I don’t think jury duty would’ve ever made my bucket list. But if it did, for some reason, I can cross it off now.
I spent the day at the local courthouse yesterday, one member of a six-person jury deciding whether a man was guilty of assault or not. The experience, for me, was a lot of things: interesting, tedious, intimidating and even a bit confusing. But it wasn’t much like anything I had seen on television.
Most of us have seen countless courtroom re-enactments on TV and in the movies—from Law & Order to Night Court, from Inherit the Wind to A Few Good Men. We all know the drill: the opening statements, the hollered “objections,” the whispered discussions in front of the judge.
I saw all those elements in action—but none of them really conveyed what a day in court really feels like, or even looks like. When our jury was being selected, one of the attorneys asked us if we expected court to be just like what we saw on CSI—whether we’d be expecting DNA evidence to be part of the trial, whether we’d expecting the lawyers to be pitch-perfect in everything they said. He asked us whether television had raised the bar (so to speak) on what we, the jurors, would expect would actually happen in court. And I guess, in a sense, television has.
So I shouldn’t have been so surprised that my courtroom experience was so surprising. Entertainment, such as it is, can’t come close to capturing the weight, the sense of responsibility I felt in trying to determine someone’s guilt or innocence. When you’re sitting in a jury box, you’re given a small, incomplete glimpse into a moment in someone’s life. And from that glimpse, we’re supposed to make a decision that will affect the lives of both the accused and accuser forever. Only one—the old black-and-white film 12 Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda—even came close.
We don’t need television to tell us how family dinners or conversations with friends look. Most of us have reference points for those things already, and so when we watch television or go to the movies, we judge what we watch by what we know. Does this feel realistic? Does it feel right? But when it comes to stuff we don’t have a lot of experience with—shootouts, perhaps, or space flight, we’re forced to trust, on some level, what we’re watching.
Good art, and good entertainment, can help us think about and understand the world around us. But it can’t completely represent it. It, like a day at court, is incomplete.