I am sixty one years old, and though I have been called for jury duty twice previously, my first time serving as a juror took place in late August of this year. What I witnessed in the jury room mirrors what has happened in our society.
I feel fortunate to remember a time when America was different. I grew up in Piedmont of North Carolina only a short ride from the Blue Ridge Parkway. My high school years were at McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was a Presbyterian Military School where you ended up walking around the track on Saturday afternoon if your shoes were not shined or your bed not made properly every morning. I was taking an exam there the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I can still remember hitching a ride to the airport to hear Lyndon Johnson speak from the steps of Air Force One.
From McCallie I made my way to Cambridge, Massachusetts and Harvard. My parents did not take me. I got in my car and drove from Mount Airy, NC to Cambridge. I had to spend a night in Connecticut on the way, but that was not a big deal since I had spent three weeks making a 9,000 mile circuit around the US when I was sixteen. My partner on that journey was nineteen years old.
I still remember that first meeting of one of my other roommates. His parents just doubled parked on Massachusetts Avenue, and he hopped out of the car. I think he had a laundry bag of clothes, and that was it. Aside from my car, I had clothes, my electric typewriter, and some records. I guess that was well before the time of helicopter parents. That first year I did not even go home for Thanksgiving. My mother’s only trip to Cambridge was for graduation not quite four years later. My father never made the journey.
It was an interesting time to be at Harvard in 1967. Like most college students in those days, we were trying to figure out who we were and what we really believed. We talked a lot, and it did not take long to learn that if you took a position, you had better be able to defend it with some good arguments and strong logic.
We were well aware of the Vietnam War, but it was not until the spring of 1969 that debate over the Vietnam War took over campus. By that time, we were upperclassmen no longer living in Harvard Yard. We had moved on and were living in Quincy House a few blocks away. We had heard some students had taken over University Hall, but it was inside Harvard Yard and not a huge event at the time. Three or four of us decided to walk up to Massachusetts Avenue and grab a burger at Bartley’s Burger Cottage.
As we turned the corner onto Massachusetts Ave., we quickly noticed a charging wall of Massachusetts State Police. They were swinging billy clubs, and we had little choice but to run. I got caught in the doorway of a shop and took a few hits to my back, but I got away and headed back to Quincy House. We all made it back safely, but they rewarded us with some tear gas. We also heard the universal language of shotgun shells being chambered that evening.
I had come from the South. My life had been church, Boy Scouts, and a Presbyterian Military School. The idea that the government or our university administration might do bad things had not made it to the front of my mind. A few whacks of the billy club got rid of any delusions that I might have had.
That spring was an amazing time of debate. Harvard Stadium was filled as issues were discussed. People took positions all along the political spectrum and defended them with all their wits. It was an exciting time. More than learning to question authority, we learned to question our own opinions and our perceptions of a situation. I know that reality has never been the same to me.
That spring we went home and had some tough discussions with people we loved. Some we talked to had little idea what was really happening in Vietnam. Fortunately for us, the media also did a full court press on getting the Vietnam story across.
If we fast forward to a time over forty years later, I am sitting on a jury in Carteret County, North Carolina. It is a place that I love dearly, and which I think is one of the best places to live on earth. We have just heard a day of testimony on a civil law suit, and the lawyers have just finished a morning of summations. The judge has instructed us, and we have been sent to the jury room.
Most jurors have yet to sit down when an older juror announces to us all that he has made his mind up, and there is nothing any of us other jurors can say or do to change it. A younger lady beside him chimes in with the same thought. It was almost like a virus going through the room. I even found myself saying if that is the way it is going to be, I am not changing either.
I ended up being elected foreman. At someone’s suggestion we had a quick vote. The first vote was nine to three with most of the rest of us disagreeing with the older fellow. We spent a few minutes talking about the evidence and giving anyone who wanted to speak a chance to do so.
It made no difference. Every piece of evidence we discussed with the two who had dug their heels at first became another reason to them why they were right. It really did not matter the points that others brought up, they truly did not want any facts to interfere with their opinions.
The best we did was to get to a ten to two vote. We did come to a consensus that we were a hung jury. I knocked on the door, and the judge called us back into the courtroom and asked us a few questions. In a few minutes we were dismissed. I am pretty certain that justice did not get rendered that day.
I can live with our failure to deliver a verdict in a civil case, but I am not sure that I can live with a country that has become two opposing camps which cannot discuss the issues. Our inability to have a rational debate on some things which we must solve can destroy us.
I have thought a lot about the jurors who were in the minority. If I had to pick reasons why they disagreed with the rest of us, it would be their inability to grasp the big picture. They got stuck in the weeds and clung fiercely to some points that meant little to the rest of us. They could not put the other pieces of the puzzle together. Believing what they had wrapped their arms around was more important than the bigger issue.
Unfortunately, I see a lot of that in our society today. It seems many of our fellow citizens believe that holding true to your position is more important than solving our problems.
I am actually proud that some of my opinions have evolved over time. I would love to engage in a debate with fellow citizens, but if the debate ends up being like my experience with the two obstinate jurors, then I will pass on the opportunity and just remember fondly that there was a time when things were different in America.