Oppenheim: Justice On Trial

Oct 11, 2018

I’ve been in a slump, discouraged by our national politics and a sense that it isn’t truth that matters these days, but which side is better at manipulation when our friend Gretchen asked if we’d like to watch closing arguments in a murder trial.

My wife and I were visiting Gretchen in North Carolina and this invitation may sound odd for a supposedly fun trip, but perhaps odder still - we said yes.

Some context: Gretchen is the director of a non-profit agency that represents death row inmates. She’s someone who’s had a profound effect on my thinking – and not so much about whether the death penalty is immoral – but because she’s tuned me into how representation can be wildly uneven, and the system can be especially biased against people of color.

This wasn’t a capital case - life or death was not on the line. Rather, a young attorney in her office was getting experience by defending a client who’d been charged with killing a man during a drug deal gone bad.

It had been a while since I’d been in a courtroom, and as we entered, I immediately took note of the main players: the judge, the attorneys, the defendant, and most of all, the jury, a balanced mix of African-Americans, whites, men and women.

For about an hour, we watched the district attorney methodically go through the case. He knew the facts and pulled them together without staring at his notes.

Gretchen’s colleague came next, pointing out holes in a circumstantial case that rested largely on the physical evidence of a single palm print – and the testimony of a snitch.

The jury was paying attention. Ultimately, they’d have two choices – guilty or not guilty – and though I didn’t know all they did, I thought it could be a tough call given that both closing arguments were persuasive.

So there I was, sitting in a room where attorneys were arguing the facts of a murder case. And the whole thing put me in a better mood.

I can’t claim to have left with a clear picture of right or wrong, but I cherish those moments when I felt like justice might still have a chance.