by Megan Burbank
In response to outrage over Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal earlier this month, President Biden was among many voices insisting that “[t]he jury system works, and we have to abide by it.” The day of Rittenhouse’s acquittal, Twitter was flooded with posts urging people upset by the verdict to embrace jury duty as a solution.
I understand where this sentiment comes from. I also used to think the jury system worked — that taking on your civic duty with systemic inequity in mind could help mitigate injustice.
Until I actually served on a jury.
Almost two years ago, I sat at a table in a small, windowless room adjacent to one of the courtrooms at King County Superior Court in downtown Seattle. I was one of 12 strangers serving on a jury for a murder trial. We had just rendered the verdict. It had been read out loud, and the kind bailiff, who had stocked our jury chambers with board games and Halloween candy, had ushered us back into the tiny, cramped space, where we were told to wait for the judge.
It had been a guilty verdict. Deliberations had taken a day and a half after months away from our usual routines, months spent seated in the jury box, scribbling on lined paper in court-issued three-ring binders as the worst moments of several people’s lives were described for us from the stand.
When I’d gotten my jury duty summons in the mail that October, I had been curious and even excited, in the insidious way of so many white women who have had few — and mostly benign — experiences with the law. When I reported to the courthouse, I thought I’d be dismissed for being a journalist and back at work that afternoon. Instead, I was empaneled. I wouldn’t return to the newsroom until December, and on the few days I had away from court, I went to work with trepidation, hoping I wouldn’t stumble onto any coverage of the case.
The trial felt interminable, and then, after Thanksgiving, it abruptly came to an end. The slow seconds we spent sitting in the box, verbally assenting to the verdict one by one in front of the judge and a crowded courtroom, are seared into my memory among the worst moments of my life. To serve as a juror rendering a guilty verdict is to commit the speech act that takes away someone’s freedom.
It physically hurts to do this. And it should.
I didn’t feel this way because I thought we’d made the wrong decision. The killing had been caught on surveillance video; this was not an ambiguous case. I felt this way because a defendant in a case like the one I had served on never had the same chance for freedom that someone like Kyle Rittenhouse does. I knew this in the abstract before I served on a jury. I knew it in my body after.
When the judge finally entered the chamber after the verdict, I remember being surprised at how small she was, disarmed by her sensible shoes, her delicate glasses. She had seemed so much bigger in the courtroom. But standing just a few feet away, she looked tired, ordinary. She thanked us for our service and gave us certificates of completion and slips of paper referring us to Harborview’s Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress if we needed to talk to someone after what we’d just been party to.
“Being a Juror can be Stressful,” read the well-intended if inadequate flyers, listing possible stressors of jury duty as “Hearing about or seeing details of crimes,” “Hearing about or seeing the impact of crimes on witnesses,” and “Answering questions about personal experiences with crime.”
This is an accurate description of jury duty. It can be stressful. But over the next few months, when I thought about the trial, I wasn’t fixating on the upsetting autopsy photos I’d seen or remembering the sadness I’d felt for the victim. I was thinking about what it felt like to participate in a performance of accountability in a system that could not ensure equal justice. I was thinking about how, when I’d looked into the case after it ended, I’d found out that one of the families involved had given up their life savings to hire an attorney.
I joked to my friends that I felt like a cog in the big, ugly machine of the carceral state — that jury duty had kind of ruined my life for a few months. But it wasn’t funny.
I didn’t find more precise language for what I was feeling until I encountered the phrase “moral injury” several months later. Originally used to describe the mental state of soldiers, a moral injury occurs when “someone does something that goes against their beliefs,” according to Sonya B. Norman, Ph.D., and Shira Maguen, Ph.D., of the National Center for PTSD. “Moral injury is the distressing psychological, behavioral, social, and sometimes spiritual aftermath of exposure to such events.”
In a war zone, moral injury can result from killing or hurting other people and from having “to make decisions that affect the survival of others.”
Every day, jurors are asked to make decisions that affect the survival of others, and it is impossible to make a choice like that within a system that can’t ensure fairness — and isn’t intended to.
Even if a defendant is clearly guilty, a terrible cognitive dissonance emerges when you’re asked to take part in a process that sends someone to prison for a very long time and you don’t believe it will do anything to mitigate the circumstances that led to their crime. In my case, this dissonance was compounded by the knowledge that the defendant did not have the resources of someone like Kyle Rittenhouse or Brock Turner and would not receive the grace often extended to young white men who do despicable things. Both situations are symptomatic of a justice system that doesn’t work — not for victims, not for perpetrators, and not for jurors.
So every time a verdict like Rittenhouse’s comes down, I remember its shadow: that day two years ago. The guilt was clear. There was video evidence. We followed instructions. We did what was asked of us within the system as it exists. I will regret it for the rest of my life, but at the time, I thought I was doing the right thing.
I suspect the jurors in the Rittenhouse case think that they did, too.
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Megan Burbank is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Before going full-time freelance, she worked as an editor and reporter at the Portland Mercury and The Seattle Times. She specializes in enterprise reporting on reproductive health policy, and stories at the nexus of gender, politics, and culture.
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