What is Des Moines?

Final words about jury duty, a Boulder murder trial and vicarious trauma

My recent summons to jury duty came as I was nearly done writing the manuscript for North of Grand, my second crime novel. Having no idea what was on the docket, I tweeted something to this effect shortly before leaving home for the Boulder County Justice Center:

Reporting for jury duty. Potential fodder for a new crime story?

I deleted it soon after learning about the nature of the case.

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Pixabay image

As it turned out, I wasn’t among the first 44 individuals to be questioned during voir dire, so I expected to be done soon. I was wrong. Several people in that group were excused for various reasons so other names, including mine, were drawn from the pool of dozens of prospective jurors.

One of the prosecutors asked if I thought I’d be a good juror, and why. I said yes. I mentioned that I had a longtime interest in the workings of the justice system, that I’d served on a jury in a criminal trial in the past and had covered police and courthouse beats at times as a reporter.

I also mentioned writing crime fiction, just in case that might be important to anyone. The prosecutor smiled and asked if I would be using the case at hand in a story. Not directly, I said, adding that listening to real courtroom dialog again and seeing how people interact certainly could be useful in some way.

Eventually I found myself one of 16 jurors who were sworn in to serve on the panel. We could only wonder about which four of us were alternates until after the lawyers’ closing arguments. I was among the final 12 tasked with reaching a verdict.

During the three-week trial it was difficult to focus on much of anything else. I fell farther behind where I had hoped to be on my new manuscript. No urgent day-job deadlines loomed but I was able to do a few tasks some evenings and weekends.

It became almost impossible to walk by my suitcase in the basement without seeing things I cannot unsee. A touch on the shoulder or a bit of pain in my hip brought to mind the sight of a reciprocating saw and other cutting tools that were used to dismember the body of young Ashley Mead.

After reading the guilty verdicts in the courtroom and releasing us from jury duty, the judge asked us to meet with her in a conference room. She thanked us, answered a lot of questions, and asked us for feedback about the experience. We learned that there is something called vicarious trauma, and that the county would pay for two counseling sessions for each of us. The judge gave us a list of several professionals who would make time for anyone within 48 hours, and she encouraged everyone to contact one of them soon. I know I wasn’t the only juror to take advantage of the offer.

Now that the trial is over, I’m back to work on my day job, where there is no bailiff to say “all rise” before I enter a room. It’s good to be inconspicuous again.

I am also back working on my new manuscript, the second crime novel featuring Detective Red Shaw. There was no trial in Blood Solutions, and there will be no trial in North of Grand, but it will be a better story for the delay.

I did move my suitcase just a little farther back in the space under the stairs to the basement, recognizing as I did it that hiding it completely would be futile. I do trust that the images it brings to mind will fade with time.

That’s one of the positive things I can think of right now. Another is that the trial is history and I don’t feel compelled to write another word about it.

B.J.

Throwing journalists out of the White House is throwing the people out

The Esquire story about ending the decades-old presence of reporters in the White House will warm the hearts of those who enjoy denigrating “the press.”

the-white-house-1623005_1280It certainly isn’t a surprise that the new administration would consider taking the matter so far. They know that it pays to pander to the minority of voting citizens who helped them win the Electoral College vote. News organizations are an easy target.

The story quotes someone identified as a senior official as calling the press “the opposition party” and saying, “We are taking back the press room.” The new press secretary maintains that the move is about logistics, that having press conferences and briefings elsewhere will enable more “press” to attend. (Coincidentally or not, it would also enable the positioning of more paid staff to cheer and applaud.)

The words and the symbolism are important, so I think we need to clarify some terms.

Journalists (news reporters and editors) play an important role in our society. Unfortunately in some cases, so do the analysts, columnists, commentators, propagandists, and bloviators that some citizens mistake for journalists.

Journalists report on what is going on in the world and help readers and viewers understand what’s going on by providing valuable context. The others may or may not do that.

The former keep an eye on those in power on behalf of the citizens to whom the powerful are accountable. Some of the latter have the best interests of the public in mind; others have their own political or financial interests in mind. Some will lie if necessary or profitable.

Powerful people and others who see it to their advantage throw all of these purveyors of information and or lies* into the nebulous category of “the press,” or the more all-encompassing “the media.”

If moving the “press room” out of the White House makes it more difficult for journalists to do their work, that is cause for concern.

When the incoming administration labels journalists an “opposition party,” it puts itself in direct opposition to the American people and the U.S. Constitution.

It slaps all citizens in the face, whether they feel the sting yet or not.


* Lie: Fake news, misinformation, and disinformation are among the popular euphemisms for this straightforward and easily understood term. See the Merriam-Webster definition of the verb form that means making an untrue statement with intent to deceive.

I support law enforcement, but maybe not the way you do

A friend of mine, a fellow Navy veteran, shared this black-and-blue image the other day from a Facebook page called Police Lives Matter. 2016-10-03_1757

I didn’t share it.

Does that mean I’m afraid to share those four words? Does it mean I don’t believe police lives matter?

Not at all. I might actually share something akin to “I support law enforcement” under certain conditions:

  1. If I knew exactly what it meant.
  2. If the message didn’t insinuate that neglecting to share it marked me and other non-sharers as anti-cop America-haters.
  3. If it didn’t come from a page whose existence is so obviously in-your-face backlash against #BlackLivesMatter, as if police being held accountable were in some way equivalent to the oppression experienced by descendants of slaves.

“I support law enforcement” is so vague as to be meaningless unless you recognize it as shorthand for “the cops are always right.” If that’s not what you mean, you have to clarify and qualify before I will share it.

Here are some statements that  I will share:

I support law enforcement by paying my taxes.

I support the enforcement of just laws by honorable, competent public servants.

I respect individual law enforcement officers who treat me and other people with respect.

I’m sorry that took more than four words.

Feel free to share.

So you think you’re a patriot?

You say you love your country, that you are devoted to it. My dictionary says that’s patriotism, so maybe you are a patriot.
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How do you demonstrate your love and devotion?

You fly the flag, at least on certain holidays?

You celebrate Independence Day, maybe with some sparklers for the kids?

You stand for the national anthem? Take off your hat? Place your hand over your heart? That’s cool if you really mean it. I do those things myself.

What else?

Maybe you’ve served in the military, or as an honest elected official, or you’re active somehow in bettering your local community. Those can be authentic ways to show your true colors, that you care about this big place.

How about this? Do you savagely criticize anyone who sits or kneels in protest at anthem time? Do you question their motives? Wish them harm?

That doesn’t make you a patriot. It doesn’t do anything for your country, but it’s your right. I readily acknowledge that it is your right even though I disapprove of how you choose to exercise it.

As much as I disapprove, I won’t suggest that you leave the country, or call for you to lose your job, or hope that you suffer some terrible misfortune. What I will do is suggest that you take stock of what it is that makes you think you are a patriot.

What have you really done for your country?

What are you are willing to do to prove your love and devotion?

The United States needs more from you than a willingness to stand with the crowd during the national anthem and a knee-jerk condemnation of those who protest.

What else will you do, my fellow American?

 

Cyclists as targets, as humans

A few days ago I met a man who within minutes referred to cyclists as “targets.” He was driving down a Boulder County hill that is very popular with cyclists, runners, walkers and occasional daredevils on skateboards.

As politely as I could, I let him know that his comment was not funny even though (I hoped) it was intended as a joke.

I didn’t see him again until this morning. The first thing he did was apologize and shake my hand. I thanked him for that. I told him there are people who really do treat us as targets. He didn’t seem to know that.

Judging solely by their actions, some motorists do think of us that way. They target cyclists for verbal abuse, spit, bottles and cans, black smoke and worse. Some drivers buzz by within a foot or even inches in order to intimidate, and I imagine some of those drivers have hit their targets and left the scene.

I didn’t expect an apology from my new acquaintance. Apologies, especially real ones, are rare these days. I hoped simply that he would remember our brief exchange when encountering people on bicycles and think of them as fellow human beings.

The apology was a nice bonus.

 

When they is (are?) one person

Is there no better alternative to “they” for an individual who identifies as neither male nor female, but as non-binary? I’ve seen many alternatives but am not persuaded that any of them are better.

This has come up a a few times recently in my little corner of the world. The most recent example was in this NPR story about someone who “is no longer legally male or female and prefers the pronoun ‘they’.”

It’s confusing to use they in a sentence when referring to one person. Small issue, maybe, but it’s the only thing that bugs me about the story.

Well, OK, it’s not the only thing.

Far, far worse and infinitely more distressing is the hate that burbles up from the depths when stories like these come to light. I briefly thought about disconnecting from social media, or at least trying harder to avoid the vile, toxic comments that are so common in the world’s dark online underbelly.

I sometimes envy a good friend who no longer watches the news and has no social media presence or interest. I suppose part of the reason is that he is a lawyer, a former prosecutor who now defends the accused. I imagine he’s had more than his fill of exposure to the uglier side of humanity.

It’s hard for me to imagine disconnecting to that extent as a writer. So far, I’m unable to turn away. Maybe it’s because of my education and experience as a journalist, or some character flaw that makes me inordinately curious about the evil among us.

When “they” is among a person’s preferred pronouns (mine are he/him/his, BTW), I try to respect that, as difficult as it might make construction of a clear sentence.

The slimy creatures that spew hatred from greasy keyboards and incite others to commit violence against people who are different?

It is important to know that those people exist, but they deserve respect from no one.