by Merecedes J. Williams, For New Pittsburgh Courier
In the past three years, the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County has called me to serve as juror twice. In both instances, I was selected and asked to perform a civic duty to decide if a person was guilty or not guilty on numerous counts.
In 2016, I was four months pregnant and I just knew that would be my golden ticket back to normal life. Nope, the prosecutor said “congratulations” and gladly selected me as an alternate juror. As Juror #13, I never made it to deliberations but I did sit in on a two-day trial where a man was accused of sexually abusing his daughter.
It was an eye-opening experience to court proceedings and our judicial system.
But, this time around was different. In August, I was called to serve on another jury. This time though, I was three years older, wiser, and had followed what I thought to be the trial of Black Pittsburgh just five months prior—the Michael Rosfeld murder trial in the shooting death of a Black teen, Antwon Rose II. When 12 jurors, three of them Black, found the former East Pittsburgh police officer Rosfeld not guilty for the murder of Rose, I was convinced the judicial system, specifically the foundation of jury trials, was flawed.
Even with all of its flaws, Lady Justice was calling my name and I felt compelled to reply. Besides, those notices in the mail are pretty scary. I do not want to keep getting jury summons because I dodged the first one.
So, there I was, Juror #6 on this trial. But also, there I was, sitting there, certain that the judicial system has enough holes to sink the Titanic.
Everything about the jury selection process makes you irritable and anxious. For hours, you are waiting in a room where you cannot leave, sitting through dozens of jury pool interviews, and lingering to see if your name is called to serve. Then, much to my surprise, after enduring that tedious process, we started the trial the same day. I wanted to call a recess.
Between puppy dog eyes from the defendant, distracting conduct from the judge, and unscrupulous amounts of surveillance video, it was no easy task to be the only African American juror. During a two-day deliberation, I found myself on the brink of throwing blows with a middle age White woman. Her “Make America Great Again” attitude was deafening as she tried to convince me that the defendant was guilty, although the law did not support her claim. After hours of verbal jabs and tattle-telling to the court’s tip staff, I had to hit her with the “Miley-Cyrus-What’s-Good” portion of deliberations. She later apologized, but the damage was done.
While all of us 12 jurors took the same oath, endured the same trial, and were issued the same task, it is life experiences, environments and circumstances that kick in when it is time to decide a person’s fate. A complete stranger was looking down the barrel of four serious charges, and I was one-twelfth of the decision.
And for that reason alone, I believe it is important for African Americans to serve on every jury. I believe every jury should consist of a diverse representation of the entire population.
For weeks, I wrestled with whether this op-ed was even necessary, whether it would fall on blind eyes, or whether these words would reach the right people. But, the importance of Black jurors weighed on me like a cheetah on the back of its prey.
On Facebook, I’ve seen an increase of jury duty summons posts, and clearly, the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County is busy. If you are a potential Black juror, I urge you not to discard your summons, yet report. Serving on a jury, for an African American citizen, is more than a civic duty. It is a daunting task that requires you to use your best judgment, examine the evidence, and render a verdict that could affect the rest of someone’s life.
It is also a position of power that historically was not granted to people of color. (Strauder v. West Virginia, Virginia v. Rives, Plessy v. Ferguson, Norris v. Alabama, Batson v. Kentucky)
Admittedly, I once took that civic duty of serving on a jury for granted. But now, I realize that “a jury of your peers” could very well be a pool of people who don’t look anything like you. It is of utter importance for African Americans to serve on a jury.
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