From the Associate Editor: Ollie Cantos, who was a 1991 National Federation of the Blind scholarship winner, is a senior at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles. Eventually he hopes to earn a law degree and enter politics. He addressed the annual meeting of the National Association of Blind Lawyers held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana, July 2, 1991. The following article is based on his remarks. Here it is:
Every day of our lives as blind people, we are confronted with many challenges. In addition to keeping our own lives in order, we must deal with the prevailing public attitudes about blindness. We as Federationists have seen it in our fight for civil rights and for the right to be trained for and to take part in the competitive labor market. By the very composition of the membership of our organization, we know full well that blind people can be schoolteachers, homemakers, biochemists, biologists, psychologists, horse ranchers, college professors, and (of course, my personal preference) lawyers. Many people do not realize this fact, and they treat us as if we are not capable of being as productive as other members of society. Often we must find creative ways to win the battles we wage from one day to the next.
Last May a new battlefront in my life opened. I was summoned by the Los Angeles County Municipal Court to serve on jury duty in the Citrus Municipal District. Being the eager student of Political Science that I am, I reported to the Assembly Room bright and early on a Tuesday morning--ready to take on the world.
The day began with an orientation conducted by the jury clerk. She emphasized the need for jurors to remain as objective as possible when hearing a case. She also stressed the importance of taking seriously the civic duty with which we were charged, and she explained the procedure that prospective jurors were obligated to follow.
We were asked to call a special number every night to learn from a recorded series of instructions whether or not attendance was required the next day. We had been divided into groups with preassigned numbers. Typically the instructions would say, "Groups 10, 16, 24, and 38 should report to the Assembly Room promptly at 10:00 a.m.; and Groups 3, 5, 19, and 30 should report to the Assembly Room at 2:00 p.m. sharp."
Usually jurors are asked to serve for a period of ten days, but they can be on call for a maximum of only fifteen days, after which they are dismissed. Service credit (that is, credit toward the required ten days of jury service) could only be acquired through actual attendance. But every day that we were on call counted toward the three-week maximum.
Within the building there were eleven courtrooms, often referred to as divisions. Some specialized in civil cases, while others focused on criminal. From time to time the jury clerk called for a panel of twenty-four persons to proceed to any one of the divisions for jury selection.
The time spent in the assembly room was an experience in itself. We were advised to bring much to do, so I did. But spending time in the assembly room was more than simply making sure one had something to do during the long hours of waiting. I met many people from various walks of life. In my conversations with them, we talked about issues of real substance in addition to the usual pleasantries that comprise much of civil conversation. Among these was the philosophy of blindness practiced and taught by members of the National Federation of the Blind. I explained to my fellow prospective jurors that blindness is nothing more or less than a mere characteristic and that we can compete on terms of full equality with the sighted when given the proper training in basic skills and the opportunity to succeed. Some were in agreement with me, while others were subtly in disagreement; but at least our discussion prompted some thinking, and I am optimistic that the philosophy of our Federation did have an effect on the prospective jurors as a whole.
I sat in the assembly room for six days. Then, what I was waiting for finally came to pass. At last, the computer randomly selected my name as one of the twenty-four possible persons to serve on a jury. This was my big break, and I was not ready to allow it to pass without giving it my best shot. At the designated time we were asked to report to Division 3, which specializes in criminal cases. At last the moment arrived when I was to leave the assembly room to take the next step in the jury- selection process.
When our panel arrived in the courtroom, another random selection took place. One by one, the court clerk called eighteen people, twelve of whom would sit in the jury box with the other six sitting on chairs below the jury platform. As she called the names, I kept my fingers crossed. Would I be lucky enough even to be given the chance? Yes, I was. The seat numbers corresponded to the names consecutively called by the clerk. I was called as Name thirteen to sit in seat thirteen. I ignored the superstition of my number. I relaxed and waited for what was to come next.
There was a list of questions written on a chalkboard, which we were all required to answer truthfully. Everyone was sworn in ahead of time to help ensure that we would tell the truth. We gave the following information: name, place of residence, occupation, marital status, and number of children (if any). We were also told to indicate whether or not we knew anyone in the legal profession and whether or not we knew either party in the case. Since we were to answer these questions in the order of our seating, I had twelve opportunities to listen to and remember the information I was expected to provide. By the time my turn came, I already knew what needed to be said.
Then came the critical period when each attorney would question whichever prospective jurors he or she wished. Basing the decision to accept on the answers to these questions, each attorney would decide whether to thank and excuse Juror X or to refrain from making such a request to the court. I watched and I waited, expecting my blindness to be the topic of inquiry.
"Your Honor, may I approach the bench?" the prosecuting attorney asked.
"Permission granted," said the judge. Two minutes of utter silence followed. Apparently, during this time the prosecuting attorney had questioned my suitability for the case at hand.
"Mr. Cantos," the judge said, "it has been brought to the attention of this court that your lack of vision may inhibit your ability to understand the evidence that will be presented." The judge went on to explain that the case involves the location of certain streets and intersections and their relationships. This is a case of "Driving Under the Influence," and knowledge of this physical evidence may prove instrumental in assisting the jury to come to a final decision.
I responded with all the energy I could muster. "Your Honor," I said, "it is the responsibility of any court of law to present evidence in a way that all jurors understand. The attorneys on both sides, therefore, have an obligation to explain in detail the evidence presented, something which must be done whether a juror is blind or sighted. I believe that I will be fully capable of understanding the evidence."
"Thank you," the judge said.
More questions were asked, and those jurors who were excused from seats one through twelve were replaced one by one. The moment that the first juror seat was vacated, the person seated in chair thirteen moved up to take the spot. That was me. Thus, I took my place as Juror 9. Still more questions were asked, but none of them was for me. I waited and waited and waited. Finally, both sides accepted the jury as it stood, and I was now officially on the jury!
With pride, I stood with the other 11 jurors and swore that I would be as objective as possible, that I would not investigate any of the facts without the express written permission of the court, that I would not talk to either side at any time during the trial, and that I would not talk about the trial to anyone.
After three days of testimony the trial came to an end. It was time for the jury to deliberate the case. To keep the proceedings running in the most orderly manner possible, a foreperson had to be chosen, and I was elected unanimously to serve in that position.
During deliberation it was my responsibility to make sure that the discussion remained focussed. To ensure order, I asked everyone to introduce himself or herself and constructed a seating chart similar to the one which the lawyers maintained of the jury during the trial. I chaired the meeting with the intent that all discussion should further the process of coming to a verdict of guilty or not guilty on each of the counts.
At the conclusion of the deliberation, when we had unanimously agreed to our verdict, we walked into the courtroom unified.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a decision?"
"We have, your honor," I said.
"Would the foreperson please state his or her name?"
"Olegario D. Cantos VII, your honor," I replied. I presented our official verdict, which I had signed, to the bailiff, who gave it to the clerk of the court.
The verdict was read and appreciation was expressed for our service on this case. Then we reported back to the assembly room for further instructions. Had I not earned my full service credit by that time, I would once again have occupied myself with personal matters in the Assembly Room. But I had done my duty, and I was officially dismissed from service by the jury clerk.
All too often we, as blind people, are not allowed to serve on juries for the sole reason that we are blind. Though criminal or civil justice is theoretically upheld by the judicial process, social justice is often violated. Based on the prevailing myths and misconceptions about blindness, many of the judges and attorneys who are a part of the system reject blind people as competent jurors. These representatives of the legal system are part of the general public, and it is our job to educate them through our words as well as our actions. Never can we let judges and attorneys render a negative verdict on the blind. We are not guilty of the charge of not comprehending the world around us, simply because we cannot see. We have the evidence to prove it. As blind people, we are breaking new ground every day. Slowly but surely our battles are being won. Every time a blind person enters an occupation or engages in some unusual activity or bears a responsibility (e.g., jury service) which society has not traditionally accepted as suitable for the blind, a precedent is created and more doors of opportunity swing open. On a daily basis we are proving to the world that its verdict rendered upon us is unjust. How? Through the National Federation of the Blind.
In looking back, I can say that service as foreperson of the jury was one of the most fascinating and fulfilling experiences I have ever had. I was actually part of the judicial process. I played a role in the American justice system. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to serve and to educate a small part of the judicial system.
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