The lawyers are shuffling papers and nervously smoothing their ties. The clerks are talking about how chilly it is this morning. I check my watch impatiently, try to get comfortable on the hard wooden bench, glance again at the letter which informs me, as if I were an unruly student being summoned to the principal’s office, that I’ve been selected for jury duty, that this is the only notice I’ll receive, that if I fail to appear I can be held in contempt of court.

A few stragglers wander in. Yesterday at this time we were just getting to the office, or lingering at the kitchen table over another cup of coffee. Today we’re citizens first and foremost, charged with one of the highest duties of citizenship: waiting. The woman in front of me is doing a crossword puzzle. The man beside me is reading Rush Limbaugh’s See, I Told You So. I stare at the huge chandeliers. The peeling yellow walls. The ornately framed paintings of famous jurists, none of whom I recognize.

We watch a slide show about jury service. The raspy soundtrack reminds us to be thankful we live in a country where justice is meted out not by soldiers or police but by a jury of our peers. I am thankful, but it will take more than a civics lesson to inspire me this morning. For one thing, most of us are white, like the famous jurists on the wall, while most of the defendants waiting in the courthouse corridors are black. For another, I’m wary of a judicial system that makes neighborhood drug dealers do hard time while the hoodlums who stole millions in the biggest banking scandal in history go unpunished and lawbreakers like Ronald Reagan and George Bush watch reruns of “Perry Mason” in the comfort of their homes.

I’d rather be at my desk, shuffling my own papers. But a friend confided recently that he couldn’t abide self-important types who considered themselves too busy for jury service. Then, too, even if I’d managed to come up with a credible excuse, I’d have felt ashamed: the summons was dated November 22, the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy.

I’ll make a hell of a juror, I think, so practiced at judging myself: for eating a cookie last night, for meditating ten minutes instead of twenty. About sex, not God.

The judge — a burly man in his sixties, his head completely shaved — finally emerges from his chambers, nods to the bailiff, and takes his seat on a raised dais flanked by two flags. He doesn’t talk much: a nod or a raised eyebrow seems to communicate everything a lawyer needs to know. Yet for the next hour or so he listens attentively, even sympathetically, to the familiar litany of human woes, to the abundant evidence either that society is falling apart or that society has always been falling apart, that there’s more crime today than ever or that civilization itself is the crime.

A man waives a jury trial and is sentenced to fifteen years for murder. He killed another man during an argument. In a bar. Over a woman. It’s the oldest story, except for the speed with which we now dispatch each other: the man reached for his gun because he thought his rival was reaching for his gun.

In North Carolina, where it’s as easy to buy a gun as for Jesse Helms to get reelected, the politicians still think the answer to crime is to build more prisons. It doesn’t matter that most prisons are overcrowded because absurdly harsh sentences are handed out to drug offenders. It doesn’t matter that marijuana is less addictive than tobacco, cocaine only arguably more dangerous than alcohol. Lock them up anyway; throw away the key. The politicians want to make the punishment fit the crime, but what does that mean in a world where nations act like criminals, and gangsters in suits and ties sell us toothpaste and cereal? The politicians might as well be on the moon, studying the earth through a telescope, describing the movements of the tides but not the motions of ordinary people. Not their destiny, their mystery. Not the cry that rises from a man in the middle of the night in the middle of a life.

The machinery of justice grinds and wheezes like a huge truck laboring up a steep hill, as one case after another is rescheduled or plea-bargained. The woman in front of me finishes her crossword puzzle. The ranks of lawyers start to thin. Maybe there won’t be a jury trial at all today, I think. Maybe we’ll be sent home.

Instead, we’re sent to lunch.

In the hallway, a man with a haggard expression stares at me indifferently, as if he’s been waiting here all day, all year, a thousand years, waiting for Justice to take off her damned blindfold, look him in the eye. I quicken my pace, grateful to be summoned as juror, not defendant. Lucky man. Who woke up every morning in a middle-class neighborhood, did his homework, paid his taxes, drove to work five miles over the speed limit, maybe ten.

As I step into the bright sunlight, I remember something Dick Gregory once said. There are two kinds of crimes: those committed by people who are caught and convicted, and those committed by people who aren’t — and which category a crime falls into is directly related to the wealth, power, and prestige of the criminal. The first kind includes purse snatchings, muggings, and armed robberies. Then there is the second kind: the budget decisions, the embezzlements, the war atrocities.


When we get back, we’re told a trial is ready to begin. The clerk shuffles a stack of index cards with the names of prospective jurors, reads aloud the name on top, and waits for the person to stand and walk toward the jury box. When she calls my name I’m pleased, as if I’ve won something.

But the case before us isn’t a theft or robbery or homicide. In a criminal justice system where murderers are sentenced to fifteen years in less time than it takes a teacher to post a failing grade, we’re here today, at considerable expense to the state and to ourselves, to decide the fate of a young man accused of drinking one too many beers.

Jury selection, amazingly, drags on nearly three hours. The lawyers want to know where we were born, where we went to school. They want to know about our families, our prejudices. Of course they’re not looking for an impartial jury but a partial one. The defense attorney wants to winnow out the teetotalers, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The district attorney doesn’t want college students, or good old boys who think a six-pack in the back seat is an inalienable right. He favors well-educated, responsible adults who know that half of all auto crashes are alcohol related; I’m a shoo-in, since parents of teenage drivers rank high on his list.

Each time the judge excuses a juror, another name is called and the interminable questions resume. It doesn’t help that the defense attorney has a hard time hearing us from across the room. When one woman explains that she’s involved in mammography research, he looks surprised. “What kind of pornography?” he asks.

Finally, we hear opening statements. The district attorney is calm and low-key. Obviously, he thinks he has a strong case. The defense attorney is more of a salesman, given to exaggerated expressions, vaudevillian gestures. He seems determined to win us over by the force of his personality: it will be an uphill fight.

A state trooper testifies that late at night, on a lonely stretch of interstate, he stopped a car that was weaving from lane to lane. The driver’s eyes were bloodshot. There was alcohol on his breath. When the driver got out, he stumbled and had to hold on to the car to maintain his balance. The trooper asked him to close his eyes, stretch out his arms, and touch the tips of his index fingers to his nose. He missed. At the police station, when he breathed into a machine called an Intoxalyzer, his blood-alcohol level registered 0.10 percent, the threshold for driving while impaired.

An open-and-shut case, if we believe the trooper. The defense attorney suggests that would be a mistake. The trooper incorrectly recorded the make of the driver’s car on the arrest record. Even worse, he didn’t know how to operate the Intoxalyzer and had to ask another policeman how to turn it on. The attorney shakes his head sadly at this mediocre performance.

It’s true the trooper isn’t an impressive witness. He mumbles and has trouble reading his notes. But he’s emphatic about one thing: he knows his job. Yes, he made a mistake about the car. Yes, he had to ask for help with a minor setting on the Intoxalyzer, but it was a new model.

The defendant, a soft-spoken man in his early twenties, seems more at ease on the stand. He doesn’t deny that he was drinking with friends that night: he had two, maybe three, beers. But, he says with a slightly aggrieved air, when he left after midnight to drive his girlfriend home he was tired, not drunk. That explains the erratic driving, the bloodshot eyes. He’d been up since dawn. He could barely stay awake.

You could say the same about the judge. When he looks down, I can’t tell whether he’s studying a document or drifting off. In all his years on the bench, how many cases like this has he heard, how many contradictory versions of the same event? Like God, condemned to listen to all our lies.

Court is adjourned until the next morning. On my drive home I wonder if I’ve already made up my mind. It’s not hard to feel sympathy for the defendant, a recent college graduate with a steady job and a steady girlfriend — but it’s also not hard to imagine him reaching for a fourth beer and a fifth and a sixth.

Still, who am I to judge another man’s excess? No matter how many cups of coffee I drink on long road trips, I sometimes fall asleep at the wheel — until I snap awake, Death tapping at the window: am I rested yet? In the old days, when I wouldn’t touch coffee, or sugar, or any food with chemical additives, I’d sometimes end a lengthy fruit-juice fast (“Don’t overfeed a horse or a poet” was my motto) with a couple of hits of LSD (I had other mottoes), and I didn’t always wait for the drug to wear off before going for a spin. Did I think of myself as a safe driver? Doesn’t everyone?

The next day we hear from the defendant’s girlfriend, who seems embarrassed to be on the stand. Whether she’s nervous because she’s lying or just hates being here is hard to say. She insists that her boyfriend wasn’t drunk, that the trooper was too eager to make an arrest. The district attorney asks whether she had anything to drink that night. No, she never drinks. Why, then, didn’t her boyfriend let her drive, since he had been drinking? Wasn’t that poor judgment on his part? She can’t say.

During closing arguments, each lawyer presents his version of the truth, holds it before us like a mirror. (Mirrors, they remind us, don’t lie.) Then the bailiff leads us up a long flight of stairs to the jury room, which feels vaguely neglected, like the drab alcoves where people meet in old schools and churches, the air sour, the furniture dusty, ghosts in the corners.

We take seats around a large wooden table. Most of us have never served on a jury before, and we’re unsure of how to proceed. It’s clear that few jurors trust the defendant’s story, or his girlfriend’s. How many of us would lie to protect someone we love? Then there’s the trooper. The judge told us not to value his testimony more highly because of his uniform; ironically, I trust him in spite of it. Others are more wary. In a thick accent, one woman tells of harsh encounters with police in her native Poland; she doesn’t know who to believe. The only black person on the jury sides with the defendant but is tight-lipped about her reasons. I didn’t think race had anything to do with the case, since both the trooper and the defendant are black. Now I wonder.

We want the facts to line up, face the front of the room, but they’re restless and disagreeable. A juror with an impressive scientific background insists we can’t trust the Intoxalyzer. Because the machine is so sensitive, he says, it can be mishandled. Another juror says we’re here to judge the defendant, not the Intoxalyzer.

Some jurors would like to find the defendant a little guilty. With all the big injustices in the world, shady deals up and down the corridors of power, CIA drug runners, cops on the take, why bring the power of the state to bear on this young man? We’ve been reminded, too, that the case against the defendant must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But what is a reasonable doubt? Is it a doubt based on reason, or just a doubt for which reasons can be given? There’s not much doubt about how many people are killed each year because of drinking. If I saw my daughter weaving from lane to lane and smelled alcohol on her breath, wouldn’t I take her license away?

An hour goes by. Another hour. I reflect on the invisible threads joining twelve strangers, compelled to listen carefully today to each other’s words, to employ the arts of persuasion and argument, to talk until we agree. None of us is thrilled to be here, yet I’m impressed by everyone’s decency and desire to be fair. How odd yet familiar to gather this way, like a circle of elders around a fire or a big family around the kitchen table.

A juror across from me looks at his watch, rolls his eyes. I know what he’s feeling. But I wonder which is the greater crime: to drive home drunk or to speed away from our responsibility to govern ourselves? To act as the collective conscience of the community is fraught with risk; certainly we’re capable of making a mistake. My mistake, I think, was rolling my eyes at democracy’s prickly demands, hoarding time the way some hoard money. If I can’t recognize democracy in this nondescript room, around this scarred wooden table, I’m not likely to recognize it anywhere.