Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Don't Kill the Messenger

Another piece from Married Punks #13, which came out in 1998.

"Don't Kill The Messenger"

I was recently summoned for jury duty, that all important obligation of every citizen over the age of eighteen.  At first, I was kinda thrilled with the whole thing.  I always wanted to experience a trial that I wasn't being tried on.  On the other hand, though, I really couldn't afford to miss work, especially not for a measly five dollars and fifteen cents a day.

I went, though.  I had the next two days off anyway, so what harm could there be?  Chances are I would be dismissed.  After all, I had a septum ring and a Metallica shirt on (I decided against my Religious As Fuck shirt).  Who would want me on a jury?  Not even the "liberals" of Humboldt County, I imagined.

After a lot of wasted time where I constantly cursed myself for not bringing a book or a gun, I was led up a few floors into a very nondescript courtroom.  The case was something I was familiar with.

In January of 1997 a Native American, who was wanted by the five-o, was captured, but not without a fight.  He got into some sort of altercation, which ended up with him facing charges of attempted murder of a police officer (too bad it just wasn't murder), assault of a police officer (that's better), attempted murder (not so hot in my book) and assault.

I was seated, along with a gaggle of other people, in the gallery, while others, who had been there since the day before, were seated in the jury box.  Those were potential jurors.  Where I sat was for people waiting for their chance to be called into the box via a lottery system.  The only lottery I care about is one where I collect a big fat check, but that's a different story.  I had to wait, minus a huge check, until my name was called.

Before any names were called, however, we were told that we were to decide this case, if chosen, based on law, evidence, common sense and experience.  We were also told not to be biased.  This was odd.

Biases are a form of opinions.  Opinions are formed by a few different things.  Two of which are common sense and experience.  (Two others are religion and ignorance.  Facts rarely play a part in forming opinions, unless those facts already conform to the established opinion.  Otherwise, they are conveniently ignored.  This isn't necessarily true of opinions that aren't very important to the holder, but it is true of the pertinent ones.)  Now, how are jurors to judge a case based on common sense, which is an oxymoron when it comes to people, and experience, but not form or use any sort of bias?  Impossible.  Already I saw that the jury system is set up to bring forth not a jury of peers, but a jury of opinionless people, which almost automatically makes them dull, middle class and white, and without much education, but plenty of menial job experience.  A jury of peers?  I don't think so.  It's more like a jury of soap opera fans and people highly entertained by whatever is on television between the hours of eight and ten at night.

With this in mind, I thought back to my experiences with the police. Not too many of them were favorable.  I also thought back to a paper I wrote on political prisoners in America (maybe to see print in this 'zine someday).  I know that authority sometimes made up evidence to get a conviction, and that charges such as "attempted murder of a police officer" were common, but not always truthful.  A gun being fired anywhere near a cop could be considered that, regardless of the intent of the shooter.

I started to wonder how I was going to say this in front of a judge if I had the pleasure of being called forth to do my duty.  So far, every person that had a bias was biased in favor of the police.  Not a one said they didn't trust the cops.  One even said, "If a cop says it, I tend to believe it."

Most of these people were dismissed.

I figured that was good.  A blatant bias like that can't be good.

The day ended without a full jury being picked, so I had to come back the next day.  Oh joy.  Needless to say, the worry lingered on.  What if I tainted the whole jury with what I had to say?  That would really screw up the works.  Normally, that would be appealing to me, but I knew that half of these people didn't want to be there either.  I didn't want to be the cause of half a week of wasted time for them.  The next day couldn't come fast enough.

When it did arrive, I found myself back in the gallery.  This time wearing a Daredevil shirt.  I figured, with the gallery dwindling down, my chances to be called into the juror section were fairly good, so I didn't want to seem too disrespectful.

The gallery got smaller, and I still wasn't picked.  This was looking good.  Less and less people were being dismissed.  One guy, a lawyer who looked more like a pot farmer (this being Humboldt County, he could've been both) even expressed a distrust of police!  Hurray!  I wasn't the only one.

"Well," he said, "I know that the police have a job to do, so you have to take that into account."

He was dismissed, and the entire potential jury got to hear that.  What I was going to say was going to be a little worse, though.  No, a lot worse.

"Brunell," the clerk read.

I got up and sat in the front row, directly in front of the judge.  I began to sweat.  I was hoping for an earthquake, a power outage, armed men to come in shouting, "Viva la Anarchy," and shooting the judge. Anything.

It was my turn, and I answered the usual questions.  Then the big one came.

"Mr. Brunell, is there anything that could possibly cause you to be biased if you were chosen for this case?"

Deep breath.  "Actually, there is.  In 1988, '89, I was accused of attempted manslaughter of a police officer."

Normally, when people answered these questions there were other potential jurors coughing or fidgeting.  Not this time.  Dead silence.  I could feel every eye in the place on me, boring holes in the back of my head with laser-like precision.  The judge was even silent.  I knew it.  I fucked up.  I should've kept my mouth shut.  Tight.

"I take it that your experience wasn't very good," the judge noted.

"It was pretty far from good.  I didn't do it.  It was a lie."  For those who don't know the whole story, it involves and egg, a cop, a car chase, a high speed accident, inflated charges, lying, possible jail time and some heavy fines.  It's not as bad as what the charges made it out to be, though.

"Was this brought to trial?" the judge asked.

"No.  It was resolved that night.  It was dropped to a disorderly conduct charge."

More silence while the judge contemplated having me killed.

"Based on that, do you think you could be unbiased in this case?"

Was he serious?  "Well," I said, "if it were only that experience, yes, but I've had plenty of bad experiences with the police.  And, from research for various articles, I know that police often make up charges against people.  Not every police officer is a liar, but enough are that every one of them must be suspect."

Did I just say that?  Was I looking for trouble?  I promised to shoot myself in the head later.  Now I had to finish this.

"Do you think Mr. X [my name for the man accused] would want you on the jury?" the judge asked.

Your damn right he would, your honor.  After I get him off, he and I would compare notes.  It would be a meeting of the newly formed Kop Killer Klub.  Membership is one bloody badge.  "I don't know what Mr. X is thinking," I said, "but I know that the D.A. wouldn't be too happy with me.  I mean, when I heard the charges yesterday I thought, 'Yeah, right.  And what did the cops do?'"

Again with the silence, and then, "I think Mr. Brunell, that I'll dismiss you.  I think you would make a fine juror on a different case though.  Please go down to the Jury Office to find out if they have something for you."

I got up, every eye still on me (maybe they thought I'd try to kill them on my way out), and went toward the door.  As I approached it, it opened and there stood a law enforcement officer.

I just knew that the judge pressed some button on the underside of his desk.  It was probably red and marked "Subversive."  I was caught, but I prepared myself to run if he made a grab for me.

He didn't.  He had to tell something to the bailiff, and I went downstairs unmolested.

Mr. X was found guilty on a few of the charges, but not attempted murder of a police officer (surprise).  The trial lasted longer than the judge said it would, but I don't know if it was because they had to start over with the jury due to my little exposé on the cops.

I came out of the whole thing feeling pretty good, though.  I stayed my ground, even in the face of a judge and a potential jury that seemed fairly pro-cop.  I definitely was the minority there, and, if anyone has ever had that sort of experience, you know how hard it is to stay true to what you believe in when the situation is like that.  It's easy to stick to your guns surrounded by friends and allies, but not too easy when you're surrounded by the enemy and its followers.  But that's when it's most vital to do so.  Strength in the face of adversity is true strength.  I could've stayed silent, and probably still would've been dismissed.  Instead, I laid a little truth on the justice system that day, and that's something it isn't used to.

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