Hamilton, Justice and other thoughts on jury duty

Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

Amos 5:24

I received my first ever jury summons for this past Monday.  I arrived at the downtown Orlando courthouse around 7:45 a.m. and checked in at the front desk.  I received my badge and ID number and sat in the jury waiting area.  I brought my Kindle, with a freshly downloaded digital copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast so I was well-hydrated and fully prepared to wait in the lobby all day.  The Hispanic lady who walked us through orientation had a delightfully dry sense of humor, and we all chuckled appreciatively at her small efforts to bring levity to what most people perceived to be a colossal waste of time.

I don’t understand why people hate jury duty so much.  I totally get the perceived infringement on our time, our hectic schedules, our routines, but I’ve always been one for breaking routine. Maybe it’s because I’m fresh off of reading Ron Chernow’s 800 page biography of Alexander Hamilton, but I have always been eager to participate in the judicial system and do my civic duty to protect someone else’s right to a fair trial.  I know Hamilton didn’t write the Constitution, but he definitely is the reason we understand and interpret it the way we do today:

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

My Monday motivation: WWHD–what would Hamilton do? 

I fully expected to be in that waiting room all day; however, when the Hispanic lady who was taking us through orientation began to call numbers, mine was maybe the 20th name called.  We queued up and were escorted by a bailiff to the “penthouse courtroom” on the 23rd floor.

This is not quite the 200-year old mahogany wood courtrooms that we often see in movies and television, but it was pretty darned close.  We filed into the courtroom and were seated in a specific order before the judge and a roomful of lawyers.  I glanced around at the lawyers standing at attention, and my curiosity was immediately piqued. It appeared the defendant was a black male and he was accompanied by mostly black lawyers and one red-faced Irishman. 

Then a wave of realization hit me: this is probably a Black Lives Matter case.

The judge—Julie O’Kane—seemed fair-minded; firm, yet accommodating.  She reminded me a little of Kathleen Kennedy, both in appearance and demeanor.  She initiated the group questioning, mostly about any perceived conflicts of schedule.  She expected the trial to go for 5 days, concluding on Friday.  Juror after juror raised their hand and explained why it would be a personal burden to serve on a jury this week.  After hearing a few of the excuses—“I have no one to pick up my kids from school”—“I need to pick up my college books for classes next week”—“My job doesn’t pay for jury duty so I won’t able to make rent and pay bills”—I quickly realized I would have no valid excuse for schedule conflicts (not that I wanted one anyway), so I didn’t even bother to raise my hand. 

Judge O’Kane clearly outlined to us the “no independent research” rule.  Meaning, no matter how curious we were about details of the case, we were not allowed to Google anything about the case while being considered as potential jurors for this case.  Now, this is pretty much an honor system; however, Judge O’Kane did tell us that if the court somehow discovered that we failed to comply with this request, that we could be held in contempt and fined or even jailed.  As tempting as it was to search for information online later, it was easy to abide by the rule by reminding myself it would be a direct violation of a court order, not to mention completely ignoring the defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial. 

Again–WWHD?  I had to make Hamilton proud.  So that settled that.

The judge explained the defendant Noel Carter was being faced with two felony charges—battery and battery on a law enforcement official—as well as two misdemeanors—resisting a police officer with violence and without violence.  If there was any doubt about the nature of this case, that sealed it.  I already immediately felt my own emotions and opinions rising up.

I think already knew at that point that I wouldn’t be an ideal jury candidate for this trial, but I still really wanted to serve and fulfill my civic duty. 

The prosecution submitted us all to questioning, mostly asking us individually about our attitudes toward law enforcement.  They wanted to know if any of us had close personal relationships with law enforcement officials.  The state attorney Ryan Williams did most of the questioning and wanted us to know what we thought of personal testimonies as evidence and how reliable circumstantial evidence was.  Questioning went until past lunchtime.  The defense—led by Attorney Kafi Kennedy Swanson—started their line of questioning shortly after lunch.  Swanson was far more engaging than Williams (and also projected her voice much farther) so it was much easier to pay attention and stay engaged throughout her questioning.  She wanted to know about our opinions on racial bias and if we would automatically trust a cop’s testimony over an accused person’s testimony.  I was surprised at how many people did trust cops more than regular people, although after hearing their rationale, I could understand why.  I suppose in a real life/real world situation I would automatically trust a cop in a situation; however, I also recognize that memory and testimonies can get shifted and altered amongst cops and lay people alike. I remember at one point one of the other jurors got fairly emotional, saying she believed thought she was a minority woman of mixed race, that law enforcement generally treated black men differently. 

I had to agree with her.

Questioning went past 5:30 p.m. so the judge eventually called it a day.  And she asked us to come back to the courtroom at 8:30 a.m. the next day.  Questioning the following morning seemed to go a lot quicker, with the defense having to be more efficient in their time.  It seemed the questions on Tuesday focused more on past jury duty experience—which I did not have. 

I was eventually dismissed and released from jury duty, as the court had decided on 8 jurors, 6 jurors plus 2 alternates.  I was slightly disappointed, but I was also glad because that meant I could immediately Google the details of the case. 

After looking into the details of the case, I was horrified to watch a viral video of a policeman beating and kicking Noel Carter.  Other surveillance videos were made available online.  I also read that though the two officers were initially investigated by internal affairs, they were eventually cleared of any charges of misconduct.  I was baffled that someone can be tasered and beaten to a pulp and be faced with battery and resistance, while two officers who suffer no serious injury and used excessive force can be cleared of any wrongdoing.  It severely disturbs me that our police department can look at that video and think that beating a man already laying on the ground is a proportional and appropriate response to any situation. 

This whole week, I couldn’t stop thinking about this case.  Maybe this case hit home for me because I served as a potential juror.  I couldn’t stop thinking that this man’s life and fate was nearly in my hands.  After thinking it through and realizing this trial was indeed open to the public (as most are), I returned back to the courtroom this past Friday–my day off–to simply hear the closing arguments.  I had to see this play out for myself.  And I wanted to hear a little bit more of the case directly, not filtered through the media.  

When I arrived, the judge was giving counsel more direction on clarifying language they intended to use in their closing arguments which took more than an hour.  Finally, the jury was brought in and the prosecution laid out the case—that the defendant clearly was in the wrong and any attempt at resistance to police force was unwarranted and unjustified. The defense made a great point in his closing argument—it is the responsibility of police to de-escalate the tension and violence in any given situation.  Using force to neutralize a threat is within their duty; however, only after efforts have been made to properly investigate and de-escalate tension as far as they can.  To me, it truly does seem like these officers resorted to violence unnecessarily first with pepper spray and tasering, and then using a police baton to whip him and then kick him repeatedly while he was already laying down on the sidewalk. 

This is the visual demonstrative that the defense counsel used to illustrate the points of contact that Carter received during the altercation with police: 

How can a black man bear dozens of marks and injuries on his body and be charged as a felon, when the officers who beat him bear only a minor scrape (from falling) and a bruise?  How is this justice?  These policemen supposedly have already been through a review process with their own department and state and were found cleared of any wrongdoing.  Why does a badge and a gun insulate people from being held accountable for disproportionally violent responses? 

Some that have defended the policeman’s actions, saying no racial bias occurred—“because one of the officers was also black.”  But as Ta-Nehisi Coates says “It does not matter if the agent of those forces is white or black—what matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable.”  Racism is not merely personal prejudice in a  vacuum; racism is personal action combined with and magnified by an inherent bias in the system. 

Don’t get me wrong—especially following the Pulse shooting—I have nothing but respect and admiration as a whole for the Orlando Police Department and Florida Highway Patrol and Orange County Sheriff’s Department.  I am forever grateful for the way they continued to protect and serve our community, especially during such a difficult time.  Our roommates and I enjoyed speaking with them, bringing them coffee and bottled water during the two weeks our street was blocked off for the investigation.  The FHP even left gifts of a coffee mug and official FHP patches tucked inside of our mailbox as a thank you for all of the coffee.  I understand that these men and women put their lives on the line every day when they put on that uniform and walk a beat or go out on patrol.  I recognize that they too are only sons, daughters, fathers and mothers with their own lives to live.  I recognize that they themselves are only human, and sometimes training and protocol can only get you so far when you have to make a split-second decision and choose whom to protect and whom to take down. 

However, the issue is not so much the individuals, because many individuals are decent, well-meaning people; it is a system which enables individuals to act out of line and to face no consequences.  It is a system that allows a black man’s body to break with no consequences.  As Coates says, it is a system where not being violent in response could get you killed. It is a system in which being too violent will almost certainly get you killed.  It is a no-win situation for any accused or suspect, be it a financial banker from south Florida or a kid in a hoodie with his pockets full of soda and candy. 

“It struck that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered.  The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments.  It is the last bottle of wine that you have just uncorked but do not have the time to drink.  It is the kiss that you do not have the time to share, before she walks out of your life.  It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three-hour days for us.” 

Even now, I would hold out hope and give Officer Mays and Officer Cruz the benefit of the doubt, that even though they are not being held accountable in any way for the injury and violence done against the person and body of Noel Carter, that they would adjust their personal approach and response in future encounters.  That they would recognize the pain and destruction that their failure to de-escalate to tension can cause. This is their raft of second chances.  That is their privilege. 

If you do not see this case as an issue of race, it is because you have the luxury of believing in the post-racial illusion.  If you look at Noel Carter’s case and do not see the absurdity of a man being beat and kicked to the ground multiple times, and not only having to bear the brunt of those injuries but also the indelible mark of being labeled a convicted felon for the rest of his life, while the officers walk away with no consequence, then it is because you have privilege, whether you realize it or not.  And I say this as a non-white, Filipino American woman who has nonetheless also reaped the benefits of white privilege. If you look at Noel Carter’s case and think, “well, he should have just complied with the officer’s commands” it is because you don’t have an uncle, a brother, a cousin or a child who has done just that—complied—and still has had his body broken.  

And while you may shoot back “all lives matter”–and as image-bearing, beloved creations of a Creator they most certainly do–the reality is that the current American justice system currently says they do not.  And that’s a problem.  

Justice may be blind, but she’s a damn good thief.  And Noel Carter is her latest mark. 

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