I sent a man to prison last month. And it wasn’t the first time.
Before I get accused of melodramatic hyperbole here, let me explain.
A couple weeks ago, I was scheduled for jury duty in Tulsa County. This marked the second appearance serving our judicial system in almost exactly 10 years. My previous experience was very traumatic. At the time I was the youngest person on a jury that sentenced a man to prison for about 25 years on two counts of sexual molestation. Without getting into the gory details, the two victims were his children.
We spent several hours in the deliberation room before all 12 of us could produce a guilty charge. I was the next to last person to change my vote. When I got home that night, I broke down the moment my mom opened the door. The trial shook me in ways I’d never felt before.
So when I got the summons in the mail a few months ago, my mind immediately took me back to the spring of 1999 and all of those emotions lurked in my subconscious, waiting to make their presence felt again.
It was with great trepidation that I went back to the courthouse on that first Monday morning. Part of me wanted to get on a trial so I could get it over with while another part of me hoped to avoid sitting with a jury as to avoid a repeat of that hideous case from a decade ago.
The suspense ended pretty quickly. My name was called and I joined the second group of the first day. It was a criminal case involving a charge I’d rarely heard before-feloniously pointing a firearm.
After a laborious jury selection, I was picked to sit in the third juror’s seat. I wasn’t officially referred to as “Juror No. 3.” I just thought that sounded like something cool you might hear in a movie or on a TV show.
Of course, we were constantly reminded that fictional depictions do NOT reflect the real courtroom experience. In particular, there were multiple references to “CSI” which has become the justice system’s pariah over the past several years due to the public’s heightened expectations of what kind of evidence should be produced in any given criminal case.
Our case involved a man who got into a altercation on the streets one late summer night that resulted in him pointing a weapon at the back of a woman’s head in the presence of her 15-year old daughter.
I don’t want to bore you with the details here-although there was quite a bit of intrigue that unfolded over the 20 hours we spent on the case. I will tell you that the deliberation was much different than 10 years ago. This time, the initial vote was 9-3 in favor of a guilty charge and it only took about another 30 minutes for a unanimous decision.
After we read the verdict, we were then blindsided by the news that there was a second count against the defendant. Because he had three prior felonies (information that was inadmissible during the initial trial), there was a second felony charge of firearm possession. We had to sit through another trial-albeit much shorter-and then deliberate and go through the sentencing process.
But before the second trial was completed, the defense threw a curveball and put the defendant (presumably by his choice) on the witness stand. The man who had sat silent for two days now wanted to give his side of the story. It was a convoluted tale that was in complete contrast to the testimonies of the two victims and the police officer who came to the scene. One of the most interesting things he said, however, was how he would never have a gun because of his children. That was first indication we had been given that the defendant was a father. More on that in a moment.
When we went back to the deliberation room, it was a no-brainer. We had already convicted the man on the first charge so we logically had to do the same on the second charge. The more difficult task was deciding how many years we would sentence him in prison. The choices were 20 to life on the first count and three to life on the second count. After almost an hour of discussion, we decided on a total of 50 years in prison.
When I got home that night around 11:30 p.m., I wasn’t nearly as exhausted as I was 10 years earlier. The experience hadn’t taken the same arduous toll on my psyche or on my spirit. That changed somewhat when my five and a half year old son Lance burst out of his room to greet me. He had been waiting for me to get home and was excited to tell me about his day.
At that very moment, I was instantly reminded of the defendant’s words just a couple hours earlier and the revelation that he too had children. And it broke my heart. Not that he was unjustly treated. No, I truly believe that he committed the crime and needed to be punished as a way to hopefully set him straight someday and as a means to make the streets a safer place.
But just the thought that this man who had been in and out of jail since his teens and was living an alcohol-induced life of misery was a father made me think about the thousands of men just like him and the thousands of children who live in such horrid situations or live without the security of a responsible, caring father. It was a staggering thought-like an episode of “Law & Order” come tragically to life.
It’s strange how you have to see the extreme result of unbridled sin up close and personal in order to understand just how destructive a life devoid of God’s influence can be. We all deal with sin on a daily basis. We are all tempted to do things that go against His Word-things that can creep up on us and ever-so-slowly separate us from our heavenly Father.
It makes me wonder how a person gets to the point where committing felonies is second nature. I know that there have been times when it was way too easy to give into the sins of envy, unforgiveness, bitterness, jealousy, lust and pride. But I always knew when I was tempting God’s grace and was able to turn away from those temptations and get back on the right path. I can never imagine harming another person or facing the consequences of breaking the law.
Yet the Bible tells us that we should never be surprised to see the courtrooms filled with hardened people who have allowed the difficulties of life to turn them into criminals. Romans 1:18-32 prophetically reads like a police blotter or an episode of the Hollywood gossip show “TMZ.”
Despite the fact that “God has made (the truth) plain to (mankind)” (1:19), so many people “neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts became darkened” (v. 21).
The passage goes on to talk about what happens when man denies God’s sovereignty. “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (v. 29-31).
And the scary thing is to think that all of us-no matter how great our upbringing was or good we think we might be-are capable of falling into varying degrees of that dangerous lifestyle if we ever find ourselves separated from God due to our unrepentant sin.
There’s so much more I’d like to share, but this blog has run its course. So next time, I’ll talk again about my jury duty experience and how God’s grace and the biblical concept of justice are vastly different from man’s legal system.
Chad Bonham is a freelance author, journalist and television and documentary producer from Broken Arrow, Okla. He has authored several books including a four-book FCA series (Regal Books) and is the coordinating producer on a forthcoming documentary called Choosing Life.