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To tell the truth

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Last week, I was called to the Durham County Judicial Building to fulfill one of my highest responsibilities as a citizen--jury duty. After hours of sitting in the overheated jury-pool room reading old Newsweeks, we, the potential jurors, filed into the courtroom for selection. The lawyers and their clients were sitting at tables in front of the judge. We sat down on the benches behind them.

The assistant district attorney represented the prosecution. His clients were two N.C. State Troopers, both of them powerfully built and sporting Marine-style haircuts. If I were in trouble on the highway, I'd love to see guys like these coming to my rescue, but I sure wouldn't want them to catch me breaking the law.

At the defendant's table, the accused, a small man wearing a neatly ironed purple-and-green striped shirt, and his lawyer scrutinized the prospective jurors as they stepped into the box. The case was very simple. The troopers had stopped the defendant and discovered that the truck he was driving was stolen. He was charged, among other things, with running from the scene, rather than submitting to arrest. He was pleading not guilty. Viewed from the back by those of us in the jury pool, the defendant's shoulders looked hunched and vulnerable.

The lawyer for the prosecution asked each of the prospective jurors this question: "Do you have any strong moral or religious convictions that might prevent you from sitting in judgment on another person?" As each of them answered, their facial muscles tightened. Eleven of them said no, they had no such convictions.

But when it came his turn, one young man hesitated. "Everybody makes mistakes," he said quietly. "I don't know if I could sit in judgment on someone else." The assistant district attorney immediately rose, crisply thanked and dismissed him. The tension in the room lifted momentarily as, with a slightly embarrassed smile, the young man stepped down from the jury box. As he passed behind us, I heard him mutter under his breath: "'Cause I might make the wrong judgment."

"And so," I thought to myself at the time, "probably the most honest and compassionate person in the courtroom is now walking out the door."

I wasn't chosen for the jury, and it's a good thing, because, although I fully support our law-enforcement personnel, I was already feeling sympathetic toward the defendant, who seemed pitifully outclassed. I would have made a lousy juror.

I don't know how the trial turned out. But every time I think of the man who admitted he would have a hard time judging a fellow human being, I am filled with awe and admiration. The other jurors may have done their duty by judging, but he did his by telling his own truth.

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