In a city full of victims, who will the jurors be?


In the morning, they gave us a cocaine trial. In the afternoon, a nursing home case. In between, we learned about each other's lives and the thing that binds us in ways we never anticipated.

"We have to ask you a series of questions," said Circuit Judge Kenneth Johnson, peering across this paneled courtroom. His graying head was only partly visible from behind the bench, as though the rest of him had been buried beneath the avalanche of criminal cases collapsing into this building each week.

About 150 of us, summoned for jury duty, were gathered in Johnson's courtroom in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse last Thursday with the city shaking itself off from a miserable frigid rain that had fallen most of the morning.

His questions were designed as a legal filter. They were intended to remove any prospective jurors whose personal experiences might prejudice them against the two young defendants standing with their attorneys, charged with distributing cocaine in West Baltimore: a bearded young man built like a football linebacker and his girlfriend, a diminutive redhead who might have stepped out of a high school yearbook picture.

"Please stand," the judge told us, "if you or anyone in your family has been the victim of a crime."

And then it began to happen: Some women in the middle of the room stood, and then one or two men here and there, and then entire pockets from various areas, all ages and races, until it was everywhere, maybe two-thirds of the room standing, everybody looking at each other, everybody realizing that this crime we've read about in the newspapers, and watched on the evening news, was even bigger than we'd been told.

"I live in Mount Vernon," whispered a Peabody Institute student as the judge began the long, laborious process of picking a jury. "I come downstairs in the morning, and there are always cars with their windows smashed. I came home to my apartment one afternoon, and everything was gone except the cats. They were hiding on another floor. And this is a building with a security guard," the student said.

"I live in Violetville," said a woman who works in a bank. "You don't want people to break into your house, you get yourself a dog. Everybody in the neighborhood knows that. A big dog, with a big bark."

"I live in Charles Village," said a recently retired public school teacher. He began reminiscing about the wonderful years he spent teaching junior high school English, then realized the warmest memories were arriving from a few decades back.

"I love this city," he said. "I don't want to move out of this city. I don't want to, but. . . ."

Nobody had to finish the sentence for him. More and more, we seem a community bonded by fear, joined by our common exposed vulnerability. We think of each other as hardy survivors, or as lunatic holdouts. Suburbia's siren call beckons, but we stay where we are, and sometimes wonder why. That poor soul in the morning paper, that victim on the evening news, it's just a vision of ourselves, past and future.

All who live in the city now find ourselves summoned to jury duty every year or two. The system, constantly coughing up new defendants, needs a continuous assembly line of jurors. But the jurors, increasingly victimized in their own lives, increasingly called into legal action, are decreasingly trusted: too many personal traumas, too many biases carried into the jury room.

That cocaine trial in the morning: Yes, yes, of course they're innocent until proved guilty; we know the drill. But let's not be coy about this; we've all heard the stories, all seen the stereotypes. We will listen to the evidence, those of us chosen to serve, but we will also wrestle with our preconceptions: Do they look like our notions of drug dealers? Can we separate ourselves from our own histories? Can we struggle our way to some semblance of objectivity?

The most painstaking ordeal must be undertaken with each jury, hours of weeding down scores of people to form a single panel of 12 reasonably objective citizens.

But how far off is the day when such a process is no longer possible? How long before the entire jury pool, an entire city of victims wounded by the alleged drug traffickers and the alleged housebreakers and the alleged muggers, arrives with too many biases to remain objective about all allegations?

How long before a judge asks a jury panel, "How many of you have been victimized?" and an entire room lurches to its feet, and no one is left to remain objective?

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