Written by Jenni Chadick, Assistant Director of Residence Life
This past month, I was on jury duty for the first time. While at some times inconvenient, I found it a fascinating look at our criminal justice system, one that prompted many reflections on the role of conduct in higher education. In Residence Life, part of upholding our mission to provide safe and inclusive housing is addressing violations of our integrity code. This is what we refer to as conduct – enforcing university policy. These are the laws of a college campus. Laws that keep our community safe, encourage student learning, promote positive community building, and keep us in line with both state and federal policy. Some of these laws are universally understood as good ideas – i.e. not bringing weapons into our halls. Other laws some students often have spirited debates with hearing officers about – the legal drinking age and recent changes in Washington state marijuana laws come to mind. In the work I do, I have many fruitful and meaningful conversations with students about our campus policies. What I learned on jury duty is that it seems this open dialogue is much more a privilege than I realized.
“The Law as I Give It.” The first instructions we were given before beginning our deliberation as a jury was a reminder of what we had sworn an oath to uphold – we would make our judgment of guilt or innocence based on the law as provided by the judge presiding on the case. What this meant is that we were not to bias our opinions by researching any legal components of the case – from legal definitions of “reasonable doubt” to “assault with a deadly weapon.” These definitions were provided by the court, and that was what we had to guide us. This stood in stark contrast to our conduct policy of open dialogue, and giving students an opportunity to explain how they understand university policy. As a hearing officer, I of course have my own idea of the purpose and intent of our alcohol policy. This does not stop me from welcoming a well articulated dialogue with a student that shows thoughtfulness and critical thinking about their understanding of our policy. This discourse is important to student development and is something I hope helps them to better understand the purpose of the very laws I was helping to enforce as a juror. It was a humbling experience to realize this is not how our courts work, and that this is intentional. Remaining unbiased is the key to a democratic jury of peers, and it shows the importance of learning those critical thinking skills before sitting in the juror box.
The devil is in the details. It’s true in our conduct system, and it’s true in the U.S. criminal justice system. The details are important, and matter. The specific words police and witnesses use to describe an incident, the way each juror recalls witness testimony, the legal definition of a charge. These are all what our jury spent hours deliberating on, and making judgments as to a person’s guilt. There are not opportunities for the defendant to explain what he/she meant, or to provide context to our deliberations. We listened for eight days, and it took four days for us to discuss our understanding of what we heard. And we all heard different things, took away different meanings, and had to make sense of this without any further input from witnesses, the judge, or lawyers. And of the four counts we had to decide on, we could only come to consensus on one. Which leads me to the most important thing I learned.
Effective communication is key. How the defendant and the plaintiff communicated with each other as “roommates” (a married couple). How the witnesses and law enforcement communicated with each other at the scene. How the lawyers articulated their case. How the individuals involved advocated for themselves during the incident and in the courtroom. And even how we communicated with each others as jurors. We were a group of reasonable adults, a group that enjoyed lunches together and learning about each other’s life outside of deliberations. (There are even plans for a wine tasting for some of us.) But that doesn’t mean things went smoothly once deliberations got underway. It got heated. It got difficult to hear each other out. And it got personal, when it shouldn’t have. And I left with a renewed sense of why in Residence Life one of the most important things we aim to teach students is how to effectively communicate. I believe that if some of these communication issues could have been resolved the case may not have reached the courts, or at the very least we could have reached a verdict on all four counts. The length of the case, and the details we waded through, cost us as tax-payers a great deal. What a difference it would make if we learned to communicate effectively with others who have different opinions than our own.
Jury duty was a long and exhausting experience, and in the end it was a very worthwhile experience. Next time your summons card comes in the mail, I urge you to do your civic duty, and if you get called to a jury, take lots of notes!