(followup from Part I)
Following a couple hours of deliberation, we ruled guilty on all counts. The verdict on the count of distribution for the drug user was the most difficult. We unanimously believed that the legal definition of distribution had been met, and unanimously believed that the defendant was not a drug dealer and that it was not in the spirit of the law. We unanimously believed that this sucked.
After our first round of discussion on the matter, we took a vote and were split 7-5 in favor of voting guilty. Everyone on the jury was very open minded and respectful, and many of us went back and forth. We had a diverse jury with good racial and socioeconomic representation, and at no time did it feel like a mob. Eventually, we coalesced around a guilty verdict, with a couple of jurors holding on to not-guilty votes for a while before eventually deciding that they weren't going to hang the jury over it.
I was one of the jurors who initially voted guilty. I was always close to the edge and possibly could have been persuaded differently, but my gut feeling was that this situation didn't merit us disregarding the law.
It's not a very popular position. Since then, I've described the trial to at least 20 people, and all but 2 or 3 have said they would have voted not guilty, and a few said they'd even hang the jury over it. Drug laws in general aren't popular, and jury nullification is a legitimate and empowering function of our judicial system.
I believe in jury nullification, and my respect for the drug war has hit a new low with my recent first-person view of how the government sprays imprisonment around drug-addled neighborhoods like tear gas. I despise the prosecution for putting us in the position they did, and I view drug sting operations with a sharpened skepticism.
I also believe in a jury that weighs their duty as citizens alongside their conscience. Juries are in part a bulwark against bad laws, but they're also a necessary legitimation of the law in general. Laws are put in place by a democratically elected body, so for a jury of 12 to ignore what is meant as the will of the people because they don't agree, they had better have a very strong reason. There is an ethical responsibility to uphold the law. It is not absolute, but it is serious.
It's not absolute at all: if the situation had been more extreme, or the charges more dire, I could easily see myself pushing for a not guilty verdict. And in the other verdicts we delivered, where the evidence was clear and the spirit of the law being kept, the guilty verdicts were easy.
It's an individual determination, and I don't have a lot of respect for those that treat the jury system as an avenue for grassroots political activity. Bring lawsuits, sway public opinion, get someone elected, get yourself elected, but neither judges nor juries bear the burden of bending the system to what they personally think is right. Judges and juries are doing their best to uphold the ideals of an impartial, uncorrupted trial system, and we do a lot better at that than most of the world. The idea of turning the jury room into yet another political militarized zone is anathema to me.
This is not meant as an evasion of responsibility, because that's not really emotionally possible. I was the foreperson, and read the verdict aloud to the court. As I walked away from the courthouse after the trial and left its sphere of authority behind, the values of upholding the law felt dwarfed by the weight of the verdict that I'd helped deliver. The plain fact is that this guy is going to spend a lot more time away from his grandchildren because of our adherence to the letter of the law. That night, and at other times afterward, I found it impossible to listen to music or feel happy, knowing that I'd made someone else's future so much darker.
I went back and found out the day of the sentencing, and I'll be in court that day for it. The judge is smart and sensible, and I think she'll show lenience, but whether she does or not is entirely separate from the wisdom of the verdict.
I don't think I'll know whether I regret the decision for at least a year; I need to get some distance. In the meantime, I find myself wandering through courthouses and sitting in the audience for random trials, feeling a connection and respect for a system that used to seem so impersonal until I sat inside it.