The first words that come out of the foreperson’s mouth inspire hope. The defendant’s eyes widen, a smile creeps across his face, his shoulders relax: not guilty, not guilty. And then the list begins: guilty, guilty, guilty.
The system says we are innocent until proven guilty. Yet a jury does not decide you are proven innocent, they decide you are not guilty. There’s a difference. One is not guilty when the prosecution does not prove its case, or, perhaps because one really is innocent.
The young man is baby-faced. He has perfected the blank stare, one that he thinks betrays nothing, except it does. He is angry. He is scared. As the charges are read, I zone out; I don’t look at anyone but the judge, except for a moment. As the guilties roll in, he looks stunned, then furious. He curses under his breath.
In a few years, he could have been a student in my class. But in reality, in a few years, he would likely be right where he is now: in his neighborhood, in a trial, in a jail, not moving further from where he was born.
Sitting across from him, I realize that my innocence of his world is a mix of dumb luck and naïveté. There’s intellectual skepticism that people like me harbor: the system is rigged. By claiming that, people like me can sleep at night. Deep down, however, we believe that the system will work, because we want it to.
The defense polls the jury—do you all agree?—and all 12 of us say yes. My stomach drops. I do not doubt our verdict, but I doubt my innocence.