For six days at the end of January, I got a refresher in Civics 101 — otherwise known as jury duty.
When the summons arrived right before Christmas, my wife made me come to look at it. "You got something in mail," she called from the other room as though I'd received some unexpected present from a far-off relative. My response included not a hint of holiday cheer. It was the third time I'd been selected and the second in just a few years.
But still, I showed up at 8 a.m. at the Justice Center on a Monday morning with a few hundred others hoping my name wouldn't be called. And by midmorning, I was part of a jury pool being assigned to the 22nd floor for a trial: aggravated murder. As the judge read the charges, the words hung over the courtroom with a weight that sat heavy on every nerve. The judge knew it. The lawyers knew it. They'd been through this. So as the prosecutor evaluated us, she asked about our jobs, our backgrounds, our kids. "Have you ever had to resolve a dispute between your children?" she'd ask. "How do you make a decision?" The message seemed clear: You've done this before. If you can use those same skills here, that's all we're asking.
Our 12 jurors were rather typical: five men, seven women; two black, 10 white; a chef, a political consultant, an office manager, a teacher, everyday folks in their 20s to their 60s. For five days we heard from eye witnesses, crime-scene investigators, detectives, medical examiners and the defendant himself.
On television, trials are neat and tidy; justice takes less than an hour. High-profile cases such as the Eric Garner and Michael Brown proceedings in New York and in Ferguson, Missouri, make us question whether the entire system is broken beyond repair. Even here, the case of Dorothy Brown's murder remains unsolved after more than 15 years and the man wrongly convicted still awaits full exoneration.
Our trial wasn't perfect either. The prosecutor frequently referred to the victim by the wrong name, a witness got up from the stand to challenge the defense attorney and attempts to use Google Street View on a large touch-screen board were awkwardly painful.
But in the jury room, our panel was amazing: courteous, open-minded, rigorous, thoughtful. Each person came to a decision on his or her own. Their work changed me. I'm proud to have fulfilled my duty, hopeful that such effort exists in other areas of government and appreciative of what truly was a gift.