Fred McKinney (opinion): Jury duty, victims, crime and society

Television camera tripods are set up in preparation for a jury verdict at Superior Court in Waterbury last year.

Television camera tripods are set up in preparation for a jury verdict at Superior Court in Waterbury last year.

Brian A. Pounds, Staff Photographer / Hearst Connecticut Media

There are only a few things that are required of U.S. citizens other than obeying the law. You must pay your taxes. If you have children, you must send them to school. If you drive a car, you must get it licensed and insured — something you don’t have to do with much more dangerous weapons of war. And you must go to jury duty when called.

My time rolled around to serve on jury duty recently, and unlike past times when I was called, this time I had no real excuse for not serving, and this time, I wanted to serve. In the past, as the leader of a not-for-profit organization, there would have been some inconvenience if I had been chosen to serve, but I never got to the point where my inconvenience was a reason for being excused. All the previous times I was excused was because I knew someone, I had some relationship with the company involved in the case, or I had a person close to me who had a similar bad experience as the plaintiff.

This time I was hoping to be selected out of a panel of 25 potential jurors. Unfortunately, I was not selected. I did not even make it to the interview stage, or what is known as voir dire. After six hours of waiting, I was dismissed.

Most people who were also not selected were ecstatic. I was not. In fact, I wanted to know why I was not even interviewed. Was it because I have a Ph.D.? Was it because I am a writer? Was it because I am a Black man with dreadlocks and the defendant was also a Black man with dreadlocks?

The rules allow both the prosecuting attorney and the defendant‘s attorney to use “peremptory challenges,” where the attorneys do not have to provide the judge with a reason for not considering a potential juror. Lawyers for either side can challenge based on cause. I do not know if I was excluded from my civic duty because the defense attorney, or more likely the prosecuting attorney, did not like my looks, my education or my profession. I do know that race, gender, and ethnicity are not supposed to be used as a reason for using peremptory challenges.

Throughout American history, Black and brown men have been the victims of juries that were not of their peers, and white men have been judged not guilty because Black and brown jurors were excluded from serving. I am not suggesting that my not being selected is an example of those past abuses. Fortunately, for the defendant, the panel of potential jurors was very diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, and I suspect that the six jurors and three alternates were reflective of the diversity of our community.

Before the voir dire formally begins, all the panelists (potential jurors) are provided general instructions from the judge and the two opposing attorneys, with the defendant in the room. As I tried concentrating on the instructions of the judge and the introductions of the attorneys, I could not take my eyes off the young defendant. I could not help but contemplate the gravity of the events taking place with him at the center. I could not help but wonder what could have been done differently in this young man’s life that could have changed the circumstances and the need for this life-altering trial.

I do not know if the defendant is innocent or guilty, and because I was not selected as a juror, I will only find out if the case shows up in the news. But whatever the outcome of the trial and the decision of the jurors, I cannot help but think about the thousands of other cases where young Black and brown men are found guilty and sent to prison for their crimes. If you do the crime, you must be prepared to do the time.

Philosophically, we can ask: Is crime part of the natural human condition, or are there systemic causes that lead one citizen to try to take something that belongs to another citizen? This question has been asked for generations by criminologists, sociologists and common citizens.

Reflection on the causes of crime, as opposed to debates on how many more jail cells should be built or how long criminals should lose their rights, is something that not just “woke” society should consider. The “un-woke” should be concerned because an ounce of prevention is better and less costly than a pound of cure.

More jail cells are not the solution. I cannot speak for anybody but myself, but I can distinguish between specific cases of criminality and society’s need to address the deeper issues of what we as society can do to reduce criminality. If we do not seriously start addressing root causes, I am afraid we will be fighting a losing battle.

Fred McKinney is the co-founder of BJM Solutions, an economic consulting firm that conducts public and private research since 1999, and is the emeritus director of the Peoples Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac University.