Sunday, July 16, 2017

Jury Duty

Last year I served on the grand jury.  For those who don’t know the difference – when most people think “jury duty”, they imagine getting sequestered for a couple of weeks while attending a single, drawn-out trial.  But the grand jury simply decides which cases go to trial at all.  We would hear about 30 cases a day, over the course of a few hours.  We didn't decide guilt or innocence, just whether or not there was enough evidence that a crime really happened.  The vast majority of the cases we heard did go to trial, but there were a few that we ruled would have been a waste of the court’s time.

I can’t talk about any specific cases.  Well, technically I probably can, as any cases I heard are likely public record by now.  But I’d rather not risk it.  More generally, I saw a lot of examples of just how evil people can be to each other.   Some of the crimes were funny, in a “world’s dumbest criminals” kind of way, but most of them were depressing.  I saw cases of theft, forgery, domestic violence, gang activity, murder, rape, child abuse, and so on.

We also went on a few field trips, and had a few guest speakers.  In order to help us understand just where we’re sending people, we visited a prison.  In order to understand how hard an officer’s job really is, we tried a “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” field training program.  We also got to watch K-9 training, tried on goggles that simulated being drunk, got to meet Nashville mayor Megan Barry, and even rode a helicopter around Nashville. 

The prison was pretty scary.  After going through several checkpoints where we had to surrender all personal items including phones, wallets, and even belts, we visited the building where they kept those who are in for life.  We got to go into a typical cell, which was small and efficient.  One of the inmates (in for murder) spoke to us for a while about his experiences in prison, mostly complaining about how bad the food is.  Then we got to see death row, and we were even allowed to sit in the electric chair. 

I was on the fence about that last one.  Before I sat down, I wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons.  I didn’t want to be one of those callous jerks who makes light of such a serious machine.  I’m not a fan of the death penalty, and sitting in that chair almost feels like an endorsement of the process.  I finally decided to do it because it was probably my only chance ever to do so.  Maybe someday I’ll be glad I had the experience, maybe I’ll even write a story from a condemned inmate’s point of view.  So I made sure to note everything about the room, how the chair felt, and any other details I might want to remember later.

The “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” program was an eye-opener.  They give you a gun or taser, both of which were originally actual weapons that had been converted into harmless training weapons.  Then they show you a first person video of a dangerous situation an officer might face.  These videos had points at which they could branch into separate videos, like those old laserdisc light gun games (“Mad Dog McCree” for instance). 

For example, there was one where you go into a warehouse at night, and encounter a guy who shouldn’t be there.  He’s standing behind a table with a box on it, keeping his right hand behind the box.  He attempts to explain why he’s there, but he’s just talking to keep your attention of his hand.  Then he suddenly pulls his gun-wielding hand out from behind the box and shoots you… sometimes.  Other times it’s the same video, but he pulls out a stapler instead.  Less than half a second passes between the time you can see the gun, and the time he shoots you.  That’s how quickly you have to decide whether to shoot.  Too slow?  You’re dead.  Bad aim?  You’re dead.  Guess wrong?  You’re a murderer.

It really makes you think about how dangerous it is to be an officer, and you find yourself a little more sympathetic towards officers who have accidentally killed innocent people.  It doesn’t excuse a lot of the cases, but at the very least stepping into an officer’s shoes is enlightening.  And, I hate to say it, but it’s fun.  If they released that program as a video game, I’d buy it.

Nashville by Helicopter
The helicopter ride was my favorite part.  I had never ridden a copter before, and I really enjoyed seeing Nashville from that angle.  The copter was open on the sides, so the only thing keeping me in was the harness.  I was allowed to take pictures as long as I used the wrist strap – dropping a camera from that height could be deadly.  This was easily the high point of jury duty, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity.

All in all, I’m glad I was able to serve on the grand jury.  It was emotionally taxing and I don’t like being too familiar with the dark side of Nashville, but it’s something that has to be done.  I even hope I get the chance to do it again someday… but maybe not for a couple of decades.