience, but at the same time surprisingly pleasant. I am happy that I live in a country where a jury of one's peers decides your guilt or innocence, not just the arbitrary decision of a judge. The jury system dates back to Islamic history – it was a basic Muslim belief that a group of people deciding about the truth and falsehood of various testimonies would be less likely to be in error than a single person. “You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all the time,” to quote Bob Marley. The more people you have observing a situation, the less likely that the general opinion will be in error, especially when the group is given an opportunity to discuss what they saw.
In this case, a black man was accused of dealing a very small amount of drugs to a couple white men from out of town. If true, he was a very stupid drug dealer doing his business in front of the train station which is swarming with police cars and undercover police officers. The police were watching the car for a long time, which was parked with two white men inside. These men were clearly waiting for someone, for one of them kept getting out of the car and walking to the corner, using his cell phone. Eventually a black man arrived, got into the car, and the white men drove him to a restaurant a mile away. The undercover police followed the car. After the white men drove away, the police stopped them and arrested the white men for possession of crack cocaine. Then the police went to the restaurant, pulled the black man out of line, and arrested him under suspicion of having sold them the drugs. He had on his person $227 dollars in cash and two cell phones. He was cooperative with the police and maintained his innocence.
The prosecution however, went overboard to the point of annoying the jury. They brought so many expert witnesses to testify on irrelevant topics, in order to enhance the credibility of the police. We learned about how government spies working with FBI informants gain access to the drug world. We learned how drugs are packaged. We learned how the chemistry labs analyze drugs to determine what they are. They totally avoided the central question, which was: did this particular man sell drugs to those particular individuals? Clearly it was not an important case in the minds of the police. No fingerprints were taken, the cell phone calls were not even traced. There was zero evidence other than the hearsay of the police about what they saw. The men parked. Someone got in. They drove him to a restaurant. The police never witnessed any drug transaction. They just assumed. By the end of the day, listening to hours and hours of boring expert testimonies, the members of the jury themselves were joking that they themselves needed to do some drugs to cope with the torture!
What struck me was the dishonesty of the prosecuting attorney in his excitement to win this case. While the police officers testified that they saw the car parked for 5-10 minutes, the attorney in his closing argument embellished this time to 25 minutes. One of the expert witnesses estimated the worth of the drugs at up to $200, to match the amount of money in the man's pocket, even though I am pretty sure that two rocks of crack cocaine are worth maybe $20-40. The prosecuting attorney claimed that the man was coming out of the train station but the police only claimed he was walking from that general direction. The police said they saw from a distance, in the dark of night, a large black man. But this man was not large. As a jurist, I felt that the prosecuting attorney was trying to insult my intelligence.
It is very probable that this man did do what he was accused of doing. However, there was no evidence. Not enough to convict him without a “reasonable doubt.” How do we know the white policemen even got the right guy? After observing the black man in the dark from a distance, they arrested him inside a Jamaican restaurant filled with black men with the same hairstyle. I was anticipating a heated argument among the jury, because on face value the man did seem guilty. I was surprised.
I had reservations about white police officers following a car just because there were black people and white people in the same car. I had doubts about whether this is even the police's job description, to follow people around who didn't disturb the peace nor bother anybody in any way. I personally feel disturbed when I see white police officers arresting an entire group of young black teenagers who were just sitting there for “loitering” in front of the train station. On a personal basis, as long as it doesn't disturb nor hurt anyone, it doesn't bother my day if someone gets into a car and the car drives off. The aggressive police presence in my neighborhood is far more annoying.
The jury voted unanimously “Not Guilty.” We all privately thought he probably was guilty, but there was no evidence other than the hearsay of the police about what they saw. I am proud of my fellow Americans. I feel good that we were able to keep one man, who had no previous convictions, out of prison. We were able to put the Constitution first. The Constitution guarantees the right of free public assembly. If there was no obvious crime being committed, the police should not follow people around.
Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based freelance writer, focusing on Muslim and US affairs.