It is the crazy, beautiful circus at the heart of the American justice system. Listen closely to a criminal trial jury selection and you learn a lot about the burdens, fears, foibles, and remarkable strengths of your fellow citizens. You hear profiles in courage and, from scattered artful dodgers, profiles in convenience. Above all you hear the solemn determination of ordinary folk to be fair.
On Monday morning, the jury pool gathered in Courtroom 18 at the Moakley Courthouse in South Boston, where US District Judge William G. Young presides. Young has an evangelist’s devotion to the jury system. In speeches to new jurors, he always calls it “the most vital expression of direct democracy that exists anywhere on the planet.’’
He patiently explained why this pool of about 50 nervous souls were gathered. A man named Calvin Dedrick had been charged with gun and drug crimes. They alone could decide if he was guilty.
Then it was time to cull the group to 12 jurors and two alternates. Young asked anybody who had doubts about serving to let him know. Prosecutors, Dedrick, and his lawyer huddled with the judge beside the bench, and one by one, the men and women approached. Some had long-planned vacations, and Young excused them. A couple were afraid they’d lose their jobs, and Young gently coaxed them to stay, assuring them the law protects them. A red-haired woman said she had to look after her grandchild, and Young asked her to stay: “I need people from all walks of life.’’
One woman’s husband was a retired FBI agent. “Are you going to favor police witnesses just because of that?’’ Young asked her. “Absolutely not,’’ she said. Young had her remain.
A slight, dark-haired man approached. “I’ve never been to any courts of law in my entire life,’’ he said. “I don’t want to . . . have any enemies in the future, because I have a family to raise.’’ Young explained that he had never seen anybody retaliate against a juror. “So now, let me ask you directly,’’ he continued, “do you think you can be fair here?’’
“Your honor, I would be privileged to stay,’’ the man said. “I will be more than happy to serve my country.’’
A young man in a red shirt had strong antigun feelings. “I have a friend who was killed,’’ he said. Young, loath to let anybody leave lightly, asked if the gun charge itself would prejudice him against Dedrick.
“I couldn’t be unbiased,’’ the man said. Then, turning to Dedrick: “Nothing against you.’’
“No, no problem,’’ the defendant said sweetly. The man was excused.
A gray-haired, apologetic man approached. “On the drugs,’’ the man said. “I basically believe drugs should be’’ – and here he whispered – “legalized.’’ The judge said he had a right to his beliefs, but could he find a man guilty of dealing drugs if the evidence proved it beyond a reasonable doubt? He could, the man said, and he stayed.
Then came a woman who said her family had been victims of a home invasion by an armed black man six years ago. The judge asked whether “those feelings [were] coming back because Mr. Dedrick is black.’’ Yes, the woman said, and she was let go.
When all who wished to speak had done so, the attorneys named those they’d excuse. The prosecution jettisoned the man who wanted to legalize drugs, the defense removed the woman whose husband was an FBI agent, and so on, until seven men and seven women had been settled upon.
It’s fashionable these days to second-guess juries, or to bypass them entirely by shifting power to prosecutors who run the bulk of the criminal system via plea bargains. But hearing them speak, you could understand Young’s great faith in these randomly selected, moderately vetted citizens. “Our whole moral authority depends on the people we’re bringing up here,’’ Young said. In Courtroom 18, that authority was quite sound.Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com