Earlier this week I finally had the chance to serve on a jury. I’ve been called several times, but more often than not, I have been dismissed from the general cattle call right away. Once, I made it into a courtroom and participated in the attorneys’ voir dire. That was a criminal trial, alleged aggravated assault, with a pair of defendants (whose middle names were respectively Napoleon and Canute — no kidding! And that really tickled my literary fancy, I can tell you!), but I didn’t make that jury. This time, I did; and so I engaged in the only opportunity ordinary citizens have for direct participation in government.
My trial was a civil lawsuit in the 191st District Court, Judge Gena Slaughter presiding — and don’t you just love her name! One thing I found very interesting about this trial was that the defendant was not a native speaker (though he could speak “a lot of English”), and so he experienced the entire trial through chuchotage. This is a wonderfully onomatopoeic word for whispered simultaneous interpretation. This was inaudible to those of us on the jury until the defendant took the stand to give his own testimony. At that point, I listened carefully to his answers in Spanish, and the interpreter’s translations into English. Now I am certainly not fluent in Spanish, but I can speak and understand enough to follow along fairly well, especially when a translation immediately ensues. For the most part, the interpreter was excellent; however, I did notice a few instances when she failed to render something he had said into the English testimony, or rendered it somewhat more loosely than perhaps she ought.
On our jury, we had only two fluent Spanish speakers, and during our deliberations, I asked them whether they had noticed the same minor errors and oversights. They had, and we brought this to the attention of the rest of the jury. None of these mistakes were of the kind of importance that would alter our verdict (and were surely within accepted legal tolerance), but they do raise thorny questions about communication — especially in an environment where the precision of legal definitions and a preponderance of Latin and French legal terminology can make successful communication even entirely in English problematic. As we were to learn firsthand during our deliberations!
And here’s an anecdote to back that up. I happened to have my copy of Nicholas Ostler’s biography of Latin with me, which I read from while in recess or during breaks in the jury room. This didn’t go unnoticed, and several of us had a conversation about the history of Latin as well as why I should be reading about any such thing.
Later, during deliberation, a preliminary canvas showed a split of eight to four on the question of “negligence” and “proximate cause” in our case. We debated, argued, asked questions, drew diagrams, talked over each other, and generally did exactly what juries do for another two hours, during which only one person from the majority defected to the minority (which didn’t help the prospects for a verdict, as we were required to agree by at least ten to two, not eight to four, or seven to five).
Finally, I tasked myself with closely parsing and puzzling over the several pages of legal definitions the judge had given us, obviously something I should have done much sooner. This included the definitions of such vague terms as “proximate cause,” which sounded straight out of Aquinas: “Effects are denominated necessary or contingent, as the case may be, by the condition of their proximate causes.” ). This led me to come up with another, less equivocal way to phrase the jury charge. Not unlike Cicero, I daresay, and with my biography in Latin on the table in front of me, I orated clearly and concisely, for no more than two minutes; whereupon, we took another canvas. Apparently, I had flipped all seven remaining in the majority over to the minority opinion, resulting in an immediate unanimous verdict. Jaws dropped around the table, and I sat down. One of my fellow jurors broke the silence by saying, “I guess you have to read about the history of Latin to be able to make something like that happen.”
And people have always told me I’d make a hell of a lawyer. Case closed. :)
 St. Thomas Aquinas. Philosophical Texts. Sel. and trans. by Thomas Gilby. London: Oxford University Press, 1951, p.257.