The first thing any judge or prosecutor should ask a prospective panel of jurors is not what they typically ask. I found this out today fulfilling my biennial trip to the Circuit Courts building. After nearly 20 years, this every-other-year pilgrimage has become a tradition for me. I receive the colorful summons by mail, return the requisite information, and avoid arrest by showing up on the appointed morning for what might be one, two, three days, or even several weeks of jury service – if selected. It’s like a lottery drawing: you never know what you might win until the day of the event. Pepper in a healthy sprinkling of summonses received for Federal Court jury duty and it can seem as if jury duty happens in St. Louis every year, unlike other cities where one can live a lifetime without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. Our jury supervisor explained the high demand for jury service among City residents when she told us today that the City of St. Louis starts each week of the year with an average of 250 cases on the docket. This number exceeds Kansas City and St. Louis County combined. Given its lower population, the stress on City residents is understandably greater.
The system is remarkably well run, all things considered. Still, after being asked individually and as a group no less than five times the same qualifying questions (are you a US citizen, are you over the age of 21, do you reside in St. Louis), it seemed to me at least one of those times someone would have switched up and asked something more pertinent, such as: Would you be able to serve on a murder trial?
Especially after the prosecutor’s opening remarks in voir dire, in which he disclosed the nature of the charges being tried, I kept waiting for the question to be put to us. It never was. And as the hours droned by, the questions become more and more discomforting to me because there is a well of painful memories just below the surface that were waking up, warning me not to go deeper unless I was prepared to pay an emotional price. I had already raised my hand in response to so many questions that the prosecutor, the judge, and the defense lawyer were obviously scrutinizing me, yet still not asking the right question. So, once again I raised my hand and asked if I might speak to the judge at the bench. “Yes,” the prosecutor replied, “we will do that later.”
After that exchange, I was glad that they stopped returning to me and settled in to wait for the opportunity to explain that I was getting more and more anxious by the minute. My thoughts were not clear. My memories were pulling me into a very dark place. Finally, we broke for a short lunch and were dismissed. I walked outside and realized I was seeing the world breaking up into pieces of shattered glass, like a kaleidoscope: I was having an ocular migraine. After lunch, we reassembled and the defense lawyer began his line of questioning. From these questions, I learned interesting things about the group. Over 50% of this eclectic cross section of men and women had been arrested at least once in their lives for offenses ranging from DUIs to not showing up for jury duty. Yes, that’s an offense punishable by arrest! At least one-third had a relative or friend with a serious drug addiction and most of those were heroin. Then, starting at the far end of the room, he asked each prospective juror the same questions: Are you a native St. Louisan? If not, from where did you move here and why? Where do or did you work and what do or did you do at your job? This was going to take a long time, and at one point about halfway around the room, the judge asked the lawyer to speed things up. In our group of 60, there was a surprising number of transplants. If the person moved from Illinois, they never specified what city, just answered, “Illinois;” if from another state, they gave the name of the city without the state. The most prevalent job occupation was some form of IT, followed by various medical occupations. As I listened to the questions and answers, I was still waiting for the opportunity to speak to the judge about my unsuitability to serve on this case when a man sitting in front of me rose to his feet to take his turn answering the three questions. The court reporter could not hear him and so he repeated over and over that he was a retired professor who had taught gross anatomy. Gross Anatomy. GROSS ANATOMY. In desperation, he extended both of his arms outward and shouted G R O S S A N A T O M Y. When he did this, I instantly visualized DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man. In a flash, my imagination connected this image back to a previous question asked earlier in the morning by the prosecutor:
“We have the police report, but we can’t show it to you. We will quote the police report, but we can’t show it to you. Are you okay not seeing the police report?” Over and over, all around the room, the question was asked of each person, “Do you need to see the police report?”
For some reason, this police report made me very uncomfortable. Even though I was not asked the question, every time it was asked, I answered internally, “I don’t want to see the police report!” Now, as I listened to the retired professor, and when his physical representation caused the Vitruvian Man to flash into my thoughts, I saw another graphic depiction. It was the outline of a man’s body in a police report from 1986. It has been over 30 years since I saw that image and today was the first time in all those years that I remembered it. Arms and legs spread outward on the page, both front and back of the body were marked where wounds had been inflicted; so many, in fact, that the report indicated wounds within wounds. It was a savage killing and an image that I have, understandably, suppressed, along with so many other things that I saw and heard and witnessed during the horrifying days surrounding that death, not the least of which was the police report.
Suddenly, not being picked for this jury was taking a back seat to a more important goal: just getting through this day.
Which I did. And, gratefully, I neither had to explain myself to the judge or legal teams, nor was I picked to serve on the jury.
It felt good to walk the half mile back to the parking garage, rather than take the shuttle bus. I let the cold wind whip around my face. I whispered his name and allowed a tear to roll down my face. The gift of 30 years passage of time was that I found more than a small measure of self-confidence to face this moment alone, with nothing but my own internal resources to rely on for strength. As I walked, I remembered that image in the police report and understood the deeper reality – that it was a map of my own emotional wounds, still there whenever I look; never too far out of mind even if I never do. I can trace every broken place in my life, every emotional scar, every loss, every failure, every regret. Some are wounds within wounds. They are all there, below the surface, because they were once a part of my life. Some of them still hurt. But, not one or all singly or in total makes up the entirety of who I am.
Perhaps we never completely heal, but we are not static beings; we do learn and grow, and I believe our wounds help shape who we are and become, for better or worse. We can use them to ignite a desire to offer a hand to someone who might need it; to help prevent something horrible from happening by showing a different way, showing that we care; to not just hear – but to listen to what someone might be saying; to tell the people we love that we love them. This is the process of living. Trust the process.