Deciding the Fate of an Accused Murderer
For one entire work week of my life, I did something that lots of people -unfortunately if you review the national statistics- get to do in their lifetime, but yet the majority of us will NEVER have this experience. There are too many murders and violent crimes in our society. And when the perpetrators go to trial, usually citizens decide their fate.
I was one of those citizens as I served on a jury for a murder trial for one full week. I was even the Jury Foreman!
It was a once in a lifetime experience, yet I was most reluctant to participate. I was even shocked at my selection as I was a high enough number where I didn’t get asked any direct questions. I did not disqualify myself on religious grounds and I raised my right hand and swore I would make a good juror. That was apparently enough. The guy next to me was shocked at my selection too. Aside from my number being high, I showed no interest, reading my book through the afternoon session between the questioning in the vore dire (questioning of the potential jury). I found out later that it was a combination of not being eliminated, and how we filled out our jury forms that got me selected. They wanted jurors of a mixed combination of age ranges, ethnicity, and occupations. If you have never been through jury selection (and I have many times because I always respond to my summons) they randomly shuffle numbers and if your number is high, they will pick 12 jurors and an alternate even with the stirkes they are allowed, and those the judge excuses, way before they get to your number. This was not the case this time. They got up to number 50 by the time all jurors were announced.
When they announced my name, I moved like a robot to my place in the jury box. I was frightened to be rendering judgement on a murder trial and I had a previous negative experience being a jury member. (Will get to that later)
It was a chilling feeling for me. Murder is a term reserved for things that happen on TV or in the movies, and the young man standing accused was clean cut, wore glasses, and was dressed up in business clothes looking like anyone’s son. I knew nothing about him or why he could be accused of such a hideous crime. Chills went down my body. The entire experience was traumatic for me.
The worst part of being on a jury is that you can’t discuss it with anyone – not your spouse, your child, or your best friend. That is horrible for a blabbermouth like me. I like to talk about my experiences, and get things off my chest. My emotions ran the gamut at the trial and it was very tough on me all week to remain silent. I even avoided a social event one evening because the matters in court were a heavy burden that I couldn’t talk about and I didn’t feel like socializing with small talk when I had all that on my mind.
When we got down to business, like an episode out of a courtroom drama, the events unfolded. Except, this was real life. The victim was real, and his family cried on the witness stand, showing that their pain was real and we knew they were not actors playing a role. I was never asked whether a friend or relative was a victim of a violent crime, and I would have been honest if asked if I had and it affects my opinion of violent individuals. Still, I could never put an innocent person in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. In this case, I decided to wait and see the evidence, just like a juror is instructed to do.
And just like CSI or those shows like it, we were given the most gory and technical details with photos and explanations by a forensic physician. Detailed testimony and learning about how DNA works was part of the trial. It was a true education in many respects.
The thing that bothers me most about trials is that often the victim is on trial rather than the defendant. This was the case in our trial. The defense implicated the victim in all sorts of nefarious doings, and nothing – yes NOTHING -was offered about the defendant. That’s what we had to work with.
They treated us jurors as if we were so important – and the attorneys on both sides and the judge spoke eloquently on how important jurors are to the American process of justice. (The judge even explained that he thought our system was the best in the world and pointed out that in Russia, only legal experts can serve on a jury as their profession. ) It made our job seem that much more weighty and serious and I believe my fellow jurors all took this case very seriously as we listened, and studied the evidence.
We weren’t allowed to talk about the case together as a jury until deliberations began so all week I did not know how everyone else was processing things.. I was worried because in my previous experience of being selected and serving on a jury – although that time it was a civil trial – there were three hold-outs on the verdict who would not look at the evidence but instead went with their emotions. No matter how we pointed to evidence in the deliberations, nothing could sway them. We ended as a hung jury – no verdict for all that time and work. The defense in that case asked for a summary judgement and the judge ruled in their favor – the way the majority of us in the jury voted and tried to persuade the hold-outs. After that trial the judge scolded the jury and explained why there was enough evidence to make a judgement since it was a civil trial. I looked at the three hold-outs and they still disagreed! After that experience, I wondered if the jury system really works, just as I wondered the same thing after the Casey Anthony verdict.
In lots of juries, there are one or two people or more, that rely on their emotions and cannot objectively review evidence. A friend who served as a juror in family court where children were being removed from a home for cause, said there were two juror hold-outs that kept saying “You can’t take a child away from it’s mother.” It didn’t matter what the evidence showed, they could not separate their feeling that in ALL cases, a child should stay with the mother. Our jury system is, therefore, not perfect because it entrusts citizens on objectively reviewing evidence and testimony.Not everyone can be objective.
In the back of my mind having that bad experience, I feared the same thing would happen after three full days of testimony and evidence were given to us. After all, the mix of personalities, backgrounds, and education are factors in how we process information. Most of us wanted time to carefully review the evidence. before making judgement so we spent the first hours of deliberation carefully reviewing the evidence.
Day one of deliberations in this case, with lucky me chosen Foreman, it looked like another hung jury. The verdict had to be unanimous and we had three hold-outs on the majority verdict of guilty. There was no eye-witness to the shooting, and apparently, these three needed that type of evidence.
A good defense lawyer knows when there is lots of evidence, including DNA, that the only thing to do, besides put the victim on trial by saying he was asking for it etc, is to put enough doubt in the minds of jurors about more trivial things that could lead to someone not believing guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This defense attorney did his best at that and it temporarily worked in the minds of a few jurors.
There was shouting and name calling as people lost patience with those who would not consider the real evidence we had before us. We had an alternate theory juror, who wanted to conjure up another scenario, even though there was not a shred of evidence to do so and it was pure speculation. He must have thought we were on an episode of CSI, as he shared his wild, alternate theories to the majority’s incredulous response. There was another one who didn’t think there was enough evidence. Still another wanted an eye-witness. Since I was foreman, I had to restore order in the chaos. We truly represented a demographic cross-section of our huge Harris County, and we did not all see things the same way.
The part that gnawed at all of us was thinking that the defendant was capable of committing murder – a thug who would purposely and cold-bloodedly murder someone with a handgun and then dump the person. I explained how clean cut he appeared in glasses and a business suit and appeared mild-mannered. He came from a nice, affluent family who sat in the courtroom prominently day after day, and we knew nothing else about him. No other information was allowed to be shared on the negative side.We were warned that we could not Google or research the case or the defendant and that was particularly hard given my journalist background, but I followed instructions.
I can understand that some jurors would look at the defendant, and they would be reluctant to condemn him to prison for murder without an eye-witness. It was a heavy burden and decision. What was equally a weighty burden, was declaring a murderer as “not guilty.”
With the overwhelming majority of us concluding the evidence added up to guilt, I did not want an expensive mistrial. Based on the number of witnesses and expert testimony, the amount of investigation, including the involvement of the FBI, I knew how much money the county spent getting this to trial and during the trial.
By day two of deliberations, first thing in the morning, one of the three hold-outs had come around after reviewing information in her mind overnight. We still had two adamant people who would not make a guilty verdict unanimous.
So I made an impassioned speech to our group about limiting our discussion to actual evidence and not speculation, and to look at the timing and sequence of events. After two intensive hours of review of the scenario, the two hold-outs felt beyond a reasonable doubt that our defendant was guilty of murder, like the rest of us. I was so relieved that we would not cause a mistrial with a hung jury as before. Something eventually clicked for the last two. We all had to be convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt” but not all doubt. Some jurors were worried about what reasonable doubt is, and it really can’t be defined.
Before anyone could change their mind, we filled out the paperwork, summoned the judge and filed out to hear the judge render the verdict. As Foreman, I alone had to sign the verdict, and hand it to the bailiff in front of the judge, the defendant and the rest of the courthouse. Was that my voice saying “Yes we have, your Honor” as he asked me if the jury had reached a unanimous verdict? It was so surreal, it played out like a TV show, but again, this was really happening. You can’t help wondering if you did the right thing at that moment when the defendant stands, and the judgement is made.
After the verdict, the punishment phase of the trial began. That’s when the jurors first got to hear about the defendant. He had a dozen prior convictions of increasingly more violent crimes. He had used his gun once before in a robbery attempt. The terrified store clerk in that robbery attempt testified that she thought she was going to die the day he came to rob them. She pointed to the defendant and identified the defendant as she shook and cried at the memory.
He also had a conviction of violence against a family member. He was from a lovely family, but he was not like them.
The jurors filed back in the deliberation room for the punishment deliberations knowing so much more about the man on trial. So we easily came to agreement on a term of life in prison and the maximum fine because this man had had lots of previous chances to turn his life around. I studied the three hold-outs from before. They were very relieved at their decision now, and a burden was lifted. Again, I signed the documents as foreman, and again responded directly to the judge.
After the trial ended, the judge and attorneys came back to speak with us. They thanked us for our time, attention, and doing what we thought was right. The judge told us the defense attorney did not have much to work with, but he thought it did a stellar job, and I would agree. He created that bit of doubt that could have had us ending in a hung jury and a mistrial, and that was the most he could hope for with the defendant he had.
The defense attorney – a classy man, told us that serving as a juror on a case like this was second in service to the country only to serving in the armed forces. That made us feel good about the week we spent. It did not ease the trauma, but it was some reward.
Now as I review the experience, and all of the emotions that went along with it, I am glad I was picked. I learned a lot and I saw the jury system work this time, where it had not in my previous experience. I feel certain we not only did not condemn an innocent man, but we made the streets of Houston a lot safer by putting him away for a very long time. That is a powerful feeling.