Telling Stories

As I watched the Derek Chauvin trial, almost gavel-to-gavel (another advantage to working from home), I couldn’t help thinking back to my own experience as a juror. I haven’t paid this much attention to a trial since sitting in a jury box at the federal courthouse in San Francisco. And now, in my new hometown of Minneapolis, I’m completely obsessed with a legal ritual going on just a few miles from my house.

Whether in the courtroom or watching on my laptop monitor, I was completely absorbed—oddly compelled by the most technical details. I loved seeing how the lawyers crafted a narrative out of disparate bits of information. It’s the novelist in me, I suppose. My life is all about telling stories.

Stories became a dirty word during closing arguments yesterday, with the defense objecting that the prosecution was accusing them of fabrication. And I found myself wondering about the nature of story, its complicated relationship with truth. I cringe at most memoirs, with their assertion of truth merely because the broad events of the book actually happened. Memories are so easily corrupted by interpretation: we make things better than they were to calm ourselves, we make things worse than they were to punish ourselves. I’ve always preferred novels, where there’s no expectation of verisimilitude, where you’re not limited by facts in your pursuit of truth. To me, novels are more honest.

But this isn’t a novel. This is real life. And real life comes down to facts, not stories.

The defense told its stories—the drugs killed him, his enlarged heart killed him, carbon monoxide killed him, the bystanders distracted the cops—to draw attention away from the obvious, from the knee that sat on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, even after he’d stopped resisting, after he’d stopped breathing, when there was no longer a pulse.

A better story would be Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is the right one.

But all the defense needs to do is convince one juror, to give one juror a reason to support their side of things.

In my trial in San Francisco, the defense succeeded: our final vote was 10-2, and those two were immovable. Well, one might have come around, but it was quickly evident that the other never would. He was in love with the concept of reasonable doubt, though he had a hard time understanding the word reasonable. As a prosecutor in the Chauvin trial pointed out, you don’t leave common sense at the door when you enter the jury room. Jurors are laypeople specifically because they’re expected to use common sense rather than specific expertise.

At the end of our trial, the attorneys asked to speak with the jury to get our perspective on what aspects of their presentations were most successful. I used the opportunity to corner the defense attorney, telling him that the prosecution had used facts to provide a solid narrative that made sense. By contrast, all he’d done was try to punch holes in theirs. In so many words, he replied, “That was all I had.”

I won’t bother you here with the details of my experience as a juror. It inspired a major plotline in my next novel, so I’ll save it for that. But now, as I watch my city and my country sit in anxiety over the outcome of this case, I feel a bit of PTSD.

I visited 38th and Chicago this weekend, the corner where George Floyd died under Derek Chauvin’s knee. The street outside Cup Foods has been turned into a living memorial—flowers and notes to Mr. Floyd, the names of other victims of police violence written on the pavement. The area was surprisingly quiet, despite the helicopter circling overhead—police or media, I couldn’t be sure. White and black people walked peacefully through the space, and the mood was one of mourning and determination.

Twelve people will make a decision this week. But change is a social imperative. The next story is up to us.

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