my peers

16 April, 2008

This morning was my first stint on jury duty and it was not at all what I expected. For one thing, knitting needles are prohibited as weapons in the district court! So after scurrying back to my car to drop off my sweater-in-progress, I slipped through the metal detector and got to sit and wait for a long, long while until about half of my fellow jurors showed up. Six of us were chosen randomly (me first!) to serve on two guardianship cases. In the first case, it was easy for us to decide unanimously that a girl a few weeks from her 18th birthday who had only one hemisphere of her brain and a seriously debilitating physical syndrome should have her medical, personal, and financial decision-making powers legally given to the parents who have raised her and will continue to care for her. Her parents had filed the petition and they, the Commonwealth attorney, and her guardian ad litem were all in agreement about the best resolution of the case for her, so they were happy with our decision.

Harder, though, was the second case, a paranoid schizophrenic who chose not to attend her competency hearing. She’s apparently very intelligent, but obviously also unwell. And like many people with mental illnesses (and, going by what my antibiotics bottles always say, physical ones) she has a tendency to stop taking her medicine once she’s semi-stabilized. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of adoption blogs dealing with how parents can be trapped by the system when they’re unable to parent unsafe children they love, so I was sympathetic to the way this guardianship/curatorship setup was being portrayed. On the other hand, I have a history of mental illness and while I’ve never wrangled with the law, there are times I’ve thought I’d be fine without pills when that turned out very much not to be the case. Oh, and there were times when I was on pills that made me significantly less fine than I’d be otherwise, and I was terrified by the number of heavy-duty antipsychotics this woman is supposed to be taking. So because of that or maybe just independently, it was hard to have to sit there and sign off on taking away her rights. I had to think a lot about it and really consider the doctor’s commentary (though what makes me think I can trust what HE wrote?) and wonder what kind of life I would want for this woman, whether I can believe she really wants help when it’s clear from her file she resists it mightily. But I thought and thought and still agreed that she was probably better off, in practical terms, unable to manage her money and make major independent decisions about her life and behavior. And that makes me feel a little queasy even as I know it was what the people she’s menaced would want, what she doesn’t want but what might get her to a place where she is able to change her mind about that. I’m not asking her to be reconditioned, not doing anything terrible, and yet I think about all the people wrongly committed against their will and I wonder how easy it would be to read their doctors’ reports and assume the worst of them.

I’ve always said I think we all have a right to suicide, but I’ve also (barely) never exercised it myself because I’m too worried about the damage I would do to others. I don’t know how to feel about the damage or benefits of what I did today in legally marking both of these women as permanently disabled. In the first case, with a nonverbal woman who clearly can’t feed herself and is only marginally ambulatory, I didn’t have any guilt, but my heart hurts for the second regardless of outcome. I was relieved when the judge told us that this was an intelligent woman and that if treatment in a residential facility (more of an assisted living than a mental hospital setting) was successful, she would eventually be able to petition the court to return her rights to her. I’d rather sit on that jury than the one I was on today, but I did what I could of my duty and then was free to go to work.

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