Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sitting in Judgment - Part 2

In my last post, I talked about my recent experience in serving as a juror in a criminal case. Another thing I've been thinking a lot about is one of the questions the prosecutor asked during the "voire dire" of the jury panel (when they ask us a bunch of stuff to decide who they want to strike).

She asked something like, "What would be your primary goal in sentencing a person convicted of a criminal offense: isolation/protection of society, deterrence, or rehabilitation?" As we went around answering that question, there were a few whose response was isolation, and a good number said rehabilitation, but the most common response was deterrence. The idea is that a sentence one person receives sends a message to others who might contemplate committing such a crime. As I reflected on the question she asked us, I thought that all of them have some purpose in sentencing. I actually would rank deterrence last. For one thing, I'm not sure a sentence one person receives is going to make a lot of difference for another in restraining his or her behavior. Otherwise nobody would ever commit a crime for which they would receive a death sentence. As the record in the state of Texas demonstrates, we're sentencing people to death right and left, and they seem to keep coming. That's one reason I don't believe in the death penalty (don't get me started on that - I'll save that for another time). In short, I don't think deterrence really works very well. For me protecting society, particularly for a violent person would be a more valid purpose than deterrence. And most importantly a sentence should be appropriate for both the crime someone has committed and the person who has committed it, not somebody else.

But one of the ways she elaborated on her framing of the question, in acknowledging that we might believe all three have some part in it made it clear for me what my response is. She said, "What would you hope to achieve by giving someone a sentence?" I could easily respond, "Rehabilitation." Although I realize that in many cases, rehabilitation might not be very likely or reasonable to expect, I still would hope for that. It would be my goal.

During the closing arguments in the sentencing phase of the trial the prosecutor brought up this question again and talked to us about it. She focused on deterrence, on "sending a message." And then in talking about rehabilitation she said, "This man is beyond rehabiliation, rehabilitation is not possible in his case." As we were deliberating in the jury room regarding the defendant's sentence, I said, "Even though it may not be likely in this case, I don't believe that anyone is beyond rehabilitation. I have based my life and work on the notion that people's lives can be changed."

I fully believe that. Sometimes it's easy for us to become cynical about that notion - not just in criminal cases, but in life in general. You've heard people say it, "People don't change." You may have said it yourself. It's not only an attitude we tend to have about other people, but even about ourselves. Sometimes we feel trapped in our own lives. And the gospel actually tells us that we are trapped; that we can't change...without God. The promise of the gospel is that God is in the business of transforming our lives, setting us free from the life in which we find ourselves trapped. But it does require our turning to God and allowing him to work in us, to transform us, to change us. That's rehabilitation.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sitting in Judgment - Part 1

This past week I had an experience which was a first. I have received jury summons a few times before over the years, but have never served on a jury. In a couple of cases I was excused, in a couple more the case didn't come to trial, and in one case, I just wasn't picked - I had too high a number. This time I was picked. So for the first time, I served on a jury.

This was a criminal case, which although more poignant than a civil case, was more interesting. The case seemed pretty simple - cut and dried, when we first learned of the charge being tried. In fact, I wondered why it had even come to a jury trial at all. The charge was "Failure to Appear," otherwise known as "Bail Jumping." I mean, either the person showed up for court or he didn't.

But as the case unfolded, it appeared that it wasn't as simple as it first seemed. Although we ended up finding the defendant guilty, we did deliberate for almost a couple of hours, and the first "straw" vote we took wasn't unanimous. Although none of us seemed to think he was innocent, several were uncomfortable with some aspects of the case, and weren't sure at first the state had proved it " beyond a reasonable doubt." But as we continued to discuss it, we all came to agree for a verdict of guilty.

Then, we came back in for the punishment part of the trial to determine the sentence. That became really sobering. We learned that "Failure to Appear" is not necessarily even a felony offense, unless the charge for which the defendant was to appear was a felony, which it had been in this case. So the sentencing parameters were a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 10 years. That's pretty stiff. Then we learned that if the defendant found guilty of this charge has served one prior prison sentence, the parameters are 2-20 years. And if the person has two or more prior sentences, they are considered a "habitual criminal" and the minimum sentence is 25 years and the maximum is life or 99 years! Although some mention of this came out during the first part of the trial, during the punishment phase this realization really sunk in. The least we would be sentencing this person was 25 years. The prosecutor wanted us to sentence him to 50 years. In the end, we sentenced him to 30 years.

It's an awesome and terrible responsibility to be in the position to decide a person's fate as we did this week. Of course, it's true that he decided his own fate ultimately by his own behavior, not only the charge we decided, but the other crimes he had committed for most of his adult life. But that still doesn't take away the sober task of sitting in judgment of another person like that.

Yet it still was a good experience in these ways: it is an important thing to do in our society, and it was good in the way all of us who served as jurors, who didn't know each other, worked together and took our task very seriously. It's an important thing to do. I'll have some more to say about this experience next time.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


It's been about a month since I last posted. I had plans to do it before now, but just a couple of weeks after the last one, my whole world got turned upside down. I received a call from a couple of members of the Bishop's Cabinet with their desire for me to consider moving to another church. My district superintendent's opening words in the phone call were, "Jason, this is the call you didn't want to receive." My response was, "You've got to be kidding me." I wasn't ready to move. I saw myself serving here in Victoria for maybe another four years (I've just been here four), or at least a couple more. As I listened to what they said, I had all kinds of reasons going through my head why I wouldn't want to accept this new appointment. But echoing in the background of this whole conversation, I thought I could detect the voice of God. I asked lots of questions, and was assured I had the privilege of declining (which is good - not always the case in these situations). But as Joan and I thought, prayed, sat in stunned silence, and as much as we really grieved doing so, I said yes.

But, if you have to move from a place you don't want to leave, there are a lot worse places to go than Fredericksburg, TX! Many of the folks I've told about our moving have said, "Oh, no," and then when I tell them where I'm going, they invariably say, "Well!"

Now it seems like it's going to happen tomorrow, even though we don't move until June. One reason for that is we're going abroad on the longest vacation we've ever taken (three weeks) and won't return until right before we move. So we have to be packed before we leave on that trip. We are now in the process of trying to prepare, tie up loose ends, pack (ugh!) and do the emotional and relational work of saying goodbye, bringing closure, and grieving with the dear folks here in Victoria. I hope I'll find time to post some more during this process. Meanwhile, the whirlwind continues!