“We, the jury, find the defendant, NOT GUILTY.” As the foreperson for the jury, I had the responsibility to read the unanimous verdict that my fellow jurors and I had arrived at after deliberating behind closed doors for almost an hour . The defendant, standing next to his attorney, was obviously relieved and his family began to shed tears of joy. An ordeal that began for this man five months prior, with his arrest for driving under the influence of drugs, ended when a jury of his peers found him not guilty of the crime for which he had been charged.
My involvement in the case really began when I received a jury summons in March, the same month that the defendant was arrested. Little did either of us know that our paths would cross on this fateful day in late August. As a former attorney, I have a great love and respect for the law and the courts. While our American system of justice is not perfect, I believe our legal system, especially for those accused of a crime, is the best in the world, bar none! I had never been summoned for jury duty before. And, even though I knew the odds of a lawyer-turned-pastor actually being picked to serve on a jury were remote, I was nonetheless excited to just have the opportunity to serve. But, I almost missed my chance. Again!
My jury panel, a group of about 40 people, is scheduled for jury duty on select Thursdays over a six month period, from April 1 — September 30. The night before our jury panel is scheduled to appear, we must call the Magistrate Court to listen to a recorded message to confirm whether or not we are needed for that particular day. Last Thursday, I received a letter in the mail from the Court informing me that I had not shown up for jury duty on Tuesday. I was mortified. This must be a mistake. I only have jury duty on Thursdays. I went back to my office and reviewed the paper calendar that I had received from the Clerk of Court’s office, only to discover that I had missed the Tuesday jury service. In disbelief, I wrote a letter to the judge to explain my absence and ask that he not hold me in contempt of court.
Fast forward to Thursday, August 26, 2010. At 8:55 a.m., I was talking to my mom on the phone when it suddenly hit me that I had not called the court the night before to check if I needed to show up for jury duty. Frantically, I got off the phone, jumped in the car and headed straight for the courthouse. On the way, I prayed that the judge would excuse my tardiness. As I arrived at the courthouse at 9:02 a.m., the parking lot was full. I hurried into the building, only to discover that there were only a few people waiting in the lobby. I just knew that I was late and that all the prospective jurors were already inside the courtroom being questioned by the attorneys. As I walked up to the clerk’s window, I asked if Panel III was scheduled for today. “Yes,” she said, but before my heart could sink, she uttered what were the most wonderful words I could have heard that morning. “Please sign in at the front and have a seat. We’ll be ready to start at 9:30.” I was 25 minutes early. Thank you, Lord, for Your mercy and grace!
Finally, at about 9:30 a.m., we were all ushered into the courtroom for voir dire (questioning by the State’s Attorney and the Defense Attorney). Each of us had a pre-assigned seat in the gallery. As the bailiff told pointed to the front row, aisle seat, I began to think that there might be a reason for the particular seating arrangement. After about 30 minutes of questioning to determine which potential jurors should be excused and which ones should be considered for service on this trial, we were all told to wait in the lobby until the attorneys had picked the jury members.
Waiting to hear who would be called, I thought that perhaps my front row seat would be advantageous. Sure enough, the first name called was mine. Even though the odds of my serving were slim to none, on this day I was destined to serve. I don’t think things happen by accident or coincidence. I was called to serve on this particular jury pool for this particular trial on this particular day.
After listening to the opening arguments, direct and cross-examination of the State’s witnesses and the Defense’s witnesses, closing arguments, and the Judge’s jury instructions, the five other jurors and I retired to the jury room to deliberate whether the defendant was guilty or not guilty. After an hour, we arrived at a unanimous verdict of not guilty. In the end, we concluded that the State had not met its burden to prove the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.
As the Judge thanked us for our service, we filed out of the courtroom, discharged from our jury duty. What a humbling experience. I may never have the opportunity to serve on another jury, but on this day, I had the privilege to fulfill one of the greatest civic responsibilities we have as Americans. The presumption of innocence and the right to a jury trial are some of America’s greatest constitutional safeguards to our liberty. I’ve always believed that. Now I know it in a personal way. And, I wouldn’t trade my day as a juror for anything in the world!