October 18, 2006

The Verdict

2006 1529 page27 capUILTY AS SIN.”
“Not guilty.”
“Not guilty.”
The jury foreman continued his canvass of the jurors around the conference table. Finally with paper and pencil in hand he summed up the total: “Ten votes for acquittal; two against.”
There was absolute silence around the table. Where do we go from here? We were deadlocked. Could those of us in the majority possibly persuade the other two jury members to reconsider? The judge had admonished us that we needed a unanimous vote.

A First

2006 1529 page27I reflected back to the morning we were chosen for duty. This was my first jury experience, and I was fascinated and wide-eyed by everything. That morning in a side room to the court I found the jury pool to be about 30 people. Of this group 12 were to be chosen, with one alternate. We were all called by name and asked some germane questions. As the accepted names were read off I wondered if my answers to the questions would secure for me a place on the jury or knock me off the list. Eleven had been chosen, and I heard my name being called to be juror number 12.

The bailiff, leading the way, ushered us into the courtroom. Our path to the jury box led us directly in front of the spectators, just behind the defendant, his counsel, and the prosecutors.
From my seat, front and far left, I had a commanding view of the courtroom—from the judge to the spectators farthest away. My first glance at the judge told me that his looks must surely be a comfort to the defense. He seemed relaxed, with gray hair and a kind, sensitive face. When we were seated he proceeded to introduce us to the defendant and the four attorneys on the case.
“This is a sexual abuse case,” the judge explained. “And as such it has serious implications.” He admonished us to listen carefully to the arguments and take notes if we wished. As he continued his instructions, I tried to take a measure of the defendant, Mr. Smith.* A serious-appearing middle-aged man, his eyes darted back and forth around the room in what seemed to be a state of panic. And who could blame him, I thought, given the accusations facing him? 

I studied the spectators directly behind the table at which he sat. The blond woman with the tired and drawn face was surely his wife. Anxiety marked her every expression. Two teenagers sat next to her, one on either side. These three, I noticed, exchanged comments with a number of others seated around them, no doubt various family members.
Across the aisle sat only two people—the parents of the plaintiff.

Getting Down to Business

The trial started with opening statements; both sides were convincing. The hours and days slipped by. Like a seesaw, each side had their ups and downs. I hoped and prayed that the jury’s judgment in this case would be just, and not just a shallow, poorly thought-out decision. Many years of a man’s life—not to mention the alleged victim’s—hung in the balance.

2006 1529 page27The final day arrived with the star witness on the stand—10-year-old Johnnie. It was his accusations that had brought on the trial. Johnnie was a well-groomed, polite young man. The events in the case had taken place two years previously. Johnnie spoke with almost habit-like precision, as though he had recited these experiences many, many times. 

But on cross-examination by the defense his concentration seemed to lose focus. He told a story that seemed to have been shaped in his imagination. His words began to ramble as his eyes wandered over the courtroom. Details lost their sharpness and reason seemed to give way to fantasy.

Kindly but firmly the defense counsel asked, “Why, Johnnie, after all this time do you come up with a brand-new story? Why did you wait two years to tell us this one?”
“Well . . . well. . . .” He paused momentarily. Shuffling his feet and looking up at the ceiling he continued, “I guess I just remembered it.”
Closing arguments followed. We were led to the jury room to deliberate. Around the table we all expressed our opinions. Most of us had pretty well made up our minds as the trial progressed; the last exchange between Johnnie and the defense attorney sealed it for many of us.
The jury foreman, a bright, young engineer, tried to bring closure to the debate. But the two opposing jurors were adamant. Three hours, four hours passed. Finally the deadlock broke.
“You haven’t convinced me,” said one, “but we have to come to a decision, so I’ll vote acquittal.” The other one agreed.
The foreman sent word to the judge; we were ready with the verdict. As the courtroom door opened I glanced at the defendant. He held his head in his hands—elbows resting on the table. Next I looked at the family. All eyes were focused on the jury as we passed by in front of them. Their faces reflected fear as they tried to determine by our expressions what the verdict might be.
We took our seats. The foreman handed the judge a piece of paper on which the verdict was written. The room was electric with suspense. Not the slightest sound broke the tension. Then with a slight dramatic flair the judge announced, “The jury finds the defendant not guilty.”

Questions for Reflection

1. What has been your experience with jury duty? Does it seem to you that justice was served?

2. We can’t keep secrets from God. Why then do we feel more comfortable standing before His judgment seat, than before a human court? Or do we?

3. Judgment has both positive and negative aspects. List at least one example of each.

God can forgive us, but He can’t remove the results of our misdeeds. What effects of a past mistake are you still living with? How has God succeeded in removing your guilt?

Suddenly the courtroom exploded with excitement. I couldn’t take my eyes off Mr. Smith and his family. I didn’t want to miss even one moment of the high drama taking place in front of me. First, Mr. Smith turned to thank his counsel, then, running back to his family, he met them halfway. With joy one seldom sees, I saw hugging, kissing, and crying. I turned to look at my friends on the jury. I don’t believe there was a dry eye in the group, including our two friends who held out the longest.

Turning back I watched as the couple who had brought the suit made their way out of the courtroom as quietly as possible. They had to pass by the celebrating crowd, and I am sure it was, for them, a hard experience.
For a few minutes the jury was allowed to just sit and contemplate and to become a part of the celebrating scene. It gave us pause, and time to ponder our own lives, and, if we so chose, the deeper issues of life.
The poignancy of the moment seemed to beg for a spiritual application—an allegory to the drama taking place before us.

Judgment and Justice

The court’s gift to Mr. Smith was a “not guilty” verdict. Being a judgment call of human origin, this side of heaven we’ll never know for sure if it rightly represented the case. But witnessing the joy of that moment one can only guess at the response there will be in the presence of another courtroom scene, one of infinitely more weight and importance. In that symbolic setting all defendants will know and be acutely aware of their guilt. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” wrote the apostle Paul (Rom. 3:23).

With such knowledge, then, where does one find hope, comfort, or encouragement? The apostle wrote, “We will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Rom. 14:10). In this courtroom there will be no human advocate to press for our acquittal. Our only defense rests on the merits of Christ and on our relationship with Him. Because of that relationship with Him we need not fear or panic. As we look forward we can joyfully anticipate hearing the Judge of heaven and earth declare, “I find you not guilty.”
*All names have been changed.
Mary June Flaiz-Wilkinson writes from Yakima, Washington.