Merry Atheist Christmas

The only time I regret having told people that I am an atheist is around Christmas time. This is because short of going to mass, I celebrate Christmas full tilt.  We have the tree, the stockings, the lights, the ornaments, the holiday cards and, of course, the presents.  Friends who otherwise know me to be non-religious are confused by my embrace of a thoroughly religious holiday.

The 2011 Tree

They simply don’t understand how I can call my tree a “Christmas” tree.  I mean, “Christmas” is a religious term, right? It’s Christ’s birthday, so by calling my tree a Christmas tree, I’m essentially saying that I celebrate the Christ’s birth.  This isn’t why I have a Christmas tree, though, much as I wouldn’t want to cheat the man out of his birthday celebration.  I have a Christmas tree because ever since I can remember, we’ve have had a Christmas tree.  When I was a wee little Miss Y, my parents were Catholic and we had the tree (along with mass, the advent calendar, all of it).  Even after they became disillusioned with the Vatican, they still put up a tree every year.

I don’t want to be one of those prickly atheists who insist on celebrating Winter Solstice just to show everyone how non-religious they are.  I don’t want to set that example for my kid.  I want him to come to know all of the various traditions so that he can decide on his own which ones he wants to follow, or not.  And, I really love the tree.  It has ornaments dating back to when I was a little one and ornaments that Mr. X and I have gathered on our travels.  It has animal ornaments and now, of course, Rex ornaments.  It is a brightly lit museum of our lives that we get to share with each other and Rex.  It also happens to be put up around Christmas.

Perhaps the most important question of all is, where else would we put the presents?

Juror No. 27

My streak of getting out of jury duty due to scheduling conflicts ended in November.  I received the summons two weeks before I was to appear and even though it was a fairly inconvenient time (but, when isn’t?) I showed up at 8am on the appointed day, along with 399 of my fellow citizens, including the Mayor, who had also been called.

By 9:30, I was on my way to a court room as Juror No. 27.  I wasn’t confident that I would be seated on an actual jury because who wants a lawyer on their panel?  But, I was still excited at the possibility.  By 10am, we were in a matchbox-sized courtroom.  The defendant was there, in a new suit. This was not normal for a small case. There were two district attorneys at the table next to him.  The judge repeated the long-winded speech that the bailiff had given about not using cell phones, or talking or eating or drinking.  Then the district attorney dropped the bombshell:

This was a capital murder case.  You could have heard a pin drop in the room.  Sixty-five people in a small room and no one made a sound.  Capital murder is the worst kind of murder.   It is murder with extenuating circumstances, like the victim is a child, elderly or a police officer, or murder in the commission of another felony.

I knew immediately that if the victim was a child or the death penalty was on the table, I would be as vocal as necessary to not be seated on the jury.  I would not be able to be objective in either case.  The district attorney then told us that the death penalty was not available because the defendant was under 18 when he allegedly committed the crime*.

Under Texas law, though, even a person who commits a crime as a child can be sentenced to life in prison without a chance of parole, which is exactly what the defendant was looking at.  As far as I was concerned, this was the same as a death sentence for a now 20 year old.  So when the DA asked if anyone would have a problem with sentencing this young man to a life in prison without the possibility of parole, I raised my hand.  I had to wait, though, for him to question several gentlemen in the back, including the skeevy guy dressed in all black.

He made his views well known, early on. He could not be part of a justice system that could not execute this young man.  Yes, he wanted the kid to fry, it was not enough that his life was to be spent behind  bars.  I was called on after this and stated firmly, but clearly that I opposed a mandatory life sentence because it was the same as a death sentence, and I was against it.  The back bencher mumbled and grumbled after I spoke, but I was encouraged by the number of people who raised their hands when asked if they felt the same way I did.

Most of all, though, I was incredibly impressed by the thoughtfulness that each person who answered a question gave to their possible role in determining the fate of this young man.  They asked thoughtful questions and plainly stated their opinions, knowing that none were right or wrong.  Many expressed great concern for having the responsibility to determine his fate in their hands.  Others were quite honest that they could not stomach to see the photographs or hear the evidence.  Still, others made it clear that they were strongly on the side of law enforcement and would likely support their version of the events.

The DA for his part was incredibly professional, never disagreeing with someone’s view but simply asking if that view would make it difficult for them to sit on the jury.  The defense attorney was similarly professional as was the judge.

In the end, I was not chosen.  I had made my view clear and it was not what the prosecution wanted to hear, so I imagine they struck me for cause.  The empaneled jury was made up of the people who said nothing.  I followed the case in the news for the next few days.  He was ultimately convicted, but the jury had some difficulty deliberating. It seems that there was one person holding out because they had a problem with the defendant being sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

I think about this man and the man that he killed.  I think about both families this holiday season and I can see that justice was served, but no one won.

*And that pesky supreme court in DC won’t let them execute a child.