Note: I wrote the majority of this over a week ago. Thus, the time references (e.g. “this most recent Wednesday”) are inaccurate. I’m not going to bother changing anything. So there.
I spent this most recent Wednesday and Thursday serving as juror #8 in a first degree murder case, my first ever foray into the world of jury duty. It was an interesting experience. Considering the nature of the case, it moved much more quickly than I would have expected. They had told us ahead of time that the trial (sans jury deliberation) would last about two full days, possibly going into a partial third day. That sounded short, but what I mean is that the actual court proceedings themselves did not feel dragged out whatsoever. I expected there to be a certain tedium to it all, but there really wasn’t. At times, I was quite surprised by the briskness of it all. Several witnesses were on the stand just long enough to answer three or four questions. They took almost as long to be sworn in as they did to answer the lawyers’ questions. I was also pleasantly surprised that the trial wasn’t more emotionally disturbing for me. I feared that the kind of evidence I’d be presented with would be quite bothersome, specifically when it came to photographs. To be sure, there were some ugly images; autopsies aren’t pretty. In order to show that a certain artery was severed, for example, they’d show you a picture of the victim with the skin of his neck completely peeled back and flopping over his almost normal-looking face. Yuck. But it’s probably much easier to handle these kinds of things having grown up in an era when you see images almost as explicit on prime time news magazines such as Dateline.
Here’s a rundown of my experience. On day one, I reported to the courthouse at 830am. The fourteen jurors (including the two undisclosed alternates) were escorted to a jury room, where we were informed of our assigned juror numbers and made to wait until called into the courtroom. We were allowed to bring water into the courtroom, but nothing else. A pen and a pad of paper were provided for us and were waiting for us in our courtroom seats. (We were not allowed to keep these items at the end of the trial, should anyone wonder.) Upon entering the courtroom, we were sworn in and given some instructions by the judge. When the judge gives the jury these instructions, he does not yet provide them with a definition of the laws that are relevant to the case. This comes at the end of the proceedings, when the jury prepares to deliberate. I found it interesting that the definitions would wait, and yet I suppose this helps prevent any jurors from forming a judgment too early into the trial. This is something about which we were specifically instructed; we were told to refrain from forming any opinion on the case whatsoever until all of the evidence had been presented—a human impossibility, some might say. Once our role as jurors had been explained to us, the state immediately gave its opening statements, followed by the defense, and then without any hesitation, witnesses were put on the stand. I was surprised to see a news camera in the courtroom. I don’t know why, exactly. You see trials like this on TV, but there’s something weird about being on the other end of it, to imagine the news reports saying something about “the jury” and having those comments be, in some literal sense, about me.
The most surprising thing, in my opinion, is that they let jurors ask questions of the witnesses. I had never heard of anything like that happening in a trial before. We were not allowed to speak directly to the witnesses, but after both the prosecution and the defense attorneys had finished their questioning of a given witness, the judge would ask the jury if they have any questions. If a juror does have a question, then that juror raises his/her hand, at which point the juror is allowed to write the question down on a piece of paper that the court bailiff will subsequently collect. The judge and all of the attorneys then hold a “sidebar” (i.e. they huddle in the corner, out of the jury’s earshot) and decide which, if any, of the questions should be allowed. After a few minutes in the sidebar, the judge returns to his seat and asks the witness whichever questions have been deemed acceptable. Although I never asked a question, a few jurors did. They were usually decent questions, from what I remember. In hindsight, I had a couple of questions that I wish I had asked. They probably wouldn’t have made a difference in the end, but I think they were worthwhile questions.
We were given breaks almost every hour, which was quite nice. I always peed during these breaks, just to make sure I wouldn’t get stuck needing to pee at some point when I wouldn’t be able to. During the breaks, the jury had to hang out in the jury room (which had an attached bathroom), but a second jury room right next door was not in use and so we were allowed to use its bathroom as well. That helped, as the bathroom was a popular place for jurors to go.
Lots of people ask me about the food situation. Did the court feed the jurors, everyone wants to know? Only during deliberation. On day one, we had a 70-minute lunch break during which we were left to fend for ourselves. Most of the jurors took to the courthouse cafeteria, including myself. We were allowed to eat together, so long as we did not discuss the details of the case. I sat with two other jurors and wondered if it would be appropriate to make a joke about forming an alliance. Rather than make the joke and risk causing a stir, I played it safe by expressing my uncertainty about whether or not I could make that specific joke.
We had been told on the day of jury selection that a typical day in court would last until about 5pm. I took this very much as a ballpark estimate, because we were also told that witnesses would not be cut off and so we might easily go past 5pm if it would help us to reach a better stopping point. Thus, I assumed 5pm would be the earliest I’d get out of there on day one. I was pleasantly surprised when court recessed at approximately 445pm. The state had already rested its case by this point, and the defense had presented its first witness—the defendant herself (which I was surprised to see take the stand). Before adjourning for the day, the judge told us that we were actually ahead of schedule. This made me optimistic that we could enter deliberation the very next day and not have to come back for a third day.
On day two, I once again reported to the courthouse at 830am. The ball got rolling even more quickly than on the previous day. The moment we were taken into the courtroom, a witness was called and led to the stand. There was no dilly-dallying whatsoever. (And why should there be? I don’t know, but I was surprised at how efficient they were. That hasn’t been my experience with government-related procedures in the past.) The defense moved through its witnesses very, very quickly. Because the defendant had admitted to killing the victim, the defense was merely hoping to establish that the killing had been justified—that it was done in self-defense. To support this, the defense tried to show that a history of spousal abuse had existed between the victim and the defendant. Consequently, a typical witness for the defense was asked little more by the defense team than, “Did you ever see injuries on the defendant?”, which usually garnered a response like, “Yeah, two black eyes,” and then the defense would say, “Nothing further.” The prosecution would then cross-examine by asking, “Did you see how the defendant got those black eyes?”, and the witness would say, “No,” and the prosecution would say, “Nothing further.” I promise you, I am leaving out almost nothing, especially when it comes to the cross-examination. After about 30 minutes, I think we went through almost as many witnesses on day two as we had done the entire previous day.
By 1150am, all of the witnesses had been presented. I guess it’s lame that I didn’t realize this, but aside from the opening and closing arguments, a trial truly is nothing more than the questioning of witnesses. I guess it just never occurred to me that all of the evidence in a case is presented within the context of questioning a witness. That makes perfect sense, of course, but I guess I assumed the questioning of witnesses was just one thing that happened during a trial. I guess I assumed there might be times when the lawyer is presenting evidence and talking about it him/herself, arguing something about it directly and not via the questioning of a witness. But that’s not true at all. The trial consists of talking to witnesses, and that’s it. Call me naïve, but that was news to me. Anyway, by 1150am, there were no more witnesses to be had. The judge then gave us a two-hour lunch break, telling us we would return to hear closing arguments. I ate by myself at a nearby Subway, where I did some reading in order to pass the time. I then returned to the courthouse, hopeful that this might all be over within two or three hours.
It didn’t turn out quite that simply. At about 2pm, we were escorted back into the courtroom. Before hearing the closing arguments, we were instructed further on what was specifically at issue regarding the case. At this point, I learned that we as a jury would have to decide not merely whether or not the defendant was guilty, but to what extent she was guilty if we found her so to be. Because the crime of first degree murder includes the lesser crimes of second degree murder and manslaughter, we could technically convict her of any of those things. I worried this would make it much harder to come to a consensus, since we might all agree that the defendant is guilty and yet disagree as to what exactly she is guilty of. In hindsight, I’m quite glad we were given multiple options, because I believed she was guilty of murder but I did not think it was clearly first degree murder. Anyway, after being given further instruction, the prosecution and the defense gave their closing arguments. We were then given even further instruction and led to the jury room to begin deliberation. At this point, we were forced to hand over all our cellular phones and other electronic devices and forbidden from leaving the jury room for any reason without permission. It was about 4pm.
Going into deliberation, I didn’t expect anyone to believe the defendant was “not guilty.” How naïve of me! I was genuinely surprised when at least three jurors said they were leaning toward just such a verdict. I knew then that deliberation would not be as simple a process as I had hoped. Still, it took some time before the dread settled in and I was entirely convinced that the deliberation would end in a hung jury. And what led me to feel so hopeless? Well, a substantial amount of the time spent in deliberation was not what I would deem “productive.” After a while, it seemed that the only conversations taking place in the jury room were those between people who already agreed with each other and were merely speculating as to how the crime might have unfolded. Often, several of these conversations were taking place at once, such that some jurors were left to do nothing but cast awkward glances at one another, their mutual exclusion from myriad tête-à-têtes acknowledged by way of feigned and wary smiles. Those most frequently left out of discussion were the two or three jurors who leaned toward “not guilty,” making the pockets of conversation taking place throughout the jury room wholly ineffective in terms of reaching a verdict. I’m proud to say that I did chime in a few times and request the undivided attention of my fellow jurors, at which point I gave what I felt were reasonably articulate arguments for my view. From my perspective, much of the discussion taking place—even when it managed to be directed at the jury as a whole—was overcomplicating matters. Many of the details of the case that some jurors felt compelled continually to revisit, I felt were irrelevant. A few people agreed with me and even complimented me in my logic, but as I was already in the majority of jurors who felt the defendant was guilty, this didn’t avail much. At least not at first. Still, I was trying to dissuade needless discussion as much as I was trying to speak to those who didn’t agree with me. So I trusted that my little tangents were worthwhile.
As time went on, there were two jurors in particular who were strongly holding to “not guilty.” One of these jurors got rather defensive after a while, when most other jurors continually challenged her about her position. (The other “holdout” was less targeted, probably because she was slightly less vocal to begin with.) Once or twice, I myself directly confronted her, and yet I sincerely hope she felt like I treated her with respect. After all, there were times when I spoke in her defense—a fact I took pride in because I felt it proved that I was not being stubborn or unfair. And I really wouldn’t have wanted anyone to vote for something they didn’t feel good about. I’m not sure everyone else in that jury room felt that way. Anyway, people argued this and argued that, and several hours passed. Around 730pm, the bailiff poked his head in the room and told us he would be ordering us some Papa John’s. It arrived around 8pm, and we took a much needed break from discussing the case while we refreshed ourselves with pizza and soda.
Progress was made when we finally cracked down and spent some good time nitpicking almost every detail of every definition given to us concerning justified killing and the various degrees of non-justified killing that were at issue. Eventually, all but one juror—the same one as mentioned before—agreed that the killing was at least manslaughter. It was the question of self-defense that was the hang-up. The defense team had tried to convince us that the killing was in self-defense. Did they have to convince us, or did the prosecution have to convince us that it was not self-defense? The official rule is that the defense team doesn’t have to prove anything, and yet there was concern about the burden of proof. We actually had the bailiff send a note to the judge asking for clarification on the matter at one point. It was clarified that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was not self-defense. Had they done that? Or was there room to believe—reasonably believe, mind you—that the killing had been justified? We returned to the definition of justified killing given to us by the court. It said something about the appearance of danger being so real—not the actual danger, mind you—that a reasonable and prudent person in the same situation would have viewed the actions taken by the defendant as the only means of avoiding the danger. “But I don’t necessarily think the defendant was in a reasonable state of mind at the time,” a juror might say. “But the definition is about what a reasonable person would do, so it doesn’t exactly matter what the defendant’s state of mind was at the time,” someone else would respond. And so the haggling went, back and forth, definitions hashed and rehashed. Eventually, even the most resilient juror conceded to manslaughter. I immediately felt giddy, thinking an end was in sight. For some time, I had become convinced that the deliberation would end in a “hung jury.” I didn’t know if we as a jury could declare ourselves hung, or if the judge had to decide at some point that we were hung, but I thought that was our fate. In fact, just before all of the jurors miraculously agreed that the killing was at least manslaughter, I was about to encourage us to declare ourselves hung and be done with it. Going into deliberation, I would have wanted to resist becoming a hung jury, believing it would make our time in court ultimately worthless. But after nearly seven hours in deliberation, feeling a hung jury is inevitable, I just wanted to get out of there. Sadly, my optimism at the agreement to manslaughter was dashed when a few jurors immediately piped up and said that there was no way they would settle for anything less than second-degree murder. We had come so far, and yet I couldn’t imagine that the jurors who had resisted manslaughter would ever agree to a more serious charge. Being a hung jury again struck me as a potential tragedy, since we all agreed that she was guilty of something. Wouldn’t it be better to agree to the minimum charge upon which we can all agree?
It was shortly before 11pm when all of the jurors agreed to manslaughter. Around that same time, the bailiff stopped by and told us that the judge would be coming to see us soon. Crap. Was he going to declare us a hung jury? I doubted he would do that already, and yet I hated the alternative—that he was going to send us home for the night and make us return in the morning to continue deliberating. What happened at this point is rather interesting, from an anecdotal perspective. With the judge presumably on his way, one of the jurors asked if anyone would object to the jury joining in prayer and asking for divine guidance. Immediately, the foreperson said, “I would.” The juror who suggested praying asked if anyone would object to having a moment of silence during which people could offer silent prayers, if they wished. Nobody objected to having a moment of silence, and so we did. From what I could tell, most jurors offered a silent prayer at this point. When the moment of silence had passed, it was suggested that we take one final vote. We started by voting on second-degree murder, since that was the next level at which there had previously been a divide. Astonishingly, everyone agreed to second-degree murder. Nobody bothered asking about first-degree murder at that point—it had been clear that most jurors weren’t convinced of that, even though a handful of them suspected that the murder had indeed been premeditated. We quickly agreed that second-degree murder would be our final verdict. We alerted the bailiff, who caught the judge before he ever made it to our room. The defendant, the lawyers, and everyone else relevant to the court proceedings were reassembled in the court room. At approximately 11pm, it was announced that the defendant had been found guilty of second-degree murder.
And that was that. I was exhausted. It felt like the middle of the night. I was relieved to be able to contact Melanie and tell her I was on my way home. A fellow juror—the foreperson—had agreed to give me a ride home. Neither Melanie nor I expected day two to run so long. We were both quite pleased that, after such a long day, I would not be returning to court the following day.
One thing that I didn’t mention above is that when a jury deliberates, they provide you with all of the evidence presented in court. This allows the jury to review the evidence, which makes perfect sense. However, some of the items you are provided with are amusingly pointless. Blood-stained pillows and comforters are wrapped and sealed in opaque brown paper. You cannot see the items inside. Neither can you open these items, which you wouldn’t want to do anyway for biohazard reasons (if not to prevent retching). The point is, these pieces of evidence do you no good whatsoever. Perhaps the only purpose of having them is to discourage skepticism. Perhaps they don’t want a juror asking, “So, where is that blanket if it was smothered in the victim’s blood? Why wouldn’t that be here?” and concluding from its absence that something must be afoul in the prosecution’s case. Then again, there were certain things that were not presented that several of us wondered about—the 911 call, for instance—and so I’m not sure my theory holds.
Another fact, more amusing than any of the others: I recently received in the mail a certificate from the courthouse along with a letter from the judge thanking me for my service. The letter isn’t silly, I guess, but a certificate of participation? Really? I’ll have to put that on my CV and see where it gets me.