It was nice to have the break. Postal employees are paid a little bit during jury duty, although it was unlikely, I thought, that I would be chosen actually to sit on a jury. It would just be some time-consuming formality to sit there at the courthouse in Monroe waiting to be turned down and sent home. Meanwhile I would get out of work.
There seemed to be quite a few of us, and each of the two opposing attorneys asked us questions. Each juror had to be approved by both. One of them asked me if I knew the judge, who was also present for these proceedings. I told him yes, that we had gone to the same church, and both lawyers and the judge laughed. Apparently this didn’t count as knowing him.
To my surprise, I was selected to be one of the jurors! And I was unnerved when they said it would be a criminal trial. Soon we the jury were seated in the courtroom. There was the defendant, Robert Lawrence, sitting there looking miserable, and right off the prosecuting attorney stood and explained to us the charge. Mr. Lawrence had assaulted a child, a young girl! Instantly I didn’t like Mr. Lawrence. How awful! The prosecuting attorney went on to explain that the Lawrences were leaders of a group of Bluebirds, regularly having the girls meet in their home. And at one point, Mr. Lawrence became so angry at one of the girls that he dragged her out into the hallway and spanked her! It turned out that her father (I don’t remember her mother in the courtroom) doesn’t believe in corporal punishment and so Mr. Lawrence was charged with assault.
Mr. Bowden, the defense attorney, also brought out some facts in the case, lessening our initial shock at the charge. Whereas the prosecuting attorney seemed rather unprepared for the trial, Mr. Bowden obviously cared. By the untanned hairline on the nape of his neck, I noticed that he had even gotten a haircut just before the trial, and this impressed me.
Each person involved in the case took the stand. Mr. Lawrence didn’t seem the cold-hearted child-hater we first took him to be. As he spoke, he looked constantly at someone among the people sitting in to watch the trial, and I looked out to see who it was. There sat his wife, Mary, gazing back at him with an expression of both love and despair that I’ll never forget. It was like they were watching each other inevitably go down, but that they would be sure to support each other all the way.
It turned out that the girl had been such a disruption to the meeting and activities, being rude enough to Mrs. Lawrence to bring her to tears, that finally Robert took the girl out and disciplined her with a spanking, something she certainly wasn’t used to. All the while during the trial, Mr. Mead, the girl’s father made known his presence. He was a big man, not likeable, not trying to be, and his anger came across as belligerence, so severe that the judge had to reprimand him. Why should he want to spank when his intimidation would suffice?
When the girl took the stand, I expected a seemingly innocent child seeking sympathy, but instead there sat an obnoxious kid almost as belligerent as her father. Her mouth hung open defiantly, and she looked like she wanted to hurt someone.
By the time we jurors were sent into the next room to deliberate, I was convinced that the Lawrences were good people. After all, they volunteered to lead the Bluebirds, for Pete’s sake. And it was obvious to me that a girl such as the “victim” should have been properly spanked by her own parents as well. But I felt terrible. As a juror, representing the law, I felt that I must go by the letter of the law. Whether warranted or not, Mr. Lawrence did, in fact, strike the child--against her will, against the will of her parents. This was assault. There was no escaping it. The last words to us from the defense attorney were a plea to allow Mr. Lawrence, after the trial, to go home to his family. But how could I say he was not guilty, when he did actually commit assault, according to the letter of the law?
I sat at the round table in a miserable gloom. There was one other man on the jury, but the other four were women, and I figured they were horrified at what Mr. Lawrence did. One woman sort of took charge of the meeting, and suggested we first go around the table to say whether we think Mr. Lawrence is guilty or not. She stated, “Not guilty.” My mouth dropped open. Then the woman to her left said, “Not guilty.” I was shocked. How could they being saying not guilty when he did it? Then the third woman said, “Not guilty.” I began to smile. This was anarchy! This was revolution! This was…really neat! The woman on my right said, “Not guilty,” and by that time I was beaming. “Not guilty,” I said with conviction. Then, to my surprise, the other man said, “Guilty.” We all looked at him, waiting for an explanation, which he felt compelled to give. “He did strike the girl,” he said, “The law says that’s assault.”
A moment before, I might have been stuck saying what he said. But by that time our courage had grown, and the five of us immediately went to work trying to convince the man to change his mind. I told him that I, too, thought we had to go by the letter of the law, as jurors, but surely Mr. Lawrence is no criminal. He was trying to do what was right and what was needed for the occasion, and you saw how that girl acted even here. It was a great relief to this juror when he succumbed and finally agreed, not guilty.
All this happened fairly quickly, within minutes, and then we wondered how long we were supposed to deliberate. Thinking we were too fast, we then sat a bit and just talked, even laughed, then cringed, hoping no one out there heard us laugh.
Finally we walked out in single file to return to our seats in the courtroom. All had been waiting, on edge, for us. I looked out at Mary’s face. She was studying each of us as we walked out, hoping for a miracle. When she looked at me, I gave her a reassuring smile, and she burst into a silent sob.
When the judge asked us, “What is your verdict?” one of us said, “Your honor, we the jury find the defendant not guilty.” There were cries and sighs and whispers and muttering, and a loud grumble from a furious Mr. Mead. After some legal talking, at the demand of the father, we the jurors were instructed to give our verdict individually. So each of us, in turn, proudly and confidently said, “Not guilty.” I felt so honored to be one of these revolutionaries who went against the law to show mercy. I didn’t think it was possible. I wondered if we might be in trouble for it.
After the courtroom was cleared, the judge stayed to talk with us. It was obvious that he liked us. He explained that Mr. Lawrence is innocent of criminal assault, but that he still has to be tried in a civil suit. He asked us if Mr. Mead had intimidated us in any way, and we kindly said no. He thanked us sincerely for what we did, made known that he agreed with us and was proud of us, and then asked if we had any questions. Of course we asked him how we could get away with not obeying the letter of the law. The judge explained that, in a jury trial, the jury is the law.
Afterwards, while driving away from the Monroe courthouse, I noticed at the first stoplight that another one of the jurors was in the car next to mine. I rolled down my window and she rolled down hers, and I said, “I feel good!”
“Me too,” she said, beaming.
I couldn’t get the expressions of the Lawrences, from despair to relief, out of my mind, and I wanted them to know what went on behind closed doors, now that the trial was over. It had been such a good and profound experience that, after all they had gone through, I wanted to share it with them. So I wrote a letter to Robert and Mary Lawrence and told them, well, pretty much what I’ve told you here. Not long after that, I received the following letter from their lawyer, from the offices of Senter and Bowden, Attorneys at Law, Everett, Washington, dated October 20, 1992:
Dear Mr. Lund:
Robert and Mary Lawrence were kind enough to share with me your wonderful letter following the jury’s verdict on his assault charge. It was both personally and professionally gratifying.
In days when trial lawyers are held in low esteem by many, your comments made me feel good about what I do. Your letter provided keen insight into the jury process, particularly the conflict between “the law” and “justice” and how juries have to wrestle with that conflict (and their own feelings) to do the right thing. It is very rare that a juror will take the time to do what you did--and even rarer to see the time and care that you’ve taken to express your thoughts and to give much needed encouragement to people like the Lawrences.
Would you be willing to give permission to publish your letter? The Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers publishes Defense, a monthly newsletter/magazine; and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers publishes The Champion, a monthly magazine. Either or both organizations would likely be interested in publishing your letter, together with a brief description about the case (which I’m willing to write).
I’m not interested in publicity. And in the scheme of things, a misdemeanor assault case is not that significant. But your letter speaks to broader themes about what we do as criminal defense lawyers and what juries do.
It gives encouragement to lawyers like myself who must often ask themselves why should I take this case to trial? My clients are good people, but they’ve made a mistake; so why not just plead guilty and ask the court for leniency? How likely is it that a jury will see the more important issues and do what is “just”? How important is this to our clients? How important will this be to the jurors? Will it all be seen as some futile exercise? Are we doing the right thing by asking our neighbors to judge our client and to “declare a proper verdict”?
If you would not mind if your letter were published, I would plan to change the names of my clients (primarily because of the pending civil suit); I would also change the names of the Meads and the children (for the same reasons and also for privacy). Naturally, no addresses would be given. I can give you a “nom de plume” if you wish, but I would prefer to use your name if you have no objection to that recognition. You too should be proud of your letter and not afraid to take credit for it. But, of course, I will respect your wishes. [I will also not publish the letter if the Lawrences have any objection.]
Please give me a call at your convenience. And thank you once again for such a heart-warming letter.
Very truly yours,
George N. Bowden
A few weeks later, Robert and Mary Lawrence invited my family and me over for Thanksgiving, saying how much they appreciated my letter and how they wanted to get to know us. The civil suit was coming up, but now they felt supported and encouraged. A lot of care had been put into the dinner, and we truly had much to be thankful for and talk about, while our children played together. The Lawrence and Lund families became lasting friends.
Bob lost the civil suit and had to pay thousands of dollars to the Mead family, but he was no criminal, only a loving, family man. Of course I gave Mr. Bowden permission to publish my letter and use my name, but never heard if it was indeed published. Now, when I hear of someone being called for jury duty, I remember, and smile, and know that we can step beyond the letter of the law to find true justice.
For the complete contents of the Butter Rum Cartoon, click here.