In the Courtroom: Deliberations, Part 4

10 Sep

I’ve been dreading writing this recap: part 4 of 6.  Not so much because of the moments in the courtroom reaching a verdict but because of what the Judge said afterwards.  “I want to thank you for your service and answer any of your questions” she said. “The only two things we won’t speak of are how I personally feel about your verdict and your deliberation process.  Not because we can’t.  Because I believe that the process belongs to you – it’s a secret and a mystery that I believe deserves some reverence. However, as of now, you have your First Amendment rights back and you may speak to anyone about anything regarding this trial freely now.”

But more on our time with the Judge in the last part.

So I will do my best to recap some of our deliberation process without going into too much detail.  First, because you probably don’t care and neither can you really understand it. And second, because it belongs to us.  To the 12 of us. How many people run a marathon? Some statistics say 0.5%.  How many people run a half Ironman/Ironman? Some statistics say 0.05% or even 0.01%.  It’s a small number.  How many people sit on a murder case?  Sadly, probably quite a few.  And how many people sat on my unique case? 12 of us.  You can understand why it’s a tricky subject to talk about.  It is our job to respect the tragedy that occurred, to live with the horror (or the little part we can understand) but to not let that sway our emotions.  It is also our decision and no one who was not sitting on that jury can and should judge us for the decision we made.  And I apologize for any flippant comments I may have made in the past when I disagreed with any jury outcome.

(From here on out, italics are used for my journal entries from the time.)

July 22nd: Closing statements today. The defense attorney went first after resting his case with no witnesses.  (The fact that a defendant is not required to take the stand in his own defense can never be used against him in jury deliberations. However, the fact that the defense had absolutely no defense – no other witnesses – can certainly be discussed.) The defense attorney tried to cause doubt because of that one fingerprint found on the gun and the fact that a red shirt is an easily identifiable marker and therefore, crowd hysteria could have led to the whole “red shirt, red hat, firing the gun” mantra. He held up the red shirt “See this?  It’s just a shirt. The kind of shirt that people put into the laundry all the time.”  I am a little terrified that my complete dislike for the man will sway me against having an open mind. I’m trying to not let his pitbull nature pull me away from my regular bent to be rational and logical and willing to listen to both sides. The district attorney’s method was much more methodical and understated.  She did not reiterate all the evidence “you’re smart enough to deliberate well” but she did say “Ricardo Arias was a player He played DYS and the F brothers, he played the cops, don’t let him play you, too.”

And then, deliberations began.  The Judge assigned a jury foreman and two jurors were randomly selected and taken to the alternate room.  For the rest of the case, they were kept separate from us until we would line up to go down to the courtroom.  Luckily, our two alternates were happy to be alternates and both managed to knit some pretty amazing sweaters during their confinement.

The judge read us the charges and our jury instructions.  In case you’re imagining a few paragraphs, let me enlighten you.  The jury instructions were 36 pages. 36 pages.  And our Judge gave each of us a printed copy to have during deliberations (I am looking at mine right now) but only a few judges do this. A few more give you a audio version that you can replay.  For the rest, you have to write a handwritten note to the Judge, requesting for her to gather the entire courtroom again and reread the instructions, if you forget a detail of the law.  Having the handwritten instructions was one of the best parts of our deliberation and I only wish every Judge provided them.

Jury deliberations are horrible. You don’t know where to start. You’ve all been on the same team (if you can call a silent group of strangers brought together for a horrific reason a team) for so many weeks and now, finally, you have to be vulnerable and show your cards.  You have to begin to make an individual decision and voice that to 11 other people.  The first few hours passed quickly as the court officials brought us all the evidence and exhibits (except the live ammunition…they decided giving us the weapon and the live ammo was probably not smart).  We reread the jury instructions and we reread our notes. Then we took our first vote. It is my job to tally up each murder verdict while S tallies up the possession of a weapon verdicts.  Then I shred them. The vote went as I expected.

3 guilty, 6 not guilty, 3 undecided. 

We had a long way to go in order to reach any sort of consensus. It’s horrible to say that we were all a little upset we hadn’t been assigned to the violent death by baseball bat case that was decided in the room next to us. They had handler DNA.  It was a slam dunk case and they deliberated and reached a verdict the same day.  Am I ashamed that I was jealous of another murder case?  Yes.  But I am only human.

July 23rd: We each went around and explained our position and the evidence we were using to back up our position. All 12 of us spoke.  We listened respectfully and asked questions and did our best to have open minds.  We watched the video of the defendant’s interview with the cops on the night he was apprehended.  Because we were in a smaller room, we could actually hear it this time (lack of volume in the large courtroom made it a wasted hour). Shocking to realize how many different things we each pulled from the video – the ease and knowledge with which he signed his Miranda Rights, the outright lies regarding his whereabouts and friendship with the 3 other guys apprehended, “my fingerprints won’t be in that van” he said. But they were. And his concern, asked twice, “Is the guy dead?”  If I were innocent of a crime and brought in for questioning as a suspect, I am fairly certain I would have a lot of questions.  I’m also fairly certain my questions would include: Why am I here?  Has someone accused me?  Did someone identify me? Can I prove my alibi to you? What happens next?”  I am fairly certain that I wouldn’t be asking only one question, and that question wouldn’t be “is the guy dead?”  The callous question and completely disengaged nature frightened us, to be honest.

After watching the video and sifting thru evidence and looking at photos, we began to tackle the topic many different ways: diagrams, charts, a collection of all the evidence we agreed on as a group, a list of all facts we agreed on, a list of all facts that had been proven by multiple witnesses.  You name it, we tried it.

And slowly, 3 people began to change their thoughts on the verdict.  By the end of the day, the tally was

3 guilty, 3 not guilty, 6 undecided.

Emotionally, it was hard.  I was wrecked.  Although I had peace about my belief that he was guilty, I still didn’t like thinking that he was guilty. I didn’t like imagining putting him in prison. And I really didn’t like that our group was divided.  Although in retrospect it was a good thing to see the verdict swing from dramatically not guilty to unanimously guilty, as it proved we really poured our hearts and open minds into making the right decision, it was a hard process.  You’re challenging each other, you’re upset when someone doesn’t agree with you, it becomes very personal.

My struggle during this time was actually of a different nature. I stayed awake Monday and Tuesday nights racked with the understanding that we might end up letting a guilty man go free.   And that this would be the right decision if we reached it because American law has determined that we would rather let 100 guilty men go free than imprison 1 innocent man.  And I love that law.  And I hate it. In some ways, it is what makes America, America. I was partly worried that in the midst of this murder trial I was dealing with a nasty case of pride – not wanting to be wrong, not wanting to have to change my opinion.  But honestly, I believe it was more than that. I hadn’t a shred of doubt that he was guilty.  I was also preparing myself emotionally for the fact that I refused to end up in a hung jury state because of my stubbornness. If the other 11 people felt he was not guilty, I was going to have to go along. And I was going to have to live with that decision the rest of my life.  It may seem trite to read about it now, as if it wasn’t a big deal, but my conscience was uneasy.

I prayed. A lot. I never prayed for a verdict in one direction or the other. But I prayed for peace if I knew he was guilty but had to vote not guilty. I prayed for peace and understanding for all of us. For clear minds and an ability to reach a decision. I attacked Crossfit classes particularly aggressively that week (sorry, everyone) and cried on a few shoulders although I couldn’t explain why I was crying except to say “I have no hope that things can change from their current state.” And I know my parents prayed. And my siblings.  And people that I don’t even know and will never know.  And when I said once “I can’t do this” during Crossfit class and I hoped the coach thought I was talking about heavy Olympic lifts but really I meant “this trial”, I wasn’t surprised when he simply said “How do you know you weren’t created for just this moment?”

We all waited desperately for more evidence. Each of us voiced our disbelief that “this can’t be all there is” and all of us had sweet, sweet dreams that more evidence appeared and our decision was easily reached. We had a sergeant detective on record saying “I have direct evidence that Ricardo Arias is guilty” but we were not allowed to know what that direct evidence was.  It was beyond infuriating.  Things were thrown in that jury room, we became angry with the system many times, we had to continually reign each other in from jumping from “reasonable assumptions” and “reasonable inferences” to “hypotheticals” and “speculation.”  And the gap between those is very narrow.

We also struggled with the lack of decisive witnesses. All the witnesses seemed willing to place themselves at the scene but none were willing to be the one to actually identify the defendant as the killer.  They had “friends” who had seen something or “a hand in a waistband”.  And none of this is meant in a judgmental way because I have no idea how I would react in a situation like that.  We like to think we would come forward with the truth, that our minds wouldn’t block things out, that our fear wouldn’t keep us from bold truth.  But we don’t know how we would react.  And most of us jurors felt they were operating in a state of true fear – there was a reason (we didn’t know what it was at the time) that they were willing to place the defendant at the scene but they were unwilling to personally identify him. It was maddening.  It also was what it was.

July 24th: Things began to turn around today.  After a lot more discussions, the rest of the undecideds became guilty votes.  And everyone reached an agreement on the handgun verdict (FYI – possession of a weapon does not mean the person was necessarily the one holding it. Anyone who has the power and knowledge and ability to possess the weapon is equally responsible.)

We read our verdict in the courtroom.  It was obviously a bad sign for the defendant.  (None of the other jurors thought it thru this logically but I reminded them that if we said guilty to possession of a weapon, we could still say guilty or not guilty to murder. But had we said not guilty to possession of a weapon, that automatically meant a not guilty murder sentence.)  It was a relief to be out of the jury deliberation room – things were beginning to get heated. We had decided today that no more secret ballots needed to be taken. We were all very aware of where each of us stood by now.

9 guilty, 3 not guilty.

Strange sense of relief and excitement when we finally had a majority rule.  Felt like ground had been gained.

Three hours later, felt like we’d taken a few steps backwards.  Despite our jury instructions that “you must follow the law as I give it to you whether you agree with it or not” and the instructions on direct and circumstantial evidence and how both are valid forms of evidence, 3 of the jurors refused  to use circumstantial evidence to decide guilty.  So we sent a note to the Judge. We were brought down and read the Hung Jury instructions.  Later on, we learned 2 scary facts:

1) The Judge speaks with both lawyers when a jury indicates they are hung. If both lawyers agree that they have deliberated long enough, the jury is hung, it is a mistrial and a new trial is requested.  Obviously, the defense lawyer always says “Yes, they have deliberated long enough.” Thankfully, the district attorney said “They reached a verdict on the handgun today which shows they are making progress and capable of reaching verdicts.”

2) Had we listened to the 2 pages of hung jury instructions, most of which says “There is no reason to believe that any other jury of your peers would be any more capable of reaching a decision than you are.  You must do your best with open minds to consider all the evidence, to weigh it, to work together to try to reach a unanimous decision” and had we gone back to deliberations and had we told the Judge a second time that we were incapable of reaching a decision, she is not allowed to make us go back and deliberate again.  We came very, very close to not reaching a verdict, wasting 3 weeks of everyone’s time and a lot of tax-payer money.  The justice system is so infuriatingly just (at times).

And then we sat in that room.  And sat.  I read the Hung Jury instructions out loud, methodically and carefully.  And then we sat.  There was nothing left to say. No argument that hadn’t been made, no rabbit trail that hadn’t been followed.  We had all held the gun and studied the DNA charts and the fingerprint analysis and the ballistics reports and for some people, it just wasn’t enough evidence. We touched the bloody clothes and laid out the autopsy photos and there were some tears of frustration.  And I prayed.  I prayed hard. And then someone mentioned again the bullet in the door, where the witnesses were standing in relation to the victim and the shooter.  And we acted it out.  We drew a map of where everyone was and what their vantage point was.  And two of the jurors had lightbulbs moments.  

Moments so profound and instantaneous that when the Jury Foreman, a Catholic yoga instructor, said “I don’t know if any of you believe in God or not but there is a presence in this room right now and I believe Someone is responsible for what just happened” none of us disagreed.  She took the words out of my mouth.  

Have you seen a face change? Have you seen a countenance change in a blink of an eye from despair and frustration to peace?  Have you seen someone say “It all makes sense now.” Have you seen someone go from complete doubt to “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a matter of milliseconds? Have you seen tears of joy flow spontaneously when a group is once again united? I don’t say this lightly but it was the most powerful moment of my short life.  By far. I feel that I witnessed something holy and sacred and mysterious. I’m just truly sorry that it had to happen during a murder trial.

11 Guilty, 1 Not Guilty.

Our last remaining holdout was not swayed by logic but by emotion. It’s hard for me to talk about this as I want to respect the individual’s privacy and this is a public blog so you never know if they might read it.  Their own background and circumstances made them unwilling to send someone to prison for life…it was a valid emotional response to a difficult situation.  We reminded her over and over again that she wasn’t keeping an open mind, that her views of what happened had no evidence to back them up (we would always listen and then ask what evidence she was using) and that she had to legally follow the law.  But we also didn’t believe in railroading someone into making a decision that they didn’t agree with.

It was with great relief when she asked if she could sleep one more night before changing her decision to Guilty.  It was with great relief that we all went home that night (after secret plans to host a birthday party for her in the morning – and if that sounds callous on a murder trial, it isn’t.  Life goes on.  Asking someone to make a very hard decision on their birthday isn’t fun. The least we could do was all sign a card and bring her a fun breakfast.  Just like September 3rd, my half birthday, will never again be cause for celebration, her birthday will forever be marred by the decision we made.  She deserved a few minutes of celebration.)

Little did we know that she was 1) attending a Red Sox game that night, sitting in the same section as the defendant had when he used the game as his alibi and 2) that a viewing of Murder She Wrote that night would almost derail the entire trial.

For the first time in 3 weeks, I slept soundly.



2 Responses to “In the Courtroom: Deliberations, Part 4”

  1. David Sokol September 12, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    I am a family friend of Dyani and Federico Sierra, sometimes their attorney and a often times a defense attorney working with the same people and in the same courtroom where you brought your immense emotional and obvious intelligence to a process that beguiles many. I was there watching. I share so many of your criticisms of the system. It doesn’t always work. I only know what I know and have been given wisdom to sometimes know what I don’t but more to know that others lack the same wisdom. Your story scared me and made me cry. Good for people like you, whoever you may be.

    • ezelie September 26, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

      I know the system isn’t perfect but it gave me more hope. Even just the other eleven jurors I worked with gave me more faith in our legal system. I hope my attitude and reactions were the same of all citizens who are asked to do their duty!

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