On The Sounds Of Justice

by Thomas Brett

A few weeks ago I was part of a jury for a criminal trial. The trial took nine days, and I had ample opportunity to listen–not just to all the legal stuff, the arguments, the evidence, but to the sounds of voices in the courtroom and in the jury deliberation room. Court proceedings are like musical performances in that they’re special kinds of rituals with repeated actions done in deliberate ways to achieve specific ends. In the courtroom, almost all of the action is verbal, and proper legal etiquette and protocol are everything. All is articulated, all is verbalized, all is sounded and noted for the record, all is compressed and captured into heard and felt words.

***

We the jury, coming from our deliberating room, are about to enter the courtroom.

Court Officer: “Jury about to enter.”

We enter and take our seats in the jury box.

Judge: “Do the people and the defense agree to the presence of the jury in their proper seating?”

Attorneys: “Yes your honor.”

Judge: “Very well. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back …”

I heard this exchange many, many times over the course of the trial, and the formality of the procedure to mark our entrance always kind of entranced me.

Sitting in our chairs, we heard the lawyers make their cases. Though arguing for different sides of the same coin, each lawyer used his/her voice to convince us right off the bat of the reasonableness of their side. The defense was particularly adept at sonically shifting gears, going into pseudo-casual tones or incredulous tones or confident swagger tones–all these shifts within moments of one another. I thought it was a compelling vocal display that felt like watching a virtuoso musician tear it up and amaze me with his instrumental skills. But it also reminded me of the work of magicians in that something about this facility with tone–ultimately a musical skill, really, right?–bordered on being an aural sleight of hand. Of course, I may just be overstating the case (pardon the pun), attuned as I am to sound of things. At any rate, it was a challenging task to clearly separate what the lawyers were actually saying from how they were saying it. Again, a musical analogy: there are many ways to play the same note and make it feel differently.

We the jury listened to witnesses too. And the judge advised us beforehand to pay attention to not only what they said but to their voices and body language too. And so we watched and listened to the stoic police officer whose small voice didn’t match his hulking body, the professional ballistics expert who sounded professional and matter of fact thank you very much, the emotional family member who sounded conflicted and distressed, and a witness who sounded, well, frankly erratic and unreliable.

***

After both sides had made their cases, we the jury retreated to deliberate. Up to this point, I hadn’t really heard the voices of my fellow jury members, nor they my voice, and so we began to talk. What soon became apparent was almost cliché: that the loudest voices in the room aren’t necessarily saying the most sensible things. But everyone had a voice, had a say, and we deliberated for two days. At one point, some of the quieter voices made their case to one of the louder voices–a quiet Have You Considered? sound in dialogue with I’ve Already Made Up My Mind sound. To my astonishment, I’ve Already Made Up My Mind gradually began to change her tune, morphing into a Well I Hadn’t Considered That and eventually into Well, Ok, I Hear What You’re Saying. It was like a musical improvisation, with tones of voices as much as reasoning acting upon one another to steer our deliberation along a path towards eventual (and necessary) unison agreement.

One of the reasons we the jury entered the courtroom so often was to receive clarification on legal matters from the judge. I didn’t realize that everything would be read to us only–no notes allowed, nothing written down. In the tradition of a true oral tradition, we had to listen and try to remember our terms and definitions from the judge’s performance. Interestingly, the judge didn’t make use of affect in his voice as he slowly and carefully unpacked layers of meaning for us. It was clinical and up to us to apply the judge’s definitions to our deliberations.

But while we the jury worried about remembering the sounds we had just heard, a silent woman sitting in front of the judge was capturing every word spoken at the trial. She of course was the court reporter working on her small and mysterious stenography machine, translating heard words into typed shorthand. I was enchanted by her too. She was like a silent keyboardist, translating in real-time the verbal flow into a music score for posterity. And I wondered, even if stenographer’s shorthand uses just a single letter in place of a word, how could she keep up? (Stenographers, I subsequently learned, must pass stenography typing tests of 225 words per minute (!) and have the fortitude to deal with what would seem to be an element of tedium in their chosen métier.) But keep up she did and we the jury heard the constant gentle thumping of her fingers marking the passing seconds and minutes of the trial.

The performance of the trial as a whole had a rhythm too. Its tempo felt glacial (matching the frigid air-conditioned temperature of the room), change happening slowly and almost imperceptibly, noticed only at those turning points when someone new was called to the stand, say, or when a piece of verbal testimony seemed to clash with another bit heard earlier. Fortunately, there were verbal syncopations too that accented and broke up the otherwise glacial pace:

Defense: “ObJECTion your honor!”

Judge: “OverRULED!”

One could hear this as a syncopated call and response–

ba-DA-boom ba-DA-boom (call)

bada-BOOM (response)

–that happened many times, and each time opened with the same rhythm.

When matters warranted further discussion, the lawyers and the judge would huddle up by the judge’s perch, whispering quietly among themselves. It reminded me of an operatic recitative section, that moment where a character stops singing and starts talking in speech-like tones to convey a lot of information, except in this case, we the jury were not supposed to hear what was being whispered. Still, it was fun to try.

At the end of the trial we the jury read our verdict on the various charges. Or rather, our foreman read our verdict on behalf of all of us. At this point, I thought we were finally done, but the defense lawyer wanted a word with the judge. More huddling and whispered recitative up at the front of the room, then the judge turns to us and announces that we will be asked to repeat our verdict on one of the charges, only this time we will give the court our verdict individually.

Gulp.

It takes all of thirty seconds, but in that short time each of we the jury get our micro-moment as a musical soloist, uttering a single word of judgement for the ears of the judge, the lawyers, and the defendant. They want to hear our voices to make sure we’re all on the same page. In a way, all of our deliberations feel compressed into these little vocal solos: we are being asked to speak.