By: Blair Merkle
Though I have lived in Memphis for fourteen years, I never really considered myself a "Memphian” until I recently served on jury duty. Because I am from Middle Tennessee originally (and I can’t begin to explain the vast differences between Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee), Memphis has always seemed to me like a strange land of extreme humidity with an over-abundance of unride-able trains, and an obsession for barbeque like no other place on earth. Somehow, I figured the jury commission understood that I was not from here; and consequently, they would not consider me fit in any way to serve on a Shelby County jury. Nor would they bother to call me to duty, I felt certain. But my theory was blown one day last spring when I received that unassuming white envelope calling me to the Cook Convention Center to choose my week of jury duty.
I was reassured over and over by those good citizens that I knew who had sat the long hours of jury duty before that it would only be a day or two at most of reading a book among strangers; then I would be released back into the wild, not to be bothered again for at least another ten years. So after venturing to the depths of downtown in the summer heat and negotiating a parking spot, all before 8:30 a.m. on a Monday in late June, I entered the big jury pool at 157 Poplar. The very professional and occasionally humorous Assistant Jury Coordinator gave us our orientation and warned us against trying to get off of serving jury duty (though it’s safe to say that the notion was foremost on all of our minds at that point). But the tone changed slightly when Judge Mark Ward delivered a rousing pep talk reminding us of the privilege that it is to live in this great nation and the three main ways we can support our democratic way of life: 1.) vote 2.) serve in the military 3.) serve on jury duty. So with that hefty dose of guilt adequately dispersed, we were separated out for our first assignments.
As a narrowed-down group of fifty-four potential jurors, we were deposited in our specific courtroom where the judge, flanked by very large armed deputies, made us raise our right hands and promise to defend the Constitution of the United States – not something I do in my regular daily routine. After much waiting, then much sitting and listening and answering of questions (and mental gnashing of teeth) during something called “voir dire”, the long day of jury selection was over. But the catch was, I had been chosen with thirteen others to sit on a first degree murder trial – a jury that would be sequestered for the week! Our random jury of strangers consisted of ten women and four men (two of whom would be released as alternates at the very end of the trial), each from very different walks of life, seemed to have nothing in common besides our bum luck. Our occupations ranged from Physical Therapist to D.J., with a teacher, a graphic artist, a county employee, and several FedEx employees of course in the mix. We were from all over Shelby County, from Midtown to Germantown and South Memphis to Chickasaw Gardens. Little did we know, as we were grumbling and discarding our mobile phones into the hands of the ominous Sheriff’s deputies, that we were in for one of the most rewarding weeks of our lives.
The trial was grueling, and not being able to discuss it all week was torturous; but we were all in it together. For one week, we were all cut off from our families, thrown into unusual circumstances, and taken out of our comfort zones. We were escorted by armed deputies everywhere we went (even in public bathrooms) and were never on our own, except in the privacy of our rooms (where we had roommates that we barely knew). We could not talk to friends - even if we saw them out, could not read the newspaper or watch television. We went to bed late and got up early, ate way too much (also overseen by law enforcement officers strapped with guns), and sat, sat, sat, sat, sat. But in the end, we had become a family.
And when deliberation time came, we worked through our differences the way families do. We were all able to speak freely and voice our questions and concerns. When we came to a conclusion, we all felt at peace and we felt a sense of achievement for our hard week’s work. We respected and loved each other, knowing we had all grown together through our common experience. At the very center of our family were the two young men that brought us together: the one that died and the one accused of killing him. Because we took their journey, made the effort to walk in their shoes, and grieved their bad choices, those two young men are engraved in our hearts forever – fourteen strangers whose lives are unconnected to theirs in any way; yet we are a huge part of their story now, and they are a part of ours. That is Memphis: we are all here together, a part of one another’s stories that may seem vastly different but have more in common than we realize.
And that is the beauty of jury duty: that we stop our own lives to work together for the common good. It is an opportunity to function as complete equals and truly devote ourselves to problems within our community. What a wonderful concept! I am willing to testify that the system works well within the Shelby County Courts. Ours may have been a jury that bonded more than the typical group; and we probably all realized that as we were belting out “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” in unison from inside our little county transport bus. We were, quite possibly, the best jury in Memphis history. Most everyone who has ever served on a jury with a trial remembers the experience in detail because it is a remarkable process. Serving jury duty is a true honor, and it is such a great reminder of our amazing judicial system that is at work every day for each of us. With so many negative attitudes toward our government these days, one only needs to submerge himself in it for a week to appreciate the gift that it is to live in the United States of America under our system of government. So, if you find yourself holding that little white envelope from the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, don’t get mad or pout or even start your list of excuses to get out of it. Just enjoy the ride and be thankful that you can serve our country in such a simple way, rather than having to head off to Afghanistan to do so. And be willing to work with your fellow citizens with an open mind and an open heart; you may just find that you have friends all over town that you didn’t know you had yet. But be warned: even the best jury in Memphis couldn’t decide on the city’s best barbeque! It would take far more than fourteen votes to settle that debate. And as for those scary Sheriff’s deputies, they turned out to be teddy bears!…teddy bears with guns, yes…but also with hearts of gold, like most of us Memphians.