On the second day of jury selection, we sit on wooden benches at the back of the courtroom. Over and over, the judge thanks us for our patience while reminding us of our civic responsibilities. We nod like obedient children. The accused, dressed in a gray suit, sits with his back to us.
Yesterday, we gathered in a basement room of the courthouse. The judge admonished us to not discuss the trial with family and friends, nor to research it in the media. “No newspapers, no internet,” he said, looking at us from under dark eyebrows. He didn’t tell us what the crime was.
I squirm in my seat as the attorneys lob questions at the prospective jurors, ending with either, “You may return to your seat” or “Please remain in the jury box.” It reminds me of when the two most athletic boys in my third-grade class chose teams for softball. After they divided up the best players, the boys, forced to choose between the remaining less coordinated eight-year-olds, made deals with each other: “I took her last time” and “OK, but I’m putting him in the outfield.”
Every time the attorneys select someone for the jury, we shuffle forward, one seat closer to the front of the courtroom. Behind me, a large man with a buzz cut starts talking. “A cougar’s just a big cat,” he says. “Like all cats, it can’t stop flicking its tail.” No one pays any attention.
I’ve been summoned for jury duty three times. The first time, the judge excused us after the defendant failed to show up. Eight months pregnant, I was happy to leave the courtroom. The second time, I stared at the back of the defendant’s head for six hours. The crime was child sexual abuse. After a protracted and, to me, opaque exchange, the attorneys chose twelve people. The judge released the rest of us.
Sitting on a hard wooden bench at the back of the courtroom, I watch as the defendant laughs at something the public defender said. A woman with long red-blond hair answers a question. I recognize her. I had plenty of time to admire her hair yesterday when she stood in front of me as we waited to enter the courthouse.
The man with the buzz cut says to no one, “I warned my granddaughters about cougars. I told them, that’s how you’ll spot one, by the flick of its tail.”
Just before noon, the judge releases those of us who weren’t chosen. To my surprise, the trial starts as soon as we head for the door. It’s as if the whole process depends on our absence.
Which, I suppose, it does.
I admit to a vague disappointment: for the third time, I have not been chosen for jury duty. On my way out, feeling slightly miffed, I pass two women sitting on a bench near the courtroom door. They could be mother and daughter, with curly dark hair and the same brown eyes.
Freed from the responsibility of being a juror, I search the internet when I get home. I discover that the defendant is on trial for stabbing his nineteen-year-old girlfriend twenty-three times and burying her body under the floorboards of his house. They met on a dating site three weeks before her death.
There’s a photograph of the accused, but not of the murdered young woman. Then I recall the two women I saw at the courtroom earlier that day. If they were her mother and sister, I might have seen something of her in their faces.
A few days later, I read in the newspaper that the jury took thirty minutes to sentence the defendant to life in prison. On the next page, I see a small headline. Cougar Sightings on the Rise, it says.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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