Friday, September 21, 2012

Jury Duty: Is Human Justice Possible?

From Tuesday last week until 1 p.m. yesterday, I sat on a jury in a medical malpractice trial in state superior court. Five men and seven women listened to testimony from about twenty witnesses about the death of a 63-year-old woman. Admitted to, then discharged from a hospital emergency room, she was readmitted brain-dead to the same emergency room seven hours later. Although there were several other factors contributing to her death, the emergency room physician was charged with negligence. We were charged with deciding his case.

Throughout the eight-day trial the woman’s seven adult children sat listening to every word of testimony from the back of the courtroom. If a juror looked toward them, the family was there to return the juror’s gaze. I stopped looking in their direction, except to skim past them with a passing glance they couldn’t catch and hold. But we twelve could not ignore the immense burden of responsibility the seven of them seemed to throw at us. Was it possible to give them justice?

No, of course not. They had lost their mother. We could not reverse her death. We could only award “damages,” small consolation.

And there was the doctor to consider as well. He sat in a corner listening too. Were we willing to point a collective finger at him and tell him he was culpable in the death of a human being? You see why justice is often symbolized by a blind woman holding a set of scales?

I will say that if anyone could render a just verdict it was the twelve of us, guided by the firm hand of an alert, fair-spoken judge. Being on a jury, especially for more than a day or two, is like walking the Camino do Santiago. The bond that grows between fellow jurors is indescribable—although we never learned each other’s names—except for one young man who was late every day—and his name was mud.

We were guided by the law which was not read to us until all the evidence had been heard. Then the judge gave us his charge. We had to vote first on whether the doctor and hospital had been negligent. Then, if we voted yes on #1, we were to decide whether this negligence was a “proximate cause” of (significant contributing factor to) the woman’s death. Only then, if we voted yes on #2, could we award damages.

For eight days we were not permitted to talk among ourselves or with anyone else about the case. When we finally began deliberations at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, I thought the dam of talk would burst. Instead, there was a nervous silence as we all felt the weight of the moment. I had been appointed foreperson, so I began the process—which I cannot detail.

After two hours on Wednesday and four hours on Thursday, and after a ruling by the judge on a point of law, we made our decisions. By noon Thursday we had voted YES on #1. In our unanimous opinion the doctor was negligent. Within an hour we had voted on #2: in our unanimous opinion, NO, this negligence was not a proximate cause of death. (A civil trial requires a 10–2 vote, not unanimity, but we all agreed anyway.)

For both sides, this decision must have been poor consolation. The doctor was reprimanded, and a black mark has been entered against his name. The family was right about the negligence but, in our opinion, wrong about the cause of their mother’s death, so—no damages.

I did not turn to look at the family when the verdict was read. As soon as I could I turned away and filed out of the courtroom with my fellow jurors, blind to their grief, and perhaps the doctor’s relief. The jury had a five-minute chat with the judge in the jury room, and he congratulated us on a good job. The court officer, who had heard all the testimony, told us he thought we had got it right. We ate pizza together and departed, each juror to his or her own world.

Had justice been served? It depends what you mean.

We could have deliberated forever and never brought back the mother. There is only One who can do that.

And nothing we said could have absolved the doctor from his guilt. But there is One who will if we ask Him.

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