I first heard this story in college, and it is one of my favorites. And yet, I don’t know that I’d ever really devoted serious thought to the idea of justice. It’s an important concept in Judaism, but I wonder now if, by growing up in America, I have taken justice for granted. I’m not sure I will be able to take it for granted again.
Weeks ago, I received a notice that I was summoned for federal jury duty. Last Wednesday, I arrived at the courthouse, assuming that I would not be selected for a jury, and would soon resume my normal day-to-day activities. And yet, as the judge was explaining the bare bones of the case to the entire pool of jurors, I knew that I would be selected. Something inside me said, “This is your case. You will be on this jury.” That something inside was right. I was one of the 12 jurors chosen to hear this particular case. Ultimately, I ended up as the foreperson of the jury. The trial was short- only a day and a half before the jury was sent off to deliberate. Anyone interested in the facts of the case is welcome to ask. For now, let me just say that it was a criminal case, and that we found the defendant guilty as charged. The details of the case aren’t really what matter at the moment.
There are concepts in the American justice system that we’re all familiar with, like “innocent until proven guilty”. Putting those concepts into action is far more difficult that I would ever have imagined. Yet, after serving on this jury, I understand just how crucial a concept it really is. The defendant did not have to “prove” his own innocence. He didn’t have to tell us whodunit or offer any explanation. More importantly, as the government presented its evidence, I had to constantly remind myself that the trial was not over, and that I could not form an opinion yet. I had to wait, and weigh everything only after there was nothing more to be learned. In reality, I probably should be as open-minded and deliberate in forming opinions about everything and anything, but I’m not. How often do we make snap judgements or allow ourselves to be persuaded by one side of a story, without ever hearing the other side?
Then I pondered the concept of evidence and "burden of proof". Testimony given during the trial is evidence. Exhibits and items submitted and displayed to the jury are evidence. Opening and closing arguments are not evidence. The defendant's choice not to testify is not evidence. The objections and the judge's decision on those objections are not evidence. Yet I heard the opening and closing arguments. I know that the defendant didn't testify in his defense. I know that there are lines of questioning and issues that the judge would not allow us to hear. Being instructed to disregard these does not make them go away. Normally, we gather every scrap of information and use it to make our decisions. Yet there are arguments that I heard, bits and pieces of other matters alluded to, circumstances that I saw, and I was not permitted to take these under consideration in my deliberations. In a way, I had to pretend that I didn't know everything that I knew. I had to consciously ignore pieces of information. It's not easy to fool yourself into not knowing everything that you thought you knew, and to separate evidence from argument.
I also realized just how important it was that the jury had no say in the sentencing of the defendant. We were there only to make a decision on the facts of the case- did the defendant commit the crime of which he was charged? Or, more precisely, did the government meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime of which he was charged? The consequences of our decision were not our responsibility. It’s a strange notion, and I’m not yet sure how I feel about it. I sent a man to prison, but I don’t know for how long or where or if there is a possibility of parole. I decided part of his fate, and yet I’ll never know what that fate actually is. On the other hand, the jury shouldn’t necessarily have a part in the sentencing. It would be so much more difficult to objectively decide on the facts of the case if one was also weighing the fate of the defendant in their decision. Instead of deciding on whether or not he did the crime, I’d have been asking whether or not he deserved the punishment that goes along with it. Some may have said “not guilty” because they didn’t want the personal responsibility of deciding another man’s fate. Or, worse yet, some may have said “guilty” because they thought that the defendant should be behind bars, but not because the evidence proved his guilt of this particular crime.
As I began davening on shabbos, only a few hours after the trial concluded, I found myself thinking long and hard about the idea of justice. Tzedek tzedek tirdof. Did I really pursue justice, or did I just happen to be there? I now have the image in my head of the defendant, and the look on his face when he understood that he would be going back to prison. It’s the face of a man that I’ve never met, had never seen before Wednesday, and will never see again. I don’t know this man, and he does not know me. But I’ve pronounced him “guilty” and determined a part of his future.
Is this the justice I hoped to find?