“That they might have joy” column by Jacki Wood
I started working as a reporter here at the Nodaway News Leader about a year ago.
Several months into the experience, after I got my feet a little wet, I was given a few new responsibilities including court reporting.
It sounds a little more glamorous than it actually is. My job has been to review the list of cases after each time court is held and then record what action was taken. I never actually went into the courtroom.
In fact, the only time I had ever been inside a courtroom was at County Government Day when I was an eighth grader at Washington Middle School. And then this year when I covered it for the NNL.
That was until this past June, when I was subpoenaed to testify in a jury trial in Springfield.
It all stemmed from an incident in February of 2006 when a man wandered onto our doorstep who had been stabbed. I called 911 and my husband and I helped the guy until the police and paramedics could arrive.
A detective came to investigate the following day. After her questioning, she said she felt the victim was a stand-up guy, in the wrong place at the wrong time. He eventually recovered and visited us a few months later to thank us.
So, now, more than a year later, I didn’t understand why I had been called to testify as a witness since I hadn’t really witnessed anything.
But, being subpoenaed and all, and also a bit curious as to what actually happens inside of a courtroom, I headed to Springfield. I was hoping it would be a valuable learning experience, an education, per se, in the whole court process.
That was my hope, anyway.
Once I arrived, and after I had waited for several hours, I met with the assistant prosecuting attorney. We reviewed five pages of questions he would or could ask me while on the stand.
And then he explained that I was there to fill in the gaps of the story. He said the jury needed to hear the whole story, from beginning to end, so I was acting as a secondary witness. Even though I hadn’t seen the stabbing, I could tell a portion of the evening’s events like no one else could.
When I was finally called in to testify, I approached the judge, was sworn in and seated in front of a microphone.
As I began answering questions, I casually looked around at everyone, trying to take in as much of the experience as I could.
Out of the corner of my eye, I glanced toward the members of the jury, the court reporter who was typing the proceedings, the assistant prosecuting attorney and his assistant, the defense (a man I had never seen before) and his lawyer and a couple of other people in the back of the room.
I answered the questions as I remembered the evening unfolding.
And just as soon as it started, it seemed, it was over. No further questions. Thank you, Mrs. Wood, you may step down.
I walked out of the courtroom feeling good about myself – for having been a solid, although secondary, witness and for doing my civic duty to put away one of the “bad guys.”
Or, so I thought.
A few days later, as I was reading on the Springfield newspaper’s website, there it was: Jury deliberates for less than an hour and . . . NOT GUILTY.
Not guilty? I sat there in disbelief, my mind reeling.
Why hadn’t “we” won? Did the other girl, the actual witness to the crime, show the jury she was unreliable by the way she talked or dressed? Was the victim not all he was cracked up to be? Or was the assistant prosecuting attorney so overworked he didn’t have time to focus all of his attention on this case?
I went on for days, assuming this and that, and then it finally hit me. I assumedthis man on trial was guilty.
I assumed his guilt because I was called on behalf of the prosecution.
I assumed his guilt because the victim seemed like a good guy.
I assumed many things, but did not really know anything about the other events of that night in February.
All I really knew was that a man knocked on my door and said “call 911, I’ve been stabbed,” and then I proceeded to help him.
I should not have assumed anything about the defendant. I did not know him. I was not there.
We, all of us, assume things about people from things we hear or by the way someone looks or talks or where they come from. Many times it’s simply a gut reaction.
But those immediate reactions can then lead to rumors. We assume this or that about this person or that person without really knowing the whole truth.
In small towns like the ones we live in, we feel we know the whole truth about people because we see them everyday at the store or the post office or the coffee shop. But just because we see them everyday doesn’t mean we really know them.
My much-anticipated experience in the courtroom that day didn’t really teach me much about court at all, but it did teach me a far more valuable lesson.
A rush to judgment on my part was wrong. It usually is.
Before we speak, think or act . . . let’s pause. Get the whole story. Be the stopping point for rumors. And try walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
It’s good exercise.