Quotation on the exterior of the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Building in Portland
I thought – when asked if I should be called “Reverend” were I to be selected to serve as a juror and I responded, “‘Ms.’ is fine. ‘Reverend’ is an honorific, not a title” – I thought that neither the prosecution nor the defense would want the likes of me on a jury. I was wrong.
I spent eleven-ish days as a juror on a trial, and another day as a juror in deliberations. It was a criminal trial in the federal court, and if you’d like to read more, please click here. It was my first time to serve as a juror, and while the testimony was at times so tedious I wanted to stab my eyes out with an ice pick, or in Anne Lamott’s famous words, drink gin out of the cat dish, there were also many things that were interesting. Until we began deliberations we jurors could not talk about the case with anyone, even each other, so we spent a lot of time talking about what the lawyers wore. I haven’t seen so many pearls, pumps, pantyhose, and suits since I worked at PaineWebber in New York in the late ’80’s.
I could not talk to anyone about the case, but almost every night I would think to myself, “Another day of greed and stupidity.” The experience did much to affirm John Calvin’s notion of the depravity of human beings.
It was a fraud case, and investors in a bio-diesel project in Ghana and Chile lost over $1 million. A group of the investors were men who went to church together, a church in the Portland suburbs about which I know very little. Since the trial ended I googled it, and it’s one of those churches that has a lot of male pastors and a lot of female administrative assistants and child-care providers. You know what I mean. They would not invite me to preach there.
But if I were ever invited to preach there, I might preach about the love of mammon. Or I might preach about how the followers of Jesus must be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Or I might just preach on Matthew 25:31-46 which catches me short every time I read it and maybe catches other Christians short as well.
For the first two weeks of the trial, I parked about six blocks away from the courthouse so I could get a little walk in every day. And in downtown Portland, at 8:15 in the morning, on Third Avenue, there are a lot of people sleeping on the sidewalks and in the doorways. Some of them are just waking up, dazed, hungover, glazed-over. They would wrap their blankets around them or bring out their cardboard signs asking for help, and I would turn a blind eye to them on my way to Starbucks.
Then I would go into the courtroom, and listen to witnesses testify about how much money they invested and lost. Most of them invested more than once, despite the appalling lack of returns and appalling lack of evidence that bio-diesel was actually being produced. Some lost as little as $25,000. One lost $500,000.
The group of church guys had talked about how fun this investment would be, that they were impressed that the Scam Artist was a professed Christian who had been both a pastor and a missionary. If they invested, they would not only see a fabulous (one might even say unbelievable) return on their investment, they would also be helping the planet (bio-diesel!) and the people of Ghana and Chile. With my 20+ years experience as a pastor, with my A.B. and M.Div., I was not as impressed by his claim of being a pastor. But he was a guy, a white guy, and he opened his staff meetings with prayer, and he opened his investor meetings with prayer, so he must be on the up-and-up, right?
I suppose it is okay to want to make money. I suppose it is okay to want to help people. I’m not sure it’s okay to want to make money while helping people on the side. I have to think about that, because you could say I get paid/make money to help people.
But every morning, as I drove past the Union Gospel Mission, as I walked by the people sleeping on the streets, I thought about how far that $25,000 could have gone right here in Portland. And I thought about how far that $500,000 could have gone in Ghana or Chile. And I shook my head at the investors. Why did they continue to give this guy money? Why did they trust him? Why? Were they hoping that if they pumped another 100K into the thing they would finally see the return? Were they desperate and scared? Stupid? One of the witnesses used that word. Were they greedy? Another witness described himself that way.
In the end…
In the end, I had little sympathy for those who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It appeared they had the money to lose. I judged them because I thought of all the ways that money might have been used, to help people in Ghana or Portland or who knows where else.
In the end, I had a little sympathy for the defendant. None of us knows where the all the money he took in ended up. We can follow the trail of some of it, but not all of it. In the end, the defendant could not afford an attorney but relied on the excellent services of the federal public defender.
In the end, I felt bad for the defendant’s daughter. She cried when the judge read the verdict, and that is hard to witness.
In the end, I felt bad for the people in Chile who never received months of pay owed to them.
In the end, I felt bad for the people of Ghana who are still hoping against hope that Obrunie Jack will return and get the jatropha plantations going and the refineries producing bio-diesel.
What did I learn? That we are blessed with a legal system that presumes innocence until proven guilty. That public defenders are unsung heroes. That jurors take their responsibility seriously. That judges oversee the process fairly and intensely. That people are kind, and stupid, and fair, and greedy, and ambitious, and humble. That church folks go to their jobs all day long and then show up at night for church meetings – I had to do that a couple of times; it’s not easy. I learned that it is a huge responsibility to decide if someone is guilty of breaking the law, knowing that my decision can send someone to prison. I learned that Matthew 25:31-46 catches me short again, and I wonder if I will visit this man in prison.
I am grateful to the Honorable Anna Brown and her staff, and federal public defender Lisa Hay and her colleagues, and U. S. Attorneys Claire Fay and Donna Maddux and their staff. I am grateful to my fellow jurors and wish them well.
And I am grateful this is over.
Quotation at the Federal Courthouse, in the elevator lobby