Our broken society, my broken heart

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Today I was part of a jury that convicted a man of attempted murder. We found him guilty and took away his liberty. The sentence will be determined at a later date.

This man did terrible things. I believe the guilty verdict was the right one. This was a very serious criminal trial, and it was conducted with respect for the defendant and for all the involved parties.

Still, it was a devastating experience.

Without delving too much into the details of the case, one boy was beaten by another boy on a basketball court, and then a few weeks later, the father of the beating victim used a baseball bat and a gun to try to kill the second young man, who barely survived his gunshot wounds.

All of the people involved appeared in court. I sat, aching to see the glimmer of God in their eyes as we moved through the court procedures. But few of us met each other’s eyes. The interhuman connectivity that pervades my everyday life as a rabbi was painfully absent in court.

There we were, 12 American citizens of varying ages and backgrounds, ethnicities and political perspectives, sitting through two days of selections and nine days of trial. I served as an alternate, which means I was not part of the deliberation process itself. When the 12 main jurors filed back into the courtroom, I didn’t know what the decision was going to be.

I held my breath, watching the defendant hold his breath, as the judge reviewed the verdict papers and handed them to the clerk, who read them aloud. I saw the defendant finally scan the eyes of the jurors, rest on mine for a moment, as I was (it seemed) the only juror looking up. As soon as I saw him see me, as soon as I felt myself see him, I broke.

Yes, I believe guilt was determined. Yes, my assessment of the evidence lined up with the finding of the main jurors. Yes, I cherish our imperfectly implemented and nobly intended American system of justice that presumes the innocence of the accused, places the burden of proof on the prosecution, and entrusts determination of a verdict to a jury of the defendant’s peers Yes, yes, yes. But.

This is so very sad. My heart hurts so much. Once we were done, the jury stood in pain together. It is, as the prosecutor shared once the trial was over, not a moment for popping open a champagne bottle. No one is happy. Justice has been served. But our broken society has also been revealed in terrible ways.

It was soul-searing to hear the defendant’s son sobbing at his father’s conviction. The tears of the defendant’s family, the sobbing of the victim’s family, my own ragged breathing and the tears of the juror to my right as we shuffled out of the courtroom. The silence as we sat together afterward in the windowless jury room, trying to face what we had just undertaken, to know that there would be no clean ending to this feeling, that the obligations of citizenship are hardly a light burden. All of this stays with me.

At one point during the trial, a recording was played of the defendant’s voice after his arrest. He expressed his hope that his son would now be safe, because others would know “that he had folks around him who love him.”

I heard in the man’s voice a trembling conviction that his son needed him, that his crime was motivated by a sense of responsibility to protect his boy. I offer no defense of the horrific things he did. I am profoundly reeling at the tribal warfare, the broken society, the commonness of this terrible act.

Sitting here in this empty, gray space barely an hour after the verdict was proclaimed, hearing a child’s inconsolable sobbing ring in my soul, remembering a father professing his fierce love, seeing flash before me violent evidentiary images over and over again, witnessing the inability or unwillingness of young men to give honest testimony even when they themselves were the victims of the attack, feeling the brokenness of a society where this violence is commonplace, trying to check my own implicit bias at the door, I wonder what the way forward for us might be.

Will I remember what I’ve seen? What have I learned? What can I do?

Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. He is also the editor of “Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence,” and a national board member of American Jewish World Service.