Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In which I become a trans foreperson of a jury. And other strange but commonplace adventures

Last week was so strange. I’ve never had a week like that before...but then I’ve never been on a jury before.

There is so much about the process I had simply never thought about or taken the trouble to understand.

How time consuming it all is, for a start. I’d had to phone on the Sunday night, and then again on the Monday, and then again on the Tuesday.

And then finally being told to turn up again at 12 on the Wednesday.

And then, after waiting around for 40 minutes, being sent away till 2.00.

And this was something else I had never appreciated or understood: that so many more people are called than are actually going to be needed. And that the selection process really is random, with our numbers being picked out of a glass jar.

And so this strangely assorted grop of fifteen individuals who were finally crammed together in a jury room, all of us feeling uncertain and out of our depth, were absolutely the product of chance.

And so was the case we were called on to adjudicate.
And how lucky we were: it was short and it was comparitively easy. We were not exposed to anything especially traumatic; and we did not have to exert ourselves to establish exactly what happened.

It was all there on the CCTV. (Something else I had not appreciated: how detailed CCTV images can be. And how intelligently and skillfully they can be handled).

In all those ways we had an easy time of it. The main thing we were called on to do was use the evidence we were given to interpret what we saw and try to find the most appropriate words to describe it.

But that was difficult enough: language is slippery at the best of times, and the law, in trying to pin it down, imposes definitions on words that makes them different from their normal use.

And these words really mattered: they could have a profound effect on the life of the individual being judged.

And top of that, being called upon to judge a fellow human being is a hideous and a stressful thing.

Something else I had not appreciated: how difficult the work of juries is. How important it is. How, like so much else in our society that really matters, it is generally unrecognised, unappreciated, and unrewarded.

I was reminded again how much I live in a bubble most of the time. I stick to what I know I can do and I stay with social groups I know will not be hostile. 

Simply because my situation is a vulnerable one; and certainly last week I had worries about how it would be for me as a transwoman in this unfamiliar world.  

It made me so much relaxed about the whole situation when I was able to come out, and be open about who I am. And then me being trans didn’t stop me being chosen as the fore-person of the jury.

Which makes me wonder how extreme the hostility must be for so many of us for stealth, concealing our true identities, to seem like a safe and viable option.

And it makes me glad that here in Scotland, at least, we are gaining acceptance. And that the world has changed.

Meantime we had to keep going back into the court room, which seemed frozen in time: always the same avuncular man in the powdered wig, the same tense and self-conscious young women in their legal mannerisms and their gowns, the same bored security guard. The same defendant, staring straight ahead, pale, tense and afraid.

It must have taken us about three hours to decide. It was a difficult and yet oddly hopeful process, trapped as we were in the cramped room in this nightmare building dedicated to slowly grinding its way through so much human malice, stupidity, cruelty and suffering.

I was touched by the way the group of us worked together to try to decide what would be just. Touched by the trouble people were prepared to take to make sure the right thing was done and the right words were used to describe the defendant’s actions and the conclusions we had reached. Touched by the way care was taken to make sure everyone’s voices were heard.

I felt sorry for the man; it seemed to me he had simply been the victim of very bad luck, and been caught up in a situation so way beyond anything he had ever experienced before. And which frightened him profoundly.

And the way he responded may have been wrong; but wrong in a way it was easy to understand, and wrong in a way that almost anyone in the same situation would have done exactly the same.

So, rightly or wrongly, I felt an intense reluctance to convict him on a criminal charge. But also, rightly or wrongly, I was completely overruled.

And so at the end of the day I had to deliver to the judge a verdict I didn’t altogether agree with.

But which at the same time had been part of a collective process. And yet there was comfort in that. In knowing that it had had to be a collective decision: the product of a group working together to reach a decision in which my clemency and other people’s harshness all had a voice.

The judge interpreted our verdict in an intelligent and sensitive way, and it was reflected, somehow, in the sentence. 

I've always been pretty cynical about our justice system. And yet somehow at the end there was a feeling among all of us, me included, that even in so imperfect a system justice had somehow been done.

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