I was 21, it was my first time in front of a judge, and I was pretty sure I’d filled out the juror questionnaire wrong: I’d checked a box that said I’d been the victim of a serious crime, but what made a crime “serious”? “Someone broke into my apartment while I was sleeping,” I told him, “but they didn’t wake me and they only took a backpack with library books in it.”
The judge’s face remained blank. I felt embarrassed, but before I could apologize, he cut me off: “In your opinion, are there any circumstances under which it’s okay for a man to hit a woman?”
The inquiry landed with such force I took a small step back. It felt like a trap. “Maybe if she’s, like, coming at him with a knife?” But under penalty of perjury, I had to give him a yes or no answer; I had to stand there and say yes, in my opinion it was possible there were circumstances under which it would be okay for a man to hit a woman.
That was what it took to be selected for the jury.
When I arrived at the courthouse that morning, I thought I’d be home free. This was Boston, where I’d heard rumors that lawyers and judges didn’t like to impanel us college kids, probably because of what famous assholes we were. But, more importantly, there were only twelve or so of us in the jury pool. Can’t make a jury of twelve with a jury pool of twelve!
Someone at some point must have explained that trials in Boston municipal courts only need six jurors, but when they did I wasn’t paying attention. Or maybe they didn’t explain it, and it was something I was supposed to have already known.
As I sat in the jury box and waited for the other jurors to be selected—I was neither first nor last—I was thinking not about my civic duties but about a party a few months earlier, where a man I was in love with swung at me, struck my cheek with his open palm. I wondered why the judge didn’t ask if a man had ever hit me. It was a startling omission. Was I supposed to have told him of my own volition? What if the fact that I didn’t tell him constituted perjury? Perhaps he assumed I’d have listed it in my juror questionnaire. Maybe I was supposed to stand up and announce myself in front of everyone as the six of us were being impaneled, when the judge asked us to speak if there was any reason we could not be impartial in this case.
But I stayed silent. Everyone did. The case wasn’t really about a man hitting a woman, anyway.
During the trial, both parties agreed on virtually every detail: the defendant and his wife had recently divorced, and their son had a severe asthma attack when both children were in the defendant’s custody. At the emergency room, after the boy was stabilized, the defendant called his ex-wife to let her know what had happened, at which point her sister drove her to the hospital. But immediately their arrival, the sister began videotaping the defendant with her phone, following him around the waiting room and continuing to record him even after he repeatedly asked her to stop. It was never clear why she did this. “I just didn’t trust him,” she said on the stand, when questioned about her motives; “Something felt off.” But amidst her vagueness, I remember once she began to explain, “After what happened last time–” until someone objected, presumably the defense attorney, and the judge told us to disregard that statement. Two years later it’s still my clearest memory of the trial.
Anyway. At some point during the evening, while his sister’s ex-wife was filming him, the defendant grabbed the phone out of her hands. For this, he faced a single count of misdemeanor assault and battery.
They showed us the sister’s video over and over and over again. I started to feel a dull ache in my skull, and I assumed it was from the tedium; during our lunch break, I took some ibuprofen, but the pain only got worse back in the courtroom, during closing arguments. I was dizzy and sweating and lightheaded. The only relief was when I closed my eyes, but I was in a court of law; I couldn’t just close my eyes.
What would happen if I cried out, or asked for a glass of water? If I told them, “Hey, I think I’m having my first-ever migraine”? I didn’t know who I’d tell. I just rocked back and forth, digging my thumbnail into the pad of each of my fingers in turn.
When the arguments finally ended, the judge reminded us that to be found guilty of assault and battery, we had to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had intended to touch his ex-sister-in-law with the intent to injure her or without her consent.
In the deliberation room, we gossiped. It had become clear during the trial that the defendant and his ex-wife were still working on a permanent custody agreement; we all were positive that this case had something to do with that custody battle. The sister was hiding something, everyone agreed. Half of the jury felt the wife was untrustworthy.
“God, I’m going to need a stiff drink after this,” one of the women said. We all concurred. It felt like a real jury-bonding moment, until a grizzled man with a thick Boston accent looked at me and asked, “Can you even drink yet?” and the other jurors laughed.
Finally, we moved to address the subject at hand, and it turned out that the case hinged on one and only one very simple question: Was the sister’s phone part of her body, legally speaking, when the defendant grabbed it from her?
“No,” I said. “The fact that we can distinguish her phone from her body means that her phone is not a part of her body. If her phone were part of her body, I don’t know how this could be something they would send to a trial. There’s a video!”
No one said anything. I wasn’t sure if I was making sense. I closed my eyes again.
Then one of the jurors said, “Why don’t we just ask?” I didn’t know that was something we could do.
We had to shuffle out of the deliberation room and back into our seats in the jury box, where someone wrote down the question, “Does her phone count as part of her body?” and someone else handed it to the judge.
He read it aloud and looked at us with deep disappointment. “Yes,” he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Could a jury could be so incompetent that the judge could declare a mistrial, I wondered. Before he dismissed us, he exhorted us to use our common sense and life experience to make the right decision.
I was agitated; I took it as a personal slight. I felt it was obvious from my face, from my age, that I had neither common sense nor any life experiences. We shuffled back into the deliberation room.
“So, he’s guilty,” one of the jurors said.
“Yup,” another agreed.
I thought about lying down under the table. I thought about drilling a hole into my skull. I thought about how stupid the law was, and I said so.
“We can’t find him not guilty just because the law is stupid,” one of the other jurors said. But that was exactly what I wanted to do. I explained the concept of jury nullification; even if we believed that he was technically guilty, we could still come back with a Not Guilty verdict. We could, in effect, nullify the law. We really could do anything we wanted.
There was silence until the grizzled man said, “Oh, but he’s guilty. It’s never okay for a man to put his hands on a woman.”
I pushed my fists to my temples. I wondered if he had lied to the judge; I wondered if the judge simply hadn’t asked him the same question he’d asked me. I worried, again, that we shouldn’t be a jury in the first place.
But after that, there wasn’t much to discuss. The sister was holding her phone, which made it part of her body, which made it assault and battery when the defendant yanked it from her. We went around the table and gave our verdicts. The five of them agreed on guilty. There were two men on the jury; the older one looked at me and said, “What about you, kid?”
I thought about pressing for jury nullification. I thought about holding out by myself, making the trial last another day or two. At lunch I’d listened to the women talk about how hard it was to get someone to pick the kids up from school, how they couldn’t afford for this to go on too long. Me? I had nothing, no responsibilities. I was finished with classes for the semester and had a few weeks to kill until my internship started. The other jurors would be so angry if we had to come back, I thought, except I didn’t really think of them as the other jurors, I thought of them as the grown-ups. It would probably be an exercise in futility, anyway. If I were the other jurors, I’m not sure I would’ve listened to the baby-faced know-it-all who probably wasn’t even old enough to drink, either.
But then I thought: You will never get the chance to be a hero like this ever again. I thought: This is not worth a conviction or the time we’ve spent here. I thought about the man who hit me and I thought about the defendant being separated from his children and I thought about all the things “Something felt off” could mean. I thought: IT HURTS.
This thinking took about two seconds, and when I looked up at the other jurors I was sure of the right thing to do. But it was so much easier not to do it.
“Yeah,” I said. “Guilty.”