Weighing Justice With a Jury of Her ‘Peers’

While serving as foreperson on a grand jury, Susana Morris confronts power and privilege in the criminal justice system.

Susana Morris | Longreads | September 2017 | 20 minutes (4,997 words)

I received the notice for jury duty with mild annoyance. I hoped I wouldn’t get picked as I put the date of the summons on my calendar. I thought about how jury duty would throw me off my work schedule; how I didn’t want to participate in this particular part of civic life in small town Alabama; how I didn’t want to help someone, probably another Black person, go to jail.

But I didn’t spend too much time worrying. It was summertime and the date, during a week in the middle of September, seemed an unpleasant blip on the road far ahead. I pushed it out of my mind and tried to enjoy the remaining pieces of a waning summer in my sleepy southern town.

Eventually the summer break gave way to the fall semester, though the weather stayed oppressively muggy. Living in a college town where God and football are rivals for people’s undying devotion meant there was also an air of jubilance and anticipation everywhere. I care little for football and even less for their God, so I did not have much to look forward to except the return of my regular paycheck and the eventual end of sultry weather. Otherwise, the date of my summons — September 12th — loomed unpleasantly before me.

***

It was 2011, the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. The decade had rushed by impossibly fast, but there it was, on the news and emblazoned in public memory like an unwanted tattoo. I had been a college senior when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened and now here I was, a grownup with a job. Maybe it was growing up with my mother always reminding us that “the days are being shortened for the sake of God’s elect” — those chosen for salvation — plus our being unaware of the day or the hour of God’s return, but even though I was scared, I was not shocked about terrorism on American soil. Or maybe it was having grown up in Caribbean immigrant communities where America was loved more pragmatically than patriotically. Curiously, when I moved to the white, rural South in 2007, far away from New York, D.C., and the Pennsylvania field where the third plane went down, there seemed to be more anger, more panicked rhetoric about terrorism and violence than in my hometown of Fort Lauderdale. At first it didn’t make sense. What would terrorists want with a state in which memories of the Confederacy were wistful and sweetly savored? Still, on the tenth anniversary, there didn’t seem to be any commemorations in town, aside from faded t-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming, “These colors never run,” and “Never forget.”

On September 12th, dread bloomed in my stomach as I made my way to the Justice Center. I was a ball of anxiety: nervous about missing work, nervous about jury duty, nervous about the specter of another terrorist attack. I didn’t think anyone was coming for me in Alabama, but I feared that if some tenth anniversary massacre happened it would be Black and Brown people who’d suffer and be handed the blame.

I received the notice for jury duty with mild annoyance. I thought about how jury duty would throw me off my work schedule; how I didn’t want to help someone, probably another Black person, go to jail.

The Justice Center is a series of large buildings at a busy intersection, directly across from a bank and kitty-corner from a sprawling mall. Not exactly where I imagined finding a county jail and court offices, but it sort of made sense. The Justice Center had the appearance of a business like so many of the other businesses that surrounded it. I parked and made my way inside. Dozens of solemn, dutiful citizens milled around, waiting to hear our fates. Everywhere, white men in khaki uniforms barked orders.

“Stand in line, single file!” “Walk through the metal detector!” “Open your purse!” “Lift up your arms!”

All of a sudden I was not a 30-year-old college professor with her own apartment and car and independence and freedom. I was a child again, being told where to move, sit, and stand. I tried to shake off that feeling as we were ushered up the stairs and informed that the penalty for leaving the building without being properly vetted was getting arrested. We were being considered for a grand jury, and more than 12 of us would be picked.

There were 30 or 40 of us who eventually made it to a room to be questioned. After a while, we were separated and made to answer a series of questions. Did we live in the county? Had we served on a jury before? Did we know anyone involved in a case or in the courthouse?

Yes, I lived in the county, I said. No, I never served on a jury. Yes, I think I do know someone here.

I have this thing where I remember faces but not names. I used to pride myself on being able to remember everything from my childhood — even the horrible things. I would joke that I had a cast iron stomach and a mind like a steel trap. Unlike folks who could float up towards the ceiling and disappear when terrible things happened, it seemed as if I would become even more present in my body, and then my mind had the nerve to replay painful, shameful moments over and over and over again that night like a perverse broken record. Or, my mind would morph these memories into the strangest dreams of me falling, getting lost, or being killed. Well, the cast iron stomach is definitely of yesteryear and the steel trap is somewhat rusty or perhaps even unhinged. Not unlike the rest of me.

As I have gotten older, the past has become increasingly fuzzy and indistinct like a Monet up close; the details are less distinct but the feelings, the experiences conjured, remain. Having lived in five different states means that sometimes I can’t remember where I’ve met someone. And after over a decade of teaching, students run together in my mind as an amalgamation of benign white faces with faded novelty t-shirts, baseball caps, and Uggs. The ones that stand out are either terrible or lovely.

That day in the Justice Center I remembered a person. Well, his face anyway. He was blond and small, with a pinched expression like a startled possum. He was an unremarkable student in my class, maybe even below average. But he was a recent student. I remembered him. I thought maybe he was there with his lawyers because he had committed a crime.

“I know this young man here.” My voice was not my own. I spoke in a quavering whisper. “He’s one of my former students. We’re supposed to say if we know someone, right?”

At once, everyone in the room laughed. I saw their heads thrown back and their sharp, pointed teeth. I froze. Oh my God, I thought. I’ve said the wrong thing. It was an excruciating moment that stretched out as if I was being drawn and quartered. I wanted to turn around, run, disappear, or maybe grow wings and fly out the window in the next room to get far away from the building and out of the state.

But I just stood there, blinking slowly, waiting for them to stop.

“Oh, him. Yeah, he’s a real big criminal alright,” one man said, wiping his eyes after laughing hard. “He works here.”

He explained that my mediocre former student had some sort of fairly important job. I don’t know whether it was my nervousness, or my incredulity that a student who could barely put in any effort in English class now worked at the county courthouse, but none of what was said really made sense to me. What I knew, felt, even tasted, was my own thick shame. It was a heavy stench ready to smother me under its weight. I was ready to buckle.

I was told to sit in an adjacent room. As I walked over, an official, a bailiff maybe, held a door for me.

“You shouldn’t have said that, young lady.” His watery blue eyes twinkled at me. “They think you’re funny. Now they’re definitely going to pick you.”

It was a familiar nigger joke: white joy brought on by Black shame and vulnerability. I was an unwitting coon, a funny story to punctuate the morning, for them to tell over their coffee and donuts. My fear and shame was just a punchline.

Alarm sang out through my whole body. I felt hot and cold at the same time. My stomach flip-flopped, all jittery and nauseous. I thought I was going to have a panic attack like I used to get when I first started driving. But there was no side of the road or parking lot to pull over in. The rage and embarrassment was bile in my throat that I had to just choke down. I sat in silence until they called me back.

“Congratulations, professor! You have been selected for the grand jury,” the district attorney’s voice rang out. He was tickled.

All of a sudden I was not a 30-year-old college professor with her own apartment and car and independence and freedom. I was a child again, being told where to move, sit, and stand.

My shoulders might have slumped a little but my face was a blank mask. I closed my eyes and nodded stiffly, fearing that if I opened my mouth I would let out a strangled cry, or a curse that would get me held in contempt.

“Oh, and by the way, since you’re a professor I thought it best that you lead the proceedings as a foreperson. I’m sure you’ll be able to keep these folks in line.”

Everyone laughed again at the nigger joke, but the district attorney’s smile did not reach his eyes. Later, he would tell me he chose me because I was a professional Black woman, thought I’d be the best candidate for the job. “I like to have people of color be the foreperson. Adds a bit of diversity to the proceedings.”

***

There I was, the foreperson for a grand jury, joined by a little over a dozen other county residents. Our task was to review a slew of cases — over three hundred — and figure out whether or not they should go to trial. The district attorney, a jovial, dark-haired, white man, slick-talked in the manner of a politician or used car salesman. He was always polite, but there was something discomfiting about him just beneath the surface, like he could stab you in the chest with a smile. He warned us to complete our cases quickly or else jury duty would spill over into another week.

None of us wanted to stay the day, much less over a week. We promised to go through the cases quickly and efficiently.

What exactly is a jury of your peers? In this particular experience, it was mostly white men. Conservative, evangelical, Republican. The men dressed like grownup versions of my students: fancier versions of khaki shorts, polo shirts, baseball caps, tinted sunglasses, and shorter hair. Some were businessmen, others were laborers. Every last one of them mansplained, espousing universal truths with their arms crossed or their hands casually clasped, talking over each other and over the women unless I interjected — which I did, often.

The women were housewives, clerical workers, and retired schoolteachers. They sat uneasily among men, mostly silent among the cacophony of smug male voices.

My group was probably more racially mixed than most for the area. In addition to the white men, there was a smattering of white women, and two other Black women besides myself. I don’t recall there being any non-Black people of color.

***

Day One. The Justice Center is a jail, no matter what they want to call it. And it felt that way, even as we sat in a newish conference room with tiered gray desks, gray walls, and gray carpet, like one of the classrooms in a business school. The air conditioning was, thankfully, turned up high against the late summer heat. I sat in the middle seat of the front row, a reluctant teacher’s pet. The district attorney and a legal secretary faced us, briefing us on the day’s cases.


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The first few hours were a sort of orientation. We began our term as a grand jury by being shown pictures of people addicted to meth. Up until that point I knew very little about the drug and had no idea that the countryside — the idyllic part of the state known as The Plains — was riddled with meth addiction. But it makes sense. What are poor, underemployed, and unemployed folks to do with few resources and even less compassion? I stared at the side-by-side view of mugshots, taking in the progression of sad but relatively healthy faces that morphed into ghoulish bulging eyes, graying skin, sunken cheeks, pockmarks, and missing teeth.

We then got the cases. Police officers, all men and mostly white, came in and presented them to us. They were all tall men, firm and serious. They had buzz cuts and bald heads and swung their arms wide when they walked. When the Black officers came in I made eye contact with them. They never looked away, but there was no recognition there either. All of the police officers spoke to us in clipped, somber tones, but laughed with the Justice Center staff like old buddies sharing inside jokes. They recounted the facts of each case starkly, succinctly. The accused was pulled over for running a red light. The officer smelled weed. They searched the car and found a blunt and a portable meth lab — a Sprite bottle filled with fertilizer, battery acid, pseudoephedrine, and other ingredients used to make the drug that keeps you up for days and makes you look like an extra in The Walking Dead. The police officer noted that part of their crackdown on drug offenders is making the most of traffic stops. If someone has a busted taillight or runs a red light, it’s also likely that they have drugs in the car. If you talk to them long enough, they’ll break.

Later, the D.A. would say he chose me because I was a professional Black woman, thought I’d be the best candidate. ‘I like to have people of color be the foreperson. Adds a bit of diversity to the proceedings.’

When the policeman said this I heard a small click as a forgotten memory slid into place. Now it all made sense. I remembered being stopped around the corner from my house a few months earlier. I remembered it was a good morning. I had an appointment at a weight loss clinic, the latest attempt in my efforts to take off the thirty pounds I gained after grad school, and I was feeling good about my choices. I made a left out of my complex and a right on the next street. I glided by row after row of cookie-cutter suburban homes. Soon after, I heard sirens behind me. I pulled over to let the cop car pass but, to my surprise, it stopped a few feet behind me. I gathered my license and registration and tried to still my beating heart as the police officer stomped out of the car toward me, red-faced and sweaty.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” His voice was loud and brusque as his eyes darted around the cab of my car.

“No, sir.” My voice was small. I had no idea. Was I speeding? He asked for my license and registration and I handed them over.

“Did you know you ran that stop sign back there?” His stubby fingers jabbed the air with incredulity. “This is a nice neighborhood. You can’t just disregard stop signs.”

“I’m sorry. I had no idea I…” I stammered.

He interrupted me. “What are you doing in this neighborhood?” He was scanning my ID as he asked.

“I live here. Around the corner.” Some of my fear dissipated. I could see what he was doing. What he was trying to get at. What was I doing, what was a random Black woman doing, in a predominantly white area, apparently running stop signs with reckless abandon?

He looked skeptical. “Well, where are you going?”

I panicked. Shit, where was I going? I said the first thing that came to mind. “I’m going to work.”

He wanted to know where I worked and what I did and who I did it with. When I told him I was a professor at the university his disbelief was only eclipsed by his dismissal.

“Why are you heading this way if you’re going to work? You’re headed in the wrong direction.” He spat the words out and his beady eyes scanned the interior of my car once again.

I finally remembered about the weight loss clinic and said as much. He went away to run my plates and came back, cooled down, and with a ticket in his hand. He advised me to “be more careful” and sent me on my way. I drove away with my hands shaking, choking down a familiar rage.

Now, as officers droned on about cases, I was still thinking about how close I had come to being arrested myself. I pushed that out of my mind to learn about another defendant, who was accused of breaking into a pharmacy and clearing the place out of Sudafed. We heard about several more folks, arrested for passing off checks or writing their own prescriptions for Xanax and Vicodin. The cases piled on. Almost all the cases were non-violent drug offenses. My fellow jurors sighed and clucked their tongues in weary sympathy and vocal judgment when yet another young person was caught with meth in their car, or stole copper wire from an abandoned house, or passed off bad checks to finance a drug habit.

When Black people were involved, as victims, perpetrators, and in a few cases both, the discussions carried on coldly, with plenty of victim-blaming. And there was extra concern for the “facts” and “procedure.” I tried to use my feeble power as foreperson to rebuke this thinly-veiled racism. I asked questions, steered conversations. I was successful, mostly.

Just when I was about to explode from the monotony, we got a reprieve. “Take an hour — no more — for lunch,” the D.A. said congenially. We all scattered without a word, worried that he’d change his mind.

During my lunch break I went to my car, drove to a nearby parking lot, and wept. I wanted to drive home and get under the covers and stay there for the rest of my life. I called a friend. “They picked me for jury duty,” I said, my voice cracking. She started to groan in sympathy but stopped. I could hear the worry in her voice; she had never heard me so upset. I could tell she wondered why someone like me, so normally stoic, detached even, was freaking out. I got my voice under control and told her, “I’m fine,” and hurried off the phone.

When Black people were involved, the discussions carried on coldly, with plenty of victim-blaming. I tried to use my feeble power as foreperson to rebuke this thinly-veiled racism.

I wondered why I was having such a dramatic reaction to a commonplace thing like jury duty. Previously, I’d thought of it like voting — just something you did as a part of citizenship. I think I never realized how physically sickening it might be to play a part in the carceral state, condemning people to jail for petty crimes of poverty and despair. And there’s something else — something about not being able to control my movements and my own time brought out a deep, almost irrational, sense of claustrophobia, reminding me how unfit I might be for confining circumstances like the military, motherhood, or marriage.

Day Two. The second day was hard. There were dozens more meth cases and we agreed to indict the accused for offenses like drug possession or trafficking. But we also heard cases about violent crimes.

That day three Black women came forward as survivors of sexual assault. When the women faced me I wore a mask of benign concern. But when each woman spoke I held my breath and clasped my hands in front of me hard, so I wouldn’t scream. The first woman was a university student who was raped by a so-called friend. This young man, a popular figure on campus, had taunted and stalked the survivor, trying to strongarm her into dropping her case.

She did.

She sat before us nicely coiffed, tears ruining her tasteful makeup. She sobbed, saying she wanted her life back, that she just wanted to finish her degree and just move on. All of my fellow jurors cried and shook their heads. “What a shame,” they said. “What a shame.”

She was the perfect victim, a proper respectable Negro. But she was still a victim. The D.A. gently asked if she was sure she wanted to drop the case. The young woman was resolute: “Yes.” We gave her our tearful goodbyes and good lucks. I was a bit taken aback at the care and concern shown to this woman.

In the next two cases, though, the dismissal of the women’s concerns was as palpable as an open wound. One woman was working class and young, no older than 21, just as the previous woman had been. She had already been married for three or four years to a much older man, who was violent and possessive. She wore a long denim skirt and short bobbed wig that made her look older than her years. She spoke in a low, dispassionate monotone about the soon-to-be ex-husband who attacked her because she had started seeing another man — someone who may or may not have been a drug dealer — during their separation. Her husband broke into her trailer, took a knife from the kitchen, held her at knifepoint, and raped her. My fellow jurors could not believe this. They asked intimate, probing questions, questions that were startling and gratuitous and inappropriate.

“When did he stab you?” “Where did he stab you?” “How many times did he stab you?”

Their tone was accusatory, as if this woman had stabbed herself. When she responded, her voice was even, neutral, as if she were describing an entirely reasonable thing to a particularly slow audience.

I looked at this young woman who stared down at her dark brown hands as she spoke. All that she had gone through, and now she had to sit, defiantly composed, in a room of (mostly) unforgiving strangers. While her testimony was hard to hear, the questions my fellow jurors asked of her were even harder. When she left the room, the textbook misogynoir continued to rear its head. “Why didn’t she just run out?” “She looks way older than she says she is.” Even some of the women who had been reticent finally spoke up to echo the mens’ disregard for the woman’s case.

This was a clear-cut case that needed to go to trial. There were mounds of evidence and the victim was firm about wanting her abuser to be held accountable for what he did to her. Why was she on trial? It was as if I was in an after-school special about racism and patriarchy and everyone had gotten the script but me, or a nightmare I had to find a way out of.

The third woman was treated the same way. When we got to her — a former university student assaulted by a friend, an athlete, during a party — I knew what to do: cut the men off at the pass. Steer the discussion towards our duty. Ask the simple but hard questions:

“Do we think that wrongdoing could have occurred? Yes or no?”

Remind my peers that it was not our job to prosecute, but to make a judgment about whether or not we had enough reason for this case to come to trial.

I was stern, kind, deliberate.

I looked to the women to do the right thing. In both cases, we (the women swaying the men) turned the tide.

We asked, “What about her life?” “How will she carry on?” “What about the other women in his life, whom he can hurt?”

The men finally conceded.

I should have felt satisfied, or even hopeful, but at the end of the day I just felt exhausted.

***

Day 3. On the third day we toured the jail located on the right side of the Justice Center. I wanted to opt out and say, “No, I have no interest in ‘touring’ a jail.” But I stayed quiet.

There was really not much separating our jury room and the jail. We filed our way down a series of long hallways and locked rooms to the other side of the building and made it there in a few minutes. We were shown where people are held and booked. We walked through concrete-walled corridors and were shown common areas and individual cells. We walked into the kitchen, where inmates stood about washing dishes and wiping down surfaces. They took no notice of us jurors, even as some of my peers got up close to them like kids pressing their faces up against the glass at an aquarium. When we walked into the laundry room there were two Black women stuffing sheets into dryers.

My mouth automatically smiled when I saw another Black woman, but this was all wrong. My smile was crooked, lopsided, and rueful. The woman stared back at me blankly at first, then defiantly, rejecting my pity, my empathy, or whatever else I had to give. Then she turned her back, returning to her fitted sheets.

Later in the afternoon, we heard a case of a family cookout gone wrong. According to the police, a fight over a love triangle broke out at a gathering at an apartment complex a couple miles from my house. Two people ended up hurt, one stabbed pretty badly. One of the witnesses for the prosecution was being held in the Justice Center. He was brought in with his wrists and ankles shackled, wearing a white jumpsuit and a bemused expression. There was very little space on his body, that I could see anyway, that was not tattooed. Even his light brown face sported a series of teardrops near his eyes.

During my lunch break I went to my car, drove to a nearby parking lot, and wept. I wanted to drive home and get under the covers and stay there for the rest of my life.

He spoke slowly, thoughtfully, recounting his version of events. My fellow jurors were mesmerized both by his polite and deliberate slow drawl and the gold teeth in his mouth. He was tall, handsome, and strapping; perhaps in another life he could have been a football player for their favorite team. The D.A. asked him if he would be willing to testify in the case if it went to trial. He said yes and added, “I’ll be in here just for a little bit longer. Just 18 months.”

***

Day Four. The feeling of panic did not dissipate as the week dragged on. Instead, my anxiety and dis-ease expanded without ceasing. My heart raced every time I entered the Justice Center and I fought the urge to run out of the building several times a day. Lunchtime was my only reprieve. That week whatever diet I was on was abandoned without apology. Normally, I felt guilty about eating my feelings and tried to rationalize my way out of it. This week I embraced food’s soothing, numbing power. Some days I headed over to Chik-Fil-A for a large vanilla milkshake, with whipped cream and a cherry. Or I ate pizza and guzzled orange soda.

On this day I got a large burrito and nachos, two of my favorite things to binge eat. But when I went to take a bite I couldn’t swallow the food; my stomach felt like a closed fist, folded in on itself. Later, I tried to eat more food and the same thing happened. The food felt like it was hitting a wall and going nowhere. After jury duty I would find out that I had a bad stomach infection. My doctor would tell me to take it easy and that it would have become an ulcer if I had waited any longer to see her.

I have a history of stomach violence fueled by anxiety. Often, when I travel, I have “traveler’s stomach,” especially if I’m running late. The year before jury duty I got my gallbladder removed because it was horribly inflamed. These psychosomatic illnesses crop up when I’m stressed, overwhelmed, or feeling defeated. That week I felt all three.

***

Day Five. I woke up with a tiny piece of hope, small enough to put in my pocket or zip up in my purse for safekeeping. This was, hopefully, the last day of jury duty. At the Justice Center, we were quiet and uncomplaining, like kids hoping the teacher would let us out of class early. After a week of working at breakneck speed we had seen hundreds of mostly small cases and a few big ones. So many of the crimes involved Black people or poor rural whites. Most of the offenses were for petty crimes concerning drugs: poor folk busted for small amounts of weed and meth, folks whose lives were wrecked and ravaged by poverty, abuse, and judicial indifference.

At the end of the day, I said goodbye to my fellow jurors but did not linger, though many of them came up to me and thanked me for my service. Months later I would occasionally run into some of the women of the jury — at the supermarket or at the mall — and we’d grimace and say, “We made it!” as we rushed past each other in the aisles. What I never said to them was how angry, hurt, and ashamed I felt and still feel about that week, and how I’m not entirely sure I’m entitled to those feelings. After all, I simply served on a grand jury; I wasn’t on trial. But still, I feel traumatized, and have less respect for our system because I know what happens when a jury of one’s peers get together. For people of color and women and the poor, there is nothing close to justice.

* * *

Susana Morris is the co-editor, along with Brittney Cooper and Robin Boylorn, of The Crunk Feminist Collection. She teaches African American literature and Black media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Editor: Sari Botton