When I turned 18, I couldn’t wait to vote. It was a rite of passage toward real adulthood. I was a lover of US History. I read books about the presidents and I read books about those who ran and didn’t win. What I didn’t know when I was able to vote was that it would introduce me to a great life experience.
About a year after I first voted in the early seventies, I received a summons to jury duty in federal court. My neighbor worked at the courthouse and wondered aloud if I was summoned to the “Wounded Knee takeover” trial. The trial was actually named The United States vs. Russell Means and Dennis Banks. Means and Banks were leaders of the AIM (American Indian Movement) organization and they faced 10 federal charges based on the takeover of the town of Wounded Knee. Although the charges were filed in South Dakota, the venue was changed to St. Paul in order for the defendants to receive a fair trial.
I was, in fact, summoned to be a juror for that trial. I was selected to serve on the jury after going through an interview with not only high profile attorneys like William Kunstler and Mark Lane but with the assistance of a panel of psychologists who were the first to use a new methodology for jury selection.
During the jury selection and trial, my 19 year old self experienced:
- Having some of my jury selection questions and answers published in the St. Paul paper
- Witnessing first hand a high profile trial and renowned and skilled attorneys
- Being featured in Newsweek magazine because our jury was selected using psychologists
- Learning about the rules of court and the rules of evidence
- Received intimidating mail from the John Birch Society and an anonymous person because of an answer I gave while being interviewed during jury selection
- Watching a star witness perjure himself
- Spending 9 months of my life in federal court
- Learning so much about what really happened at Wounded Knee in the early 70’s and learning so much about treaty rights and treaties not honored
- Unknowingly selecting a jury foreman who turned out to be highly prejudiced
- Experiencing being sequestered which included being allowed to read newspapers and watch TV only under the eyes of federal marshals to avoid seeing any information related to the trial
- After one of the jurors fell seriously ill during deliberations, the Government chose not to go on with 11 jurors so a mistrial was declared
- At the end of the trial, I was accused of “letting them go” by an angry neighbor because, before the mistrial, we found them not guilty on the first of 10 counts. The other 9 counts were never deliberated because our fellow juror fell ill and the jury alternates had been dismissed before deliberation. The neighbor didn’t care. He was furious with me. He didn’t have the facts but he didn’t care.
When I’ve shared this story, most people react by saying “I’d never want to be on a jury for so long!” And that may be true for most people. But I’d also argue that I learned so many valuable life lessons, experienced the pain of generations of Native Americans whose lives were forever altered because treaties were not honored, saw the legal system in action and learned respect and responsibility for serving as a juror . All because I voted for the first time when I turned 18.