Friday, March 11, 2011

Justice Delayed

The sun is shining brightly this early morning and, if the day continues as it has begun, my front lawn will be entirely snow-free for the first time since I returned from California in mid-December.  While my attention has been focused on the snow and the general wintriness of the last several months, under the snow and ice and in the darkest reaches of the woodlands behind me, Spring has been quietly setting about preparing to strike.  The receding snow revealed the first leaves of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths fully an inch or more high, a neighbor has tapped his maples and is hauling in quantities of sweet sap, and I noticed just now that two goldfinches on my feeder have begun to trade in their drab winter brown for their summer yellow. 

My pal Marge has ever-so-gently chid me (chidden?  chided?) about my relatively long blogging hiatus, speculating that some rise in my general happiness might have removed the general irascibility and discontent that makes me cranky enough to write.  Sadly, this is true.  I was intensely down for a while (and blogged copiously), and then, suddenly, about three weeks ago, an immense sense of contentment set in without warning, and for no apparent reason.  I found myself reading and watching a trove of really excellent pay-channel series on TV (Has anyone seen Shameless, the new Showtime series about an Irish American family in the Chicago slums?  It is wildly entertaining, and superbly written and acted).   Then, on top of that, a few things began to happen.  A former classmate – one of the popular girls, for no apparent reason, brought me cookies, soup and a blooming hyacinth plant.  I sent in my taxes, pausing only to mourn the fact that I have thousands of dollars worth of deductions that I can't use and, that because I only had nineteen dollars withheld, I can only get nineteen dollars back. My brother Liam and his wife began a series of local concerts; apparently he also has been recently energized because he has written at least two new songs in the last week or two.  And then I got called for, and was selected for, a jury in a murder case which has received some media attention locally.  Last night, we rendered our verdict.

I have never before served on a jury, and I must say that it is quite an experience.  I was surprised by a few things: the degree to which the 14 of us bonded (there were two alternates empaneled with the other 12 jurors); the seriousness and intelligence that each of the jurors brought to his or her participation; and the number of unresolved questions and nuances of doubt that were raised in what may have looked like an open-and-shut case in the press.  I have read no coverage whatever before, during or since the verdict, so I can’t truly say how this case actually was portrayed, but my sense is that it might have been regarded as a slam-dunk because of those magic letters, DNA. 

I was unprepared for the degree of sadness I would feel for the victim, and the degree I felt that I could imagine the embarrassment and shame the victim might have felt could she have known that strangers would be looking at her splayed out clumsily with her private areas exposed in a way that was decidedly not provocative or anything other than repellent.   I was also unprepared for the empathy I would feel, as did all the other jurors, for the large number of family which showed up, especially for the last day of the five we spent at trial. 

New York, some time ago, reformed its laws regarding juries in a way which I heartily applaud.  In the past, there were a number of automatic, or almost automatic, exclusions, and those not excluded were subject to being called every three years.  The caricature, possibly accurate, that juries were composed of full-time housewives and retirees, who might have little in common with defendants, was widespread.  Nearly anyone could plead the slightest inconvenience and he or she would be excused.   There was a conception – at least for me – that juries were a bunch of folks with nothing better to do, lightly leavened with a few folks who held strong feelings about their civic duty.  The new rules make it relatively difficult to be excused if one is not acquainted with any of the principals or witness or investigators in the case.  The trade-off is that one is not subject to a call to serve more often than every eight years.  I think this is an excellent reform.  As a result, our jury contained three black men, one quite young, one in early middle age and one probably over 60; there were teachers, women who were employed in both blue-collar and white collar jobs, a college student and, yes, some retirees, including yours truly.  One of the black men was an immigrant who had been in the country for about 20 years.  Counting the alternates, there were six women and eight men.  I thought the jury, as well as the many others who were not selected simply because many more people were called to make up our pool than were seated, was very reflective of the county’s population as a whole.  There appeared to be a range in the financial circumstances of the jurors, although none seemed to be nearly as poor as the victim had been. 

The reason (I assume) that there seemed to be quite a bit of interest in this case is that the killing occurred in the early 1970s.  In addition, the crime was particularly disgusting; the victim, who may have been sexually assaulted in her own home, was a mother in her late middle age who was blind.  Basically, an officer – the son of one of the original investigators – was assigned to take a look at some old cases, and in doing so, sent a blanket that had been taken as evidence at the time to the county lab to check for DNA, and two tiny spots of semen on the blanket were determined to have been from one of the ‘persons of interest’ in the original investigation.   Therefore, this seemed to be one of those cases where an unsolved murder from the past was solved through the modern miracle of DNA technology.  In fact, when the assistant DA recited the theory of the case in her opening remarks, this seemed to be exactly the case.  The opening remarks of the defense seemed to be an almost pro forma “wait a minute here” type of pretty unconvincing quibbles. 

And now, because this is a gorgeous late winter (almost spring?) day which is calling to me, I will leave the rest of this story for another day.  And, I promise, I will be around to catch up on all the usual blogging suspects soon, but gee, SUCH a nice day...