She entered the courtroom in absolute possession of determination, self-assurance and flair. The fabric of her African dress swished and flowed as she marched to the front of the room. She flung her brightly colored wrap around her shoulders before she raised her right hand. As she took her seat, she adjusted her perfectly matched head wrap.
I suppose you could call her an imposing figure-her height, her confidence and the abundance of deep purple, magenta and orange fabric she was wrapped in all demanded your attention. Yet, it was the intensity and pinpoint focus of her eyes that caught my attention.
We couldn’t have been more different.
She owned the room while I shifted awkwardly in my chair. She was tall, black and elegantly African. I was short, white and wearing comfortable Nike shoes and mom jeans. Her oversized orange hoop earrings hung from her ears. I fingered my ears and tried to remember where my stud pearls were. We were not just different physically. Geographically, politically, economically and philosophically we were born into opposite ends of the worldwide spectrum.
Yet here we sat, 20 feet from each other--her fate was in my hands.
Her history brought her to the United States, where, many years later, she found herself fighting to prove her innocence. As the lawyers presented their sides, it was clear the case was quite complicated on many levels. The testimony required interpreters for the French and Arabic languages as well as a few unique African dialects. The difference in cultural nuances and traditions often clouded the facts and made testimony quite unclear and certainly more complex. Even the simple definition of “friend” was never quite nailed down. Each day I found myself in a whirlpool of African immigrant history, tradition and culture mixing with the spirit, routine and resolve present in their current, very American lives. It was my job to filter it all through the American judicial system.
Later, I would find out she lived not far from me-just a few miles. I wondered if we shopped at the same stores. I wondered if she was being a good mother to her kids.
Later, I would find out the incident took place half a block from where my daughter was considering going to college. I drove past the door they said she stormed out of. I recognized the very place they said she became guilty. I saw the very place she became bloodied.
Later, I would look up news reports of the incident. Later, I would be shocked at how much information was ruled inadmissible in court. Later, I would wonder if it would have made a difference in the outcome.
But sitting in my jury chair, I knew the only possible answer was “NOT GUILTY”. Was it possible she was guilty? Maybe. Was it proven? Not at all.
When I left that courthouse I went home to cook dinner for my husband and children. Yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Most of all I wondered: Did she leave that courthouse and go home to cook dinner for her husband and children, too? Was it possible that we really weren’t that different after all?
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