If you're an American citizen, one of your fundamental civic duties is to serve, when called, as a juror in a civil or criminal trial. I was oddly pleased to get a notice in my mailbox summoning me for jury duty. I actually looked forward to sitting with 11 other New Yorkers, all chosen as randomly as I was, to hear evidence about a crime and to play an active role in the justice system.
I arrived early at the New York State Court building with my photo ID and a day's worth of reading material, and took a seat on a wooden bench in a vast, dimly-lit hall with perhaps 200 other potential jurors.
Assembling an impartial jury is an essential element of the criminal trial process. Before we were selected to hear a case, the prosecutor, the defense attorney and the judge all questioned each of us in the courtroom, to see if we harbored prejudices that might keep us from fairly judging the defendant. They asked us such questions as "Have your ever been a victim of a crime?" "Are you more or less likely to believe a police officer than any other citizen who testifies?" "Could we assume innocence until guilt was proved beyond a reasonable doubt?
After a full day of this, I was selected for a burglary case. With 11 fellow jurors (and two alternates) I raised my right hand and swore an oath to be fair. We were a diverse group of people, including black, white, Latino, professional, working-class, native born and new Americans, and we ranged in age from about 25 to nearly 70 years old.
After we'd taken our seats in the section of the courtroom known as the jury box, the judge instructed us not to talk about the case -- even among ourselves -- until all the evidence had been given, and not to discuss the trial with anyone outside, either. We each had to make up our own mind.
The defendant, a 35-year-old man with a long ponytail, sitting before us in a suit and tie, had been charged with the burglary of a drugstore.
We listened to evidence in his case for two days. The defendant himself didn't testify -- it was up to the State prosecutor to provide the proof.
Witnesses were examined by the prosecution, then cross-examined by the defense. We were shown the store's security videotapes and the written warning the store says it gave the defendant -- after an earlier shoplifting incident -- that he was barred from shopping at any of the company's chain of drug stores. That letter meant the man's second attempted theft involved a more serious criminal trespass.
As the trial drew to a close, the prosecutor and the defense attorney gave us their closing arguments. Then the judge explained the law to us and how it applied to this case, and sent us to the jury room to deliberate. In order to find the defendant guilty or not guilty, we would all have to agree on a verdict.
My fellow jurors and I had become friendly during the first couple of days of the trial, but as we deliberated we sometimes differed sharply over details of the case. We asked that portions of the testimony -- which had been carefully transcribed by a court reporter -- be read back to us. After four hours of intense argument and discussion, we all agreed to find the defendant guilty of burglary.
I was impressed by how seriously the jurors took their jobs. Even though we were all anxious to finish with the trial and get back to our lives, we all seemed to have the same sense of duty to be certain - beyond a reasonable doubt - that our verdict was justified by the evidence in the case.
I know I was not alone in sensing the enormity of the responsibility we had been given. I made certain to look directly at the face of the defendant when the verdict was read. I wanted to see with my own eyes whatever emotion he was feeling, and to accept responsibility for the choice I had made and what it would mean for his life. Then, just one week after it started, the trial was over, the jury was thanked, then dismissed, and we were out on the Manhattan streets saying goodbye and hailing cabs.