The last time I reported for jury duty (this month) my number was among the first to be called. Along with 71 other juror candidates, I was to be considered to hear the case of a husband and wife, early 40s, who were charged with crimes now epidemic in the U.S.: sexual assault, sodomy, and distribution of child pornography.
The man was accused of sodomizing a seven-year-old neighbor boy. Together, husband and wife were accused of first-degree sexual assault and distribution of child pornography, including a video of the episode with the neighbor boy.
Before the end of this interminable day, 12 of my peers would be selected for the jury box. Two additional souls would be named to suffer as alternates.
As particularly disturbing as a case like this is, to test our fitness to serve without bias we were grilled with many questions, some uncomfortable: “Have you, a family member, or someone else you know, been a victim of sexual abuse?” The prosecuting attorney continued: “In your responses, please state only who was abused, for instance a sister, a friend — no names please — and whether the victim filed a police report.” One among us who stood up said that her niece had been raped. Reminded to state whether the niece had reported her abuse, her aunt said, “She did not. She was murdered.”
In all, more than 20 responded yes to the attorney’s inquiry about sexual abuse. Of those, six beseeched the judge to allow them to share their stories privately.
Before this grating, intensely emotional part of the six-hour jury-selection process mercifully ended (having taken up the entire third hour), the prosecuting attorney asked to interview one more person.
That ‘one more person’ was I.
“Juror 419, please stand,” said the prosecuting attorney.
We were all seated on the benches at which the public would gather during the trial: set to begin the next day. From the second bench, left of center aisle, I rose.
“Mr. Vanderbeek, I understand you’re a writer. What do you write?” asked the attorney.
“Literature,” I answered, “fiction, nonfiction.”
“Have you written about sexual abuse?” asked the attorney.
“Yes, a short story,” I answered. “Perhaps coincidentally, it was recently published in a national literary journal.”*
[A hush overtakes the courtroom.]
“Would you please expound, Mr. Vanderbeek.”
“By expound, ma’am, do you mean—?”
“I mean, would you describe, briefly please, what your story is about.”
“Surely,” I said. “The tale concerns a priest and sexual abuse of children.”
[Commotion now. “Please, people,” warns a bailiff, making the dropping hand gesture to quiet down.]
“And did your story require research?” asked the attorney.
“Yes,” I answered.
Thank you, Mr. Vanderbeek. No further questions.”
As I retook my seat I glanced peripherally at the old man beside whom I had sat for three hours (and would for three more). Up to that point we had endured the proceedings nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, yet had kept to ourselves, occasionally shuffling, otherwise maintaining silent composure. Yet at precisely the instant that my interview ended, whether in seeking comfort — he had been among the half dozen who requested private meetings — or in response to my testimony, the priest, resplendent in his impeccable black cassock and white clerical collar, suddenly wheezed and moved a good distance away.
- The Salvation of John Ambert. See Bibliography.