New Orleans Criminal District Court

I Accepted the Call to Jury Duty as a Law-Abiding Citizen, Only to Discover I’m a Law-Breaking Citizen

The handheld microphone made its slow way down the rows of the jury box. I was seated on the back row, the next to last. I had plenty of time to think about my answer to the question the lawyer had just asked. My heart pounded — I talk a big game, but actually creating discord makes me break out in hives. With each juror’s succinct, “No problem,” “No,” “Not a problem,” my coming “Yes” grew louder in my ears.

We jurors were in the voir dire portion of a criminal trial. That’s when attorneys ask questions to see if they want you deciding their case. The early questions were innocuous — name, occupation, where you lived in Orleans Parish, that type of thing. I’m sure the current question was designed to be the same: would we as jurors have a problem finding the defendant guilty knowing his charge carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole?

So far, a doctor, lawyer, fast food worker, rabbi, minister, and all the rest had said no, they were cool with the sentence. Finally, I took the microphone. I punched the button on the bottom to amplify my answer — why did the durn microphone cut off when passed from one juror to the next? I took a deep breath, staring into the almost 100-year-old New Orleans courtroom.

“Mandatory sentences are one of the most broken aspects of our criminal justice system,” I said, explaining the answer I was about to give. “They take away the judge’s discretion to weigh the circumstances of each case. When you add life without parole on top of that — mandatory life without parole — yes, I have a problem.”

“But,” the DA said, smooth as buttermilk. “You’d be able to set aside those concerns and do your duty, correct?”

I stared at the man’s moon face. A white man, he was probably younger than his bald head implied. “You’re asking me to participate in creating that system, furthering it. I’m sorry.” I shook my head. “I can’t.”

Pretty clear, right? But when it came time for the defense attorney to talk, he returned to the question.

Only later at home did I learn that Louisiana has some of the harshest life-without-parole sentencing in the country. The laws were slapped in place in 1979 when the state legislature feared the US Supreme Court would permanently ban capital punishment. If the state could no longer kill folks, they would at least lock them away for life without chance of release. But I didn’t know that history when I was seated in the jury box nervously touching the book in my lap. As the defense attorney questioned me, I heard myself saying, “I came to do my civic duty, I want to serve, but perhaps I’m not the right juror for this trial?”

The defense attorney smiled ingratiatingly. “Serving would be hard on you,” he acknowledged. “But surely you would comply with the law?”

I’d been reading the book in my lap for a while. It was chockfull of wisdom, and I was going slow, taking notes as I went. The book, edited by Caits Meissner, was titled The Sentences that Create Us. The book’s subtitle: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison. The authors of the essays, one way or another, knew the carceral system. Many of those quoted in the book were in prison. Serving a life sentence. Without chance of parole.

I imagined myself in the jury room. The lawyers had rested. We jurors were deliberating. “I would be faced with two choices,” I told the defense attorney. “To vote not guilty on a defendant the state had proven guilty, or vote guilty and send the man to prison without chance of parole.

“I can’t cast that vote,” I told the defense attorney, thereby declaring myself in open court to be a law-breaker.

When I walked out of the courtroom for lunch, everyone gave me those short smiles people do when they want to acknowledge you but nothing more. Later, several folks said they were glad I had stuck to my principles.

But if the book hadn’t been hot in my lap, would I have dug in my heels as the authorities repeatedly insisted I was a good person who would follow the law? I don’t know. As it was, I was simply unwilling to betray the writers who were teaching me even as they served their time in prison.

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Ellen Morris Prewitt

Ellen Morris Prewitt

Using humor, race, God, the law, and — if all else fails — logic to understand the American South. More conversations at https://ellenmorrisprewitt.com/blog/