Any one of a thousand mornings, a man leaves one place and drives toward another. Maybe he forgets his lunch, or his shoe is untied, or he drops his smokes, so he’s late. Or maybe he doesn’t, it isn’t, or he quit a year ago, and he is right on schedule. Maybe he pounds the steering wheel in frustration because the lights are all against him, or maybe he gets green-lit all the way.
Maybe he normally drives someone he loves to work or school.
Maybe he’s the best friend to a thousand people. The most loving son a mother could ask for, the kind of person who takes care of everyone around him.
Maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s the kind of person who thinks only of himself, has very few friends, and spreads misery wherever he goes.
Maybe he’s listening to music as he drives, or some irreverent radio show, the kind that makes you laugh out loud and look to see if anyone saw. Maybe there are no pedestrians, no dogs crossing, nothing to impede his progress, or maybe he stopped half a dozen times before he reached this intersection, on this day.
A quarter of a mile away, another man is making a choice. It’s only the next in a series of bad choices, and it doesn’t look as if his pattern recognition has improved. The last car he stole was a Corvette, which he wrapped around a pole at 3am three months ago, and he is currently a fugitive. Today, he is driving a stolen pickup. His policy is consistent, and has a 100% fail rate thus far – if you see a cop, you run.
Which he does, the moment the red lights go on behind him.
Forty seconds. GO.
It’s a non-descript residential neighborhood. The people who live here don’t have much to spare; some work at mundane blue-collar jobs, some are retired and on a fixed income. Small boxy houses, tiny yards, some of them littered with toys. It is unseasonably cold outside, which may be why the yards are deserted, the children inside, because nothing gets in his way as he punches the gas and pushes that stolen truck to nearly a hundred miles per hour.
The police call off the chase almost immediately, but he doesn’t know that – he never looks back.
This particular intersection does not have a stop light. It doesn’t need one. It is a two-way stop, twin red octagons governing on good faith, and the first man probably passes by here every morning. It’s not a high-traffic neighborhood; there is no reason for him to be concerned as he proceeds through without a cursory glance to his left or right, even as it is already too late.
There is a carpet store at the next intersection. It’s a family-owned business that has been there longer than either of these men have been alive. The impact shakes the windows so violently that the owner first thinks there has been an earthquake, until he looks out of the store front window.
Out there, the two trucks are side by side, as if they had been racing in the same direction and called it a draw. Except that both have jumped the curb, nearly onto the porch of one of the boxy houses, the first truck pinned between the second and a tree.
The second man is trying to get out and run.
The first man is dead.
In less time than it took you to read this.
A thirty-second twist of fate in either direction on that day, and a year later I would probably have ended up two floors down, trying to find a way to weasel out of jury duty in a civil trial. The first man would still be alive.
As it was, I was in a courtroom, and I had just helped determine the fate of the second.
I got lost finding my way from the parking garage that morning. I did not feel qualified.
In this court, the jury foreman does not have to read the verdict. This is not Law and Order. That is what the judge said, smiling, when I asked. The clerk reads it. Instead, as he failed to mention, the foreman’s name will be read aloud in open court, once for each count, in front of the defendant, and his mother who weeps silently behind him. Further back, also weeping, is the family of the victim.
Guilty. Seven counts, the last of which was first-degree murder. I winced each time I heard my name.
First-degree murder does not always go to pre-meditation. He was charged with first-degree murder because the death occurred in commission with another felony, such as fleeing from police in a stolen vehicle. He was convicted because his impulsive decision ended in the death of an innocent human being. Because he had a chance to stop what he had set in motion and didn’t think or care enough. So.
I do not share this with you because I now have a new appreciation for the preciousness of life and the consequences of reckless decisions. This case is a better example of the chaotic nature of our existence, and the fact that all decisions can have dire and unseen consequences, than it is evidence of divinity or purpose. The victim decided to get into his car that morning with no more forethought than the defendant did when he floored the accelerator.
And I hate that platitude bullshit, anyway.
Nevertheless, after our second unanimous vote, I sat there and thought a little too long about how much time it takes to write a letter, to share a cup of coffee – the lifetime of seconds that it takes to be a better wife, or mother, or friend. And we all had to sit back down again so I, the foreman, could pull it together. Not a one of them rolled their eyes at me. A nice father-like juror from Texas, who was there because he forgot to change his driver’s license when he moved, patted my arm and told me to “take all the time you need.”
I thought about the man in the defendant’s chair. He is the same age as my husband. Did he have children? A girlfriend? How many lives were forever altered by his impulsive decision? Did he have the cognizance to look back and see the chances he had to change direction? Did he have the character to recognize it? I don’t know. I watched him throughout the trial, and he just seemed perplexed and overwhelmed. How does it feel to know that this moment, right now, is where your life ceases to be in your control?
Did he give a thought to that other driver, the one whose life he took?
I work with some of the funniest, most sarcastic people I have ever known. And I was openly, albeit good-naturedly mocked for returning to work that day, tearful and shaken. They brought me a box full of the news clippings and put them in my desk drawer “so you can make a scrapbook or something. Do they make stickers for that?”
I desperately needed the laugh, even at my own expense. Judging someone from a distance is far easier than looking him in the eye and attaching your name to that judgment, even when it is as straight forward as it was in this situation. I believe we did the right thing. I share this with you because it was so much harder than I thought it would be.