Ruth Rosen: Tells about her time on a jury

Historians in the News

Years later, I would tell my friends never to shirk their jury summonses. This is the most democratic experience you’ll ever have, I’d insist.

But when I first arrived at the Alameda County Superior Courthouse, located in what was the gritty area of downtown Oakland in the late 1980s, I had little desire to serve on a criminal trial. I simply assumed that no sane assistant D.A. would accept me as a member of a jury because I was a professor, a Berkeley resident, and a lifelong liberal activist.

Turns out I was wrong. The young assistant D.A., impeccably dressed for success, immediately established that I was a professor of American history at the University of California, as well as a liberal who had lived in Berkeley for decades. I was sure I would be home within the hour. Then, she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “If I can convince you that a person recklessly endangered people driving under the influence of alcohol, would you be willing to convict such a defendant?” I hesitated, thought about it for a long moment, answered truthfully, and said, “Yes, I would do that.”

Suddenly, I was serving on my first trial. As we listened to the witnesses’ testimonies, the evidence was overwhelming. The white-haired, elderly African-American man who now sat in the courtroom casually dressed in mismatched pants and jacket had left a party, driven his truck down a hill, careened across the street, and smashed into a telephone pole. Several neighbors had witnessed the spectacle. When the police arrived, he could not walk a straight line. The breathalyzer test made them wonder how he was able to stand upright. He wasn’t just driving under the influence. He was stone drunk.

As we filed into a stuffy, dim room to discuss the evidence, we sat around a long table that reminded me of the film Twelve Angry Men. But we were not twelve white men. The jury included ten individuals from ethnic and racial minorities. Half of us were women. One man immediately pointed at me and said I should be the forelady because I was a professor and probably knew how to do these things. The rest immediately agreed. I accepted, not sure I really knew “how to do these things.”...

After living with each other for two days, we returned to the jury box with the invisible bonds we had forged inside the jury room. The judge asked if we had reached a verdict. I stood up, looked at the rheumy eyes of the defendant, and reluctantly told the judge that we had indeed reached a unanimous decision.

The judge thanked us with considerable graciousness and, before he dismissed us, he acknowledged how hard this case must have been for all of us.

I had a queasy feeling as I left the courthouse. “He shouldn’t go to prison,” I muttered to myself. “He desperately needs help.” But then I thought of the kids who had been playing on that street and how his truck might have hit one of them instead of a pole.

I had missed a lecture and a seminar that week. But I knew I had been profoundly transformed by this experience. True, I had marched in endless protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and cast votes every year. But I had never experienced democracy in such a direct and profound way. I had sat with eleven other citizens for two days. Together we had wrestled with tough moral and legal decisions, and when we parted, it was with genuine affection and respect.

As I walked down the stairs of the courthouse, the assistant D.A caught up with me. “Why did you risk putting me on a jury?” I asked her. She smiled. “Because I believed you and, the truth is, it was my first trial.”

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