My First Brush With The Law

I obviously got beyond my reticence about being a lawyer.  My biggest hurdle in the end was my concern about the corrupting effect of power and money.  Lawyers are professionals and are (almost always) members of the middle to upper classes.  They move in circles of which I had never been a part.   Within those circles come temptations that I had never faced.

I was committed not only to serving the poor but to living simply.  Even with these priorities going into law school, I was well aware of the many intervening events that could change me and change my priorities by the time I came out on the other end. Did the risks outweigh the potential benefits?

Two things helped me make the decision.  First, I read as many stories as I could about the lawyers behind significant social change in the United States, such as the civil rights laws of the 1960s and the abortion rights cases of the 1970s. These lawyers were worthy of admiration. I could only dream of being able to follow in their footsteps.

Second, I received in the mail a notice of jury duty.  I would be able to see, for the first time, the justice system at work.

It was the summer of 1987.  At that time in Louisville, Ky.,  potential jurors were required to be at the courthouse for one week, or until chosen for a jury.  Each day, I reported to the courthouse and sat in a large windowless room with an odd mixture of randomly selected people.  There were no laptop computers, cell phones or PDAs.  The only entertainment available was from a T.V. high on the wall, and it was tuned to the Iran-Contra Hearings.  Watching Oliver North testify was now part of my civic duty.

Every few hours, a clerk would come in the room and call out names.  For three days, I waited for my name to be called.  Dozens of others were called and disappeared never to be seen again.  I stuck it out with Ollie.

Finally, on day four, the clerk called out “Cindy Adcock.”  I was thrilled.  Finally, I would see some action.  The next step was voir dire, the process through which the attorneys for both sides select jurors.  I was selected to hear a receipt of stolen goods case.  The defendant had been selling stolen tennis shoes out of the back of his truck on the city sidewalk.  The case came down to whether the defendant knew the shoes were stolen.

At the time, I had not seen the movie Twelve Angry Men, but I can now report that our jury deliberations were very similar.  Most jurors thought the case was a slam dunk: he had to know they were stolen.  But I wasn’t so sure:  isn’t it just a stereotype to say that a black man selling goods on the street must have known the goods were stolen?  I had reasonable doubt.  A few joined my position.  The twelve of us went back and forth.  It was clear we could not agree.  We summoned the bailiff and sent word to the judge.

The judge called us out into the courtroom.  “This is not a hard case, folks” he said, trying not to yell.  We were instructed to go back to the jury room and work it out.   We didn’t work it out, and the trial was officially hung.

My four days at the courthouse were instructive.  The hustle and bustle of the courthouse was interesting.  I found power in the jury system.  And I decided that I could do as good of a job as the lawyers I observed.  Neither resembled Perry Mason nor the lawyers on L.A. Law.

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