In the Courtroom: Life as a Juror, Part 2

5 Sep

Life as a juror involves a lot of waiting. A lot of mystery. A lot of time alone with your thoughts. A lot of avoidance. A lot of unanswered questions. And stress.

Life as a juror involves a lot of waiting. Waiting to be summoned down to the courtroom, waiting while other jurors use the bathroom, waiting for witnesses, waiting for a chance to talk to someone else about the case (2 weeks before we could finally speak of it…and then only to fellow jurors).

Life as a juror involves a lot of mystery. You are not privy to everything that goes on in the courtroom. There is drama amongst those watching the trial. Since you cannot interact with them, you spend a great deal of time wondering who they are and why they are there (in our case, the judge introduced some of the other lawyers and first year law students after the trial, one small mystery solved). And there are a lot of sidebar conversations between the lawyers and the judge. Sometimes, these meetings lead to new developments – comments that are stricken, questions that are reneged, different lines of questioning for witnesses. Sometimes, these meetings produce no discernible difference in the trial. Good lawyers (and we got to watch two in action) show no change in demeanor after a sidebar so you have no idea how they felt about the outcome.

Life as a juror involves a lot of time alone with your thoughts. The only “person” who knew my thoughts for 2+ weeks regarding the trial was my little notepad where I faithfully recorded verbatim statements from witnesses. Since the notepad was left in the courtroom and locked up at night, it was really only the hours of 9-4 when I had “someone” to talk to. And it gets destroyed after the trial. We became very good at teasing each other in the jury room – one juror had trouble not talking about the case: “We’re not talking about the case, are we?” we would gently remind him. We did talk about courtroom drama unrelated to the case – particularly the length of the dresses on the defense lawyer’s assistant (and also daughter). Way too short. Unbelievably uncomfortably short. But mostly we talked about food and wallpaper and jobs and the daily news and anything we could think of to keep us occupied. It was hard to have everything bottled up inside but also right – had we spoken about the case prior to deliberations, it would have been too easy to start forming opinions. A juror’s job is to look at all the facts and approach everything with an open mind.

Life as a juror involved a lot of avoidance. Although our juror room was located on a mezzanine floor (elevator to the 10th floor, walk down to the 9th floor mezzanine, therefore avoiding the actual courtroom on the 9th floor) inevitably every lunch break and at the end of the day, we would pack onto an elevator, only for it to open on the 9th floor and a slew of witnesses and family members of the boy on trial and the boy murdered would be standing there. The first few days, we would make room and it would be a silent and awkward trip down. After that, we realized it was emotionally too hard on us, and we would make sure to take up space (not hard with 16 jurors and one small elevator) and not let anyone on. At lunch, there was always a court reporter or a lawyer or a witness to avoid – the Boston court district is quite small. Every day we became further embroiled in the case, the less we wanted a mistrial – mostly because it would mean a mockery of the time we had all given away from our jobs and other pursuits.

Life as a juror involves a lot of unanswered questions.

  • Who is that and why are they here?
  • Why are witnesses who testified in English to multiple cops and at the Grand Jury now refusing to speak without a Spanish interrupter? Are they scared for their lives? Lying because their stories are full of holes?
  • Why is there so little direct evidence? Why is a sergeant detective allowed to tell us that he has direct evidence but that cannot be shared with us?
  • Why did we have about 100 cops and detectives with us when we took a field trip to view the crime scenes?

Life as a juror is stressful.

  • The defendant gets to see your name and address and personal information.
  • Exhausting a pool of 170 jurors and taking 2 full days to find a full jury is not fun. Boston is a small world. And judges do their best to keep it fair but questions like “Will you be biased against someone who may be proven to be in a gang” and “would you be more likely to believe the testimony of a police officer” are hard to answer. Nothing like putting yourself on trial before the real trial begins…
  • By the end of the first week, we had 14 jurors instead of 16. Since Massachusetts murder trials do not have official alternates, we did not know until right before deliberations who would be the alternates. But the odds drastically changed when we moved from 16 to 14 (and lost 2 of our 5 men). No one wanted to end up with 13 jurors…and be the 13th juror sitting alone in a room during deliberations.

(From my journal at the time)

  • Opening arguments were fascinating. But witnesses began after lunch and first up was the victim’s mother. Sobbing, she recounted the las time she kissed her son in a hospital morgue. It was awful. Horrible to watch people sob and feel distantly removed from their pain but also acutely aware that it is m job to be a fact finder and responsible for justice. But I cannot be swayed by emotion in determining those facts.
  • Loved some of the witnesses with their details and articulation. Some were very scared of retaliation and changed their stories. One witness was incredibly detailed and helpful and said “I knew something important had just happened and I needed to pay attention” (right after the shootings). I absolutely believe people have moments of amazing clarity after events such as this.
  • I know this is petty when we are dealing with a murder case but I hate walking into that courtroom first. Everyone stands and is very respectful. But everyone is watching me. The court official gives me the nod and I walk – inches away from the defendant who stands there glaring at me, the defense lawyer, the defendant’s mother and sisters, then the victim’s parents and sisters. I don’t like being watched. I don’t like being first. We’ve instituted a new rule amongst the jurors – our row files out first so that I am not the last one to leave the courtroom. I couldn’t handle both.
  • The defense lawyer is a bulldog. Lots of theatrics. Smirking and laughing with his client (defendant) and needling the police officers over and over making them agree that “I am correct.” He freaked out today when one guy brought notes to the witness stand. Every time he speaks, I cringe a little. One of the other jurors gets anxious when he starts attacking the witnesses. We often look at each other, silently acknowledging how uncomfortable his approach makes us, but we can say nothing.

Life as a juror involves a new level of appreciation and awareness. (more excerpts from my journal)

These cops are incredible. Just incredible. I know more than I ever thought I needed to know about their shifts and D-4 (Tremont St) and B-2 (Mission Hill). I have met property cops and the youth violence strike force and some of Boston’s Finest (literally starring on the show). The number of long-standing service cops in Boston is incredible. Regardless of the outcome of the case, I am proud to have met them.

“This afternoon, both the prosecution and the defense rested. The defense put on no defense at all. After a long couple of days of autopsy photos and bloody clothes and underwear and many sidebar discussions, it was a relief. But also quite anticlimactic. I have more respect for cops and detectives and forensic scientists than ever before. Disdain for how much money crime costs a society. Dislike for this defense lawyer who talks down to us all the time. Respect for our fair and impartial court system. Compassion for families on both sides. I’m now a semi-expert on gang colors and symbols in Boston and its just so…ridiculous. Their worlds are reduced to a half mile block of territory. I may view myself as living in Boston, their identity is wrapped up in the Mission Hill Young Bloods or the Villa Victoria Pirate Gangsters. It doesn’t even seem real. Our job starts tomorrow and it doesn’t seem right – there must be more evidence somewhere. Where is the handler DNA (rare) or the fingerprints proving our case (rare).

How does one live with themselves when they know someone is guilty but they are not sure it can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt?”



One Response to “In the Courtroom: Life as a Juror, Part 2”

  1. Sue Zelie September 5, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    I know that I’ve heard your story before, Liz, but this is fascinating. Your writing about it is superb. Especially love your in-the-moment journal excerpts which capture your stark responses.

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