When you walk in for jury duty and they hand you #3, you know you’re in for it, whether or not you’re eight and half months pregnant. But there I was. Juror #3.
I’ve spent much of my adult life working to remove judgment from my outlook. I’ve had to. You don’t spend 11 years helping people at their most vulnerable without realizing that judgment from others is the last thing most people need…we spend so much time judging ourselves, and harshly.
And then Juror #3 was named Madam Forewoman, and I had to judge. And so did five of my peers.
It was a minor case, really: an OUI charge resulting from a fender bender in a convenience store parking lot. It wasn’t cut and dry, else the case would never have gone to a jury. There was no breathlizer (that we were told of). There were some pre-existing medical conditions. There was a field sobriety test ended before it was ever begun for fear of jeopardizing the safety of the woman charged.
And yet we had to judge.
“Innocent until proven guilty” is a tricky thing. It means you must assume, going in, that the person did not do the thing she has been charged with doing. In this case, it meant assuming that she hadn’t had enough alcohol to impair her ability to operate her car safely. That backing into someone else’s car was a simple accident, that her aggression was a reasonable response to the aggression of the firefighter whose car she hit, that her inability to stand without bracing on her car was related to the double hip replacement she had had three years before.
You have to go on the evidence alone. Not on opening or closing arguments. Not on what you sense, or feel. Evidence. And imperfect evidence, at that.
But when you’re given the responsibility of passing judgment, of declaring someone guilty or not guilty, of changing someone’s life in a concrete way we rarely ever know, it’s very hard not to be judgmental. We’ve become so used to passing judgment, of notgiving someone the benefit of the doubt, that a lot of us don’t even see the little judgments we render all the time.
If you listen, you can hear them: “She should have…,” “If that were me, I’d….” “Why didn’t they…?”
Sitting in a tiny room, listening to all the little judgments and working with my fellow jurors to weed them out of our decision, I wondered when presuming guilt became the default, our first instinct. When did that switch happen?
When did we become that cynical? That distrustful? That…judgmental?
Or has the presumption of innocence always been so hard—and that’s precisely why it’s the standard to which we hold ourselves in courts of law?
Because true justice is not blind. Not at all. It takes in everything. It has to.
We have to put our judgments on the table before we can take them back off again. We have to realize all the biases we bring before we can take them away. We have to speak what’s in our hearts before we can clear our heads and see what’s actually there. And then we have to look at what’s left when all of that is stripped away—at the imperfect evidence of guilt or innocence—and make a judgment that’s free of bias. That lets you sleep at night.
We have to judge despite judgment.
Can you do that? Do you?