My Brush with Criminal Justice

“If I had to hear the word fingering one more time, I’d slit my throat,” said one of the jurors as we sat in the jury deliberation room after we had given our decision to the judge.

The jury deliberation room at the Sonoma County courthouse was just big enough for exactly 12 chairs around a table. It had a coffee pot but no coffee. It had two toilets but no one, not even the man who obviously had to go, would use them. You imagined that everyone would be able to hear the tinkle.

In my 70th year I finally was chosen as a juror. I’d gotten as far as the jury box several times in San Francisco but was always rejected. One time I was asked if I’d ever been a member of the ACLU. “Yes,” I huffed. “A proud card-carrying member.” Dismissed.

Unlike most people, I’ve always wanted to be on a jury. I’ve always thought I’d make a great juror. It seems like the very heart of democracy to me. When I said this to my brother Don, he told me he’d spent his life trying to avoid juries. He objects to participating in a system that sends people to jail. I hadn’t considered this but it seemed like a good point. My enthusiasm was only slightly dampened.

I am new to Sonoma County and this was my first trip to the courthouse, on Administration Road. The architecture is sixties-ish—boxy concrete buildings with a square courtyard.

Sonoma County courthouse

When you first report for jury duty, you are all herded through metal detectors at the entrance into a large waiting room where you check in with the clerk and watch a video explaining the process of jury duty. Then prospective jurors are summoned to various courtrooms. My number was called and I followed directions to a courtroom on the second floor. I had gotten as far as the jury selection process.

The players introduced themselves. The judge was a handsome young man with a full head of hair. Inscrutable. The prosecutor was a no-nonsense blond pageboyed woman who favored suits with skirts and long jackets. Businesslike. The defendant’s attorney was a gray-haired diminutive old guy whose suits looked as if they came from Goodwill. Endearing. During the screening process they asked your occupation, whether you had adult kids, your partner’s occupation, how long you’d lived in Sonoma County. We had a construction group, a medical group, a tech group. Several worked for Kaiser hospital. 

We were told that the case was about sexual assault. A young woman had brought charges against her fiancé for fingering her and photographing her body while she was in a deep sleep. We were asked if relatives or friends were cops, if we had been victims of rape, if we would be prejudiced in any way. A friend of mine told me that she had been on a jury in a rape case. They’d had trouble finding a jury of the unraped.

One prospective juror admitted that she was planning to see Hamilton with the prosecutor on the weekend but felt she could still be fair. Dismissed. One woman appeared so distraught that she could not even voice her feelings. Dismissed.

I was pretty sure, looking as I do wearing the uniform (flannel shirt, Kuhl hiking pants) and hair (short) of a radical lesbian feminist, I’d never get on a jury about sexual assault. But for the first time I was not dismissed. 

We jurors were half men, half women, of varied ages, all white. No names were used; the judge referred to us by the numbers we’d been assigned. I learned the name of only one other juror, Kim. In the course of the week-long trial we got to know each other at breaks, though it seemed sinful somehow, like total anonymity was required for true resolution. Of course we never discussed the trial as per instructions.

In the courtroom the words penis, hand job, vagina, blow job, oral sex and fingering had been thrown around with obvious unease.

“Do you know where the clitoris is?” Asked the prosecutor of the defendant. “Is it on the inside or the outside?”  

On the stand, the young woman was a credible witness, I thought. Her boundaries were clear. As a requirement of the Purity movement, she and her fiancé had publicly pledged to avoid sex until marriage.

What I knew about the Purity movement: it was big in the 90s and lately some of its early proponents had been renouncing it and leaving evangelicalism altogether. Advocates of extreme abstinence believe women should be subservient to fathers and then husbands. Purity also extends to vanquishing impure thoughts. The movement promotes shame and sexual ignorance, especially among young women, although men are also supposed to remain virgins until they marry. Children raised in this culture tend to wrestle with shame and guilt and often have difficulty maintaining healthy adult relationships.

But this couple’s interpretation of purity included everything except penis in vagina intercourse. I couldn’t help but think of the song “Fuck me in the ass for Jesus.”

The plaintiff said at first she didn’t want to bring charges but later decided she wanted to prevent this from happening to other women the defendant might date. 

The woman’s girlfriend and roommate also took the stand and I was again impressed at the poise of this 20-something. But my favorite testifier was the female police officer who investigated the case and made the arrest. Extremely calm. No facial expression. A young woman, she wore her straight brown hair in a perfect round bun at the base of her skull. 

“How does she get her hair to do that?” I asked Kim during break. Kim said she saw an ad on TV for a device that does it.

In this case, while cell phone photos had been deleted, a taped conversation called a pretext call provided incriminating evidence. The cop explained the pretext call. The cooperative victim or a witness to the act makes a telephone call to the suspect, with the police recording the call. The victim or the witness will attempt to engage the suspect in conversation about the sex offense to get it on tape. For the police to record such a call is legal, although in general recording a phone call without the consent of both parties is illegal. 

My new friend Kim was an alternate and so she disappeared after the trial as we were led out of the courtroom. I was glad she’d have time to make it to her parent-teacher conference in Petaluma.

In the jury deliberation room, we elected our foreman, a retired teacher and the eldest among us. The judge’s instructions reminded us that this was a criminal case, which requires a unanimous decision and that our decision must reflect the law, no matter what we personally thought. Representing the boomer generation, I was thinking of all the naked pictures I have taken of lovers while they were sleeping. When we were young we took lots of naked pictures. But of course we didn’t have cell phones and photos didn’t rest in the cloud.

“Don’t ever take naked pictures of me when I’m sleeping,” said my wife when I told her about the trial afterward.

“It’s so interesting to learn what the law is,” I said to the jurors. The law had changed since I was young, when sexual assault was not taken seriously. But was this sexual assault?

“Yeah, they should teach us about it in school,” said a young man with a nervous laugh.

There were abbreviated attempts to psychologize the players. How did the credo of the Purity movement contribute to the victim mentality? 

“But why did she bring charges against her fiancé?” said one juror, disgusted at having to use up her vacation time to decide what she considered a frivolous case.

“There’s more to the story,” said another. “She only filed charges after he started dating someone else.”

A general sense of distaste pervaded the room. We all took our job as jurors seriously but it was hard to take this case seriously. Should this really be a criminal matter? How does it make sense for the cops to be involved? Could this be a job for restorative justice or mediation, I wondered. What if some of the funding that goes to police could be diverted to programs to resolve cases like this one?

We only discussed the case briefly before coming to consensus. Not guilty of the charge of battery. Guilty of the charge of photographing a person’s body for sexual pleasure without their consent.

When the jury deliberation room door opened and we were let out, I hated to leave my fellow jurors so abruptly. Judging others had brought us closer. I wanted to hang out with them, maybe go have a beer. But no one was asking and besides I had to get home and delete some pictures.

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