When it came time to deliberate, we settled around a long table in a cramped room for a round-robin download of first impressions. Some of us leaned toward guilty, some toward not guilty, but we bonded over our weariness and stress.
Halfway around the table sat the one juror I already knew I couldn’t stand, a 60-something Marlboro Man wannabe dressed head-to-toe in denim. (I knew because earlier, in conversations unrelated to our trial, I’d overheard him jawing about “retards” and the untrustworthy nature of biracial people.) “Well,” he said when it was his turn to talk, “she did have six drinks. What did she expect was going to happen?” Two other men, both over the age of 50, nodded in agreement. When no one else said anything, I blurted out, “I’m sorry, but I thought that blaming the victim went out with the ’80s.” The nervous coughing and downcast eyes of the other jurors told me I had just typecast myself as the mouthy feminist. Any hope for consensus evaporated quickly amid the repeated reminders from half of the jurors that all we needed “to get out of here” was for 10 people to agree. Indeed, when the final wavering vote left me as one of only two dissenters, the Marlboro Man dismissed me with a wave of his hand. “That’s OK,” he said. “We don’t need you.”
ALL RIGHT, so one negative experience hardly indicts the entire American jury system. But truth be told, the cost, time, and uncertainties involved in jury trials cause the vast majority of criminal and civil cases in the United States to be settled by judges, arbitration, mediation, and plea bargains. Of the 27,345 felony and misdemeanor cases completed in Multnomah County Circuit Court in 2008, juries decided just 336. That’s 1.2 percent. In 18,047 civil cases, juries were used in only 121—0.6 percent.
Regardless, trial by jury remains an important safeguard, Kanter argues. Or as Cate Wollam, a staff attorney with Multnomah Defenders Inc, a private firm that provides the county with indigent defense services, puts it, “It’s simply the system we have, and you can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
My experience, however, suggests that the bathwater (the system) is so murky, we’ve failed to realize that the baby (fair trials) up and left a long time ago. I wasn’t unnerved so much by the final verdict as I was by how my fellow jurors arrived at their decision. Sure, as a 32-year-old liberal woman, my knees are going to jerk when I see older men agreeing that a young lesbian woman “had it coming” just because she had a few too many vodka tonics. But even our seemingly liberal, educated foreman, a bespectacled engineer in his early 40s, suggested that maybe the victim should have just dealt with the matter within her family. It was dispiriting to see just how far short we fell from a “fair and impartial” consideration of the evidence presented before us.