In 1980 I was working as a union organizer in Providence, Rhode Island. My boss, the Union President took a well-deserved vacation and left me in charge of a very messy strike situation. During this time I was called for jury duty.
All, I wanted was to be excused from jury duty so that I could deal with the impending strike. I was very young and had no experience with jury duty, excuses, or strikes, for that matter. I dutifully reported. It was clearly a mafia murder, not uncommon in Providence in those days. But even more reason that I wanted to be excused. I racked my brain for an excuse. Other jurors were talking about their families, their hearing problems, surgeries. I was young, healthy, single, none of this would help me.
When I was called to interviewed in front of the judge, the attorneys, the accused, and my peers, I actually sat in front of the court and was sworn in. I was asked questions that revealed my occupation as a union organizer, my lefty background, my Brown education. And my general capability to serve on a jury. I was finally asked, “is there any reason you could not serve on a jury.” I pulled the last rabbit out my hat and proclaimed, “yes, I don’t believe in the legal system”. The judge gave me a long, exhausted, cynical look. The older, charismatic attorney for the accused leaped to his feet and approached me. “Ms. MacEwan, I don’t believe in the legal system either. But would you try to render a fair decision despite your beliefs?” Yes, I replied meekly. “Don’t you think someone who has been accused of a crime deserves a fair trial as possible, even in our corrupt system?”, yes again. “And, Ms. MacEwan, you seem like a fair person with strong principles, don’t you believe you would be as fair and impartial as possible, to be as good as juror as you could be?” It went on an on and every answer was obviously yes. He knew me through and through, took me apart in seconds. It was masterful, a thing of beauty. He nodded. I was on.
The DA then leaped to his feet. “Ms. MacEwan, you are a union organizer. You have been involved in left-wing causes. Don’t you recognized this man, William Kunstler?” No. “How can you not recognize him.” This went on and on, too. And the answer was always no.
Until, I walked out of the court room. Then I remembered him. From Chicago in 1968. From Attica, a story that had broken my heart. But what was William Kunstler doing in Rhode Island with the mafia. A friend explained to me, that he took these cases to support his pro bono work for left wing causes and those who could not pay. I now know that explanation was an oversimplification, but it was enough for me.
I was placed on the jury, but before I could confess my recognition, I was dismissed. The DA struck my name from the pool, each attorney was allowed to strike a name, he chose me, probably because of the enthusiasm of his opponent in placing me on the jury.
I never forgot this exchange and from then on, followed every move William Kunstler made. I admired him despite his puzzling choices of who he defended. I even watched a bad moving loosely based on his life.
Your film really helped me understand. I now also understand what the words, “I don’t believe in the legal system” mean. To me, and to someone who fought for justice the way that William Kunstler fought for justice. I feel privileged to have spent that time in the same court room with him.
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