It was so stuffy in the courtroom that my breathing slowed; it would’ve been hard to keep my eyes open if there weren’t an accused murderer sitting six feet in front of the witness stand.
There were 150 potential jurors spread throughout the courtroom. People of all shapes and sizes were squeezed into the galley benches. Even more people were standing up against the back wall, fanning themselves with their juror card. Then there was me sitting in the witness stand—the only seat that was left when I walked in.
The dank air and my growling stomach made it difficult to relax. I looked at my juror card: “Group Twelve, Juror Fourteen” it read. I was so far down the list I didn’t think I’d be chosen. There were four people in the jury box and they were only then calling group three, juror six.
With a deep sigh and an aggressive shifting of my weight, I leaned forward in the chair and sat on my hands. I was tempted to break out my book from my bag, but I worried that it would be rude to the defendant and maybe even the judge. What is the etiquette for this sort of thing?
So I sat. I waited. The courtroom clerk announced in his booming voice the numbers four-four; four-five; four-six. Another hour went by and the clerk bellowed ten-one, ten-two, ten-three; and now there were seven seats filled. Maybe I will get picked.
Finally, after many more minutes of watching potential jurors line up to approach the bench, the clerk said, “Jurors in the twelfth jury pool, please form a line.”
I looked at the jury box and saw that there were three seats left. Twelve-six went home; Twelve-seven went home and so did all the other potentials standing in the line in front of me. Finally it was my turn and there I was in front of the judge and four lawyers.
No one said a word except for the judge: “Thanks for being patient. Go stand against that wall, please,” he said as he pointed to the witness stand. I returned to the place I started and waited. A moment later the bass voice of the clerk echoed: “Juror number nine, step forward and take a seat.”
Initially, being a juror is difficult and awkward because of the formality and unfamiliarity of the entire experience. Here you are forced to spend significant amounts of time with total strangers. The only common thread you have is the trial you are witnessing and that is the one thing you are not allowed to discuss with each other; and in my situation no one did.
Not having any experience in a courtroom or as a juror, I was surprised by several elements of the trial. I was surprised the judge discouraged us from taking notes. I was surprised that we spent so many hours of the day sitting in what felt like a holding room waiting for the show to begin. Little did we know that just outside the door in the courtroom the attorneys and judge were discussing the whereabouts of a witness to the murder. She was scheduled to testify and she had mysteriously disappeared. We also didn’t know that the judge and attorneys were discussing how to deal with fellow gang members of the defendant that were accused of following and intimidating an alternate juror on her way home. I was surprised they didn’t tell us these things while we waited for hours on end.
And on that last unbelievable day when the judge told us there were no more witnesses, I was surprised that it was over. I was surprised that there was no climax to the trial. There was not a moment in the trial where I said to myself: “Well that seals the deal. Now I know he did it.”
I didn’t feel like I had enough information. I didn’t think that one autopsy report confirming a death by shooting, one lunatic for an eye witness who says he saw the bullet fly through the air, and testimony from one terrified ex-girlfriend who had recently committed herself into a mental institution was enough to convict anyone.
The jury deliberated for three days. The beginning vote was eleven not guilty and one guilty. “Excuse me, Your Honor? Can you explain what ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ means again?” We received these instructions multiple times.
The final vote was three not guilty, nine guilty. We were a hung jury. The biggest surprise of all came from the judge after the trial was over. He asked us to wait in our holding room so he could speak with us. When he walked into the room he told us that the defendant was guilty, a gang member, and an already convicted murderer. I’m surprised they couldn’t tell us these things during the trial.
The feelings following jury duty like this are difficult to describe. Maybe a therapist would say it’s similar to post traumatic stress disorder, and I would too based on my feelings of remorse and anxiety and my preoccupation with the experience. The comfort comes in knowing that it was not all on me. There were eleven other responsible jurors. Hopefully the following twelve got it right.