Grand Jury (Day 4) – Diversity by decree

Secrecy rules forbid me from telling you specifics about the other six jurors, but I don’t think it hurts anyone to say that we’re a diverse group. In fact, since we stopped drafting people, jury duty might be the only opportunity Americans have to be forced to deal with people very different from themselves and from one another. Celebrating diversity is one thing, being stuck with it is something very different.

Me, I like it, because variety appeals to my frightfully short attention span. If I find the student too predictable, I can shift my focus to the OLCC bureaucrat or the massage therapist or the pizza delivery guy or the campus ministry do-gooder or the diesel-engine repair guy. More than half our members are 25 and below — summer still means freedom and spare time to them. The other three of us are all twice their age. We promise not to bully them with wisdom and they promise not to race us to the bathroom during a break. It’s an uneasy truce, but it seems to be working.

Whenever I start talking, one or two of my fellow jurors seem to find a sudden fascination with their shoe laces, but nobody has been impolite. I imagine after four weeks in close quarters and no air conditioning, one person talking will prompt another person to involuntarily-but-audibly exhale. This is nature’s way of keeping the oxygen level stable in a small room. Anyone who’s been married or raised adolescents can testify to this organic symbiosis.

Six of us are from Eugene, one is from Veneta. Maybe “Veneta” is short for “vendetta,” because our lone non-city juror likes to remind us that “bullets are cheap.” Nobody would doubt that homemade justice is less expensive that the one we’re part of fashioning here. Government can never do it cheaper, but once in a while government can do it better. I suppose we’re there because we believe justice is one of those instances.

Who are we kidding? We’re there doing our “duty” because the people in charge of telling us our duty are different than us — they carry guns. Maybe one or two of us would be there completely voluntarily, but maybe not. The all-volunteer army has not yet come to jury duty. You could fairly ask why, or, even better, ask how jury duty is really different than military service. Both keep the system going, both require a commitment that can be enforced if need be, and both sit atop the “strength in diversity” belief that makes us a unique nation. So why should one be voluntary and the other not? People who know would say they’ve both been voluntary — or, to say it more clearly, both have allowed exemptions for people who cared enough to learn the exemption game.

Be that as it may, our diverse group has been thrown together for a month and I believe we’ll come out the other end understanding a little more about “how the other half lives.” You can look at that two ways. “The other half” might be those who are not law-abiding, and let’s hope it’s less than half. Or it can represent the other six members of the jury. In that case, chances are good, those 6/7 represent way more than half the people out there, but after four weeks, I can still see how they live.

Today we heard testimony from maybe 20 people from a nearby farming community who all had stuff ripped off, maybe all by the same person. They congregated in the hall and swapped chit-chat about these or other theft operations. By the end of their testimonies, I wanted to hand down an indictment to the alleged thief for organizing a parade without a permit, but we weren’t offered that opportunity. For six city folk and one Veneta guy, it was a lesson in the rural life in Lane County. Most of these people knew one another. And most of them wonder each day whether they’ll be ripped off. One farmer told us “I look out the window every morning to see if my stuff has been taken. If it hasn’t, then I know I can go to work.” What he doesn’t say (but we can hear) is that if he doesn’t go to work, that’s not calling in sick; that’s not being able to feed his family. It’s a different world, only 20 miles away.

So diversity, yeah, I’m all for it, but not just the talking-about-it kind, but the dealing-with-it kind. Maybe I would be one of the few who would do this completely voluntarily. I’d like to think so.