From a distance, the county courthouse in Plymouth more resembles a corporate headquarters than a seat of justice. Its muted mix of glass, steel, and brick betrays no hint of the emotions that reverberate inside. Grieving victims seek a reckoning, estranged business partners lob allegations, parents tangle over money and kids. Most people come here only because they have to.
On a recent Monday, that included me, one of about 100 sour-faced citizens summoned for jury service. The case on the docket involved a 35-year-old man charged with driving into stalled traffic at nearly 90 miles an hour while high on narcotics. The crash left a woman dead and her daughter gravely hurt. For the next week and a half, the proceedings would dominate my days, infiltrate my sleep, and recalibrate the way I viewed a civic obligation that often loses comparisons with dental surgery.
In the jury pool room, we were shown the obligatory orientation video. It featured fluttering flags, a swelling soundtrack (subtitled “dramatic music”), and a pep talk from Kimberly S. Budd, chief justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. “Those who have an opportunity to serve as jurors by and large feel very good about the important work they have done,” she said. Then we waited. In most instances, that’s what jury service is: a seemingly interminable wait to be dismissed. Trials are relatively rare, because most cases end in plea deals or other settlements.
Eventually, we were paraded down the hall to Superior Court, filing into our seats like reluctant churchgoers. Judge Diane C. Freniere estimated it would take up to seven days to work through the witness list. Muted groans followed. She posed a series of questions aimed at red-flagging prospective jurors with issues that might hinder their ability to render a fair verdict. Among them: Do you agree that under the Constitution, a person is innocent until proven guilty? About a half dozen people indicated no. Even more had a problem with the right of a defendant to not take the stand. Were these objections calculated attempts to get booted or a symptom of a democracy so poisoned by lies and divisions that even its basic tenets have become optional? Either way, it seemed that winnowing this crowd to 12 impartial people would be a challenge. My initial reluctance to participate turned to alarm. Now, I wanted to be one of the chosen dozen. Better me than some of them, I thought.
Next, another wait while we were led off one-by-one to be interviewed by the judge and attorneys. Minutes piled into hours. Grumbling and speculation broke out.
“If there’s a positive alcohol test, I don’t need to hear anything else.”
“Why wouldn’t he testify?”
“I don’t have time for this.”
“Dear God, some people are wearing sandals.”
I stared at the back of the middle-aged man in front me. What made him decide to wear a “Laid back and living salty” T-shirt to court? Another man lapsed into gale-force snoring. These are not the peers I would want deciding my fate, I thought. Almost everybody appeared to be white. So was the defendant, but what if he wasn’t? Jury pools are assembled at random, which sounds fair in theory, but can play out like a bad hand of cards for someone facing punishment.
There are, of course, legitimate hardships that might prevent someone from being able to serve. For starters, employers are only required to pay an employee for the first three days of jury duty. After that, the state doles out a measly $50 per day. But most of the people mouthing off simply sounded inconvenienced.
When my time came to be quizzed, Freniere asked whether I had read about the accident. (I had, but couldn’t recall the details.) She said I would need to resist my journalist’s urge to research the case. A few minutes later, I was Juror #6. By the next morning, there were 14 of us, with two to later be designated as alternates. We sat around a conference table, an even split of men and women ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s. None of the democracy doubters had made it past Freniere. There was jittery small talk as we lined up to return to the courtroom, this time to sit in the jury box. I felt the heaviness of the moment. A life had been extinguished, others permanently reconfigured. We had to get this right. Testimony came from state troopers, a firefighter, the ER doctor, a blood lab technician, an accident reconstruction specialist, witnesses at the scene, and the daughter whose mother had died beside her.
During recesses, we shared snippets about our lives, capsule reviews of TV series, and, on one morning, a home-baked loaf of chocolate banana bread. We steered clear of the case, which became harder with each day as our heads filled with more details and questions. Following closing arguments, the judge announced that Juror #6 would be the foreperson. Me. Mostly, that meant making sure everyone had a say, and that we adhered to the evidence, not our gut instincts.
After six hours of deliberations, we reached a decision: Guilty on three counts, including manslaughter, and not guilty on three others related to being under the influence of narcotics. As the foreperson, it was my job to announce each verdict as the clerk read the charges aloud. With the first “not guilty,” I heard gasps from the gallery.
For the 12 of us, it was five minutes of acute tension followed by near instant relief. A group of strangers, collectively unenthusiastic at the start, had put their summer routines on hold to mete out justice as best we could. Despite the awful circumstances that brought us together, it felt gratifying. Chief Justice Budd was on to something.
Since 2016, trust in the nation’s judicial system has eroded, undermined by political agendas and nutty conspiracy theories. That makes shoring up the foundation more critical than ever. Yes, the system is flawed — stained by a history of ingrained disparities — but jurors can make a difference, one case at a time. If you’re called to serve, go with a better attitude than I did. Bring an open mind and maybe a strong cup of coffee. No flimsy excuses, no whining, and no sandals. Democracy depends on it.
Mark Pothier is a Globe editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.