This One Time, 48

This one time I was sitting in the jury box for a simple civil case — a suit to recoup damages from some fist-fight that had gotten out of hand when someone’s brother came over to beat the crap out of his sister’s abusive boyfriend. Medical bills, wrecked furniture, therapy for traumatized children that had been in the room, pain and suffering … and it was all bullshit.

This was my fifth time in eight years having to waste days — hopefully just days, in this case — or weeks, or even a full month for that murder trial six years back, watching two groups of people pick up different ends of the law to try to beat money or what passes for justice out of each other like dueling pinatas. I’d gotten coaching from friends and coworkers on how not to be selected for juries so they’d quit wasting my time and giving me nightmares, but I always played the strategies backwards.

So what if it put me so far behind at work I could never catch up? This needed doing.

The law is a child’s sketch of justice, with big fat shaky black lines trying to draw the boundaries around what’s right and what’s wrong, and the sketch never fits the picture when it’s overlaid. Never. And then there’s the fact that it’s pulling teeth to get the law to show up and help you. And then you nearly need a trial to decide which laws will be made to try to apply, and the decision-making process has nothing to do with justice. It’s all about what can be made to stick. What could convince a judge or the twelve assorted pudding cups that make up the typical jury.

In this situation with the brother showing up to beat his sister’s boyfriend, I had plenty of sympathy. Involving the legal system is a last resort. It’s unchaining a lazy lion in a room you’re both trapped in and trying to fling enough steak sauce on the other guy. It’s expensive to get access to the lion, and it’s messy, and someone always has to pay for cleanup. And try as they might to make the courts accessible to poor people, rich people can always afford tastier steak sauce and more powerful squirt guns. And that’s the best-case scenario.

The law is just a thing. A club, a crowbar, a chainsaw, a scalpel. Justice comes from the hands of people trying to wield it. It can’t cross any of the big fat lines, and you wouldn’t believe the number of hands on the handle, the vast majority of which weren’t even present when whatever crisis occurred to invoke it.

And lately, the courts themselves are too worried about the costs of trials to be willing to hand them out as often as they might be necessary. It’s sick. It’s a trainwreck. And I can’t help but to come running with a stack of blankets and bottles of water and try to do my best to make sure actual justice happens.

Justice here was clear to me. The criminal parts had already been handled — the abuser sent to jail for three months plus some probation for beating on his girlfriend, who had since moved out, taking her kid and leaving his. The brother got a year’s probation and a $1500 fine for delivering a beat-down that, theoretically, should have been replaced by calling the police beforehand and waiting for them to decide to show up and arrest someone and turn over evidence to a district attorney who may or may not decide to seek prosecution, all of the above as time and manpower permits.

Again, justice has nothing to do with the laws involved. It’s illegal to just hit someone, but if the brother had been less brutal and/or had shown a bit more concern for the child audience and/or the general level of peace in the neighborhood, he would have gone unpunished. Maybe a month of probation with a “no contest” plea at worst. He was essentially preventing a future felony and everyone knew it.

And here he was, convicted domestic abuser, trying to screw money out of the not-quite-hero who delivered his beat-down. In actuality, maybe $2000 of ratty furniture and some home electronics of possibly suspicious origin, maybe twenty visits at $200 a pop to a therapist for his kid who he personally should have sent out of the room instead of trying to hide behind him. And what was this new thing? Twenty-five grand for the care and feeding of some lasting shoulder injury that could have come from anywhere, from any number of fights or overdoing it exercising or a bad hit playing pick-up football.

Frankly, I suspected a gambling debt that needed paying before he got another beat-down. I was sick to the teeth of the whole thing. Suing poor people is an act of desperation at best, because even if you get an award, the lawyers will eat most of the money that comes in and people with no money will never pay ever anyway.

And there is no justice in this. Just complicated, painful, and tedious legal dickery. Leveled by a monster against a man who had already paid too much for taking justice into his own hands. If there was any justice in the world….

That was what I was thinking when I looked over at the prosecution’s table and saw our convicted abuser guy with his head down on his arms on the tabletop, and it had been a few minutes since he moved. Was he really asleep? I kept looking, noticing that his gut was up against the table edge. I really should be able to see it in his shoulders if he was breathing. And what I could see of his skin was ashy and pale. And he was perfectly still.

Nobody else was looking at him. His attorney was showing the judge, and then us, the details of a stack of medical bills, taking care to read out every line so we all could make notes and add up all the little numbers for ourselves. I don’t know how long he had been sitting there not breathing. If anyone was going to try to save his life, they’d have to start soon. And yet, I couldn’t find it in myself to say anything to draw attention to him.

And so we sat there for another fifteen minutes as his blood pooled in his legs and his brain asphyxiated while we all dutifully transcribed line items for medical supplies and services into our notebooks.

Was that just? Was it legal? I don’t know. But it was what I could get away with, letting him sit there until the sound and smell of his bowels and bladder letting loose made us all take notice. His life ended, taking his dignity with it, in front of his child, no less, because I didn’t stand up and say anything.

It’s been months, and I still don’t know what to think about that. Not that I’ve lost any sleep.


February 17, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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