In the Courtroom: The Verdict, Part 5

24 Sep

Unfortunately, the trackpad on my laptop stopped working which meant I couldn’t move my mouse. My laptop went on a lovely free vacation to the shiny Apple store for nearly two weeks.  Then I headed to Lancaster, PA to visit my extended family which was a much needed break. So I’m a bit delayed in my posting.

The day we reached the verdict was a bizarre one. I’m going to respect the privacy of my fellow jurors and not say a lot about the outliers in our decision making and how many steps backwards we took for each step forward.

Suffice to say:

  • Reaching a decision is hard. You can’t coerce people into seeing your point of view, you can’t make decisions for other people and you can’t push them into putting puzzle pieces together faster than they are ready to do.  (Putting puzzles together might be my best strength….but learning to be patient while others do it is clearly not. We had to continuously reiterate that all of us were going through the same logical reasoning, just some of us do it faster and internally and some do it at a different pace and vocally.)
  • You have to continually remind yourself that people care about the decision you make. People on both sides of the case.  You can’t use their interest to make your decision but you do have to constantly remind yourself that your decision matters.
  • I really, really, really, wanted to go home and visit my family during that month. My parents…my baby sisters and their husbands…my brother and his girlfriend.  But I also knew that it would be hard to see them and know I couldn’t talk about “my new job” so I stayed away. In fact, I probably saw less of any of my friends that month just because I dreaded the “what have you been up to” or “don’t say anything, just nod if you’re on the Whitey Bulger case” questions.

So we arrived on the day we reached our verdict, ready to reach a verdict, laden with birthday breakfast treats and the juror whose birthday it was told us she’d had a moment of clarity.  This happened while she was watching Murder She Wrote and Jessica Fletcher said “what about the other guy.”  Do you follow?  Right, okay, neither did I.  We all sat there until one juror said “What does that mean” and she proceeded to tell us that watching a ridiculously old tv show helped her reach a verdict that the other guy at the scene of the crime, who was not charged with the murder, and who the witnesses did not peg as the aggressor, was the murderer. No facts, no evidence. She decided her opinion of a real-life murder based on a fake TV show.  I kid you not.

At this point, I didn’t say anything.  Probably due to the fact that one of the jurors, a guy about my age, was clutching my knee under the table and it hurt. A lot. I guess he knew I was liable to get really upset because, you know, I like people to use facts and evidence and to not treat a real life murder trial as if it were a fun game and clues were hidden in Murder She Wrote (never trust a tv show where the lady who solves murders also happens to be present for every single one of them.)

Luckily, others spoke up.  We went over the Judge’s instructions again.  Our duty as jurors. The evidence.

And then she looked at me and said “I can’t find him guilty. I don’t know how you can. How can you put a boy in prison for life? How can you have that on your conscience.”

Here is what I said then because I believed it to be true.

“I have nothing on my conscience. I believe he is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. I have reached a decision with 11 fellow jurors and we bear this burden together.  We spent days deliberating, we did our due diligence, we are not making rash decisions based on fear. How can I put a boy in prison for life? I am not.  His own actions are putting him in prison. I am not happy to have to make this decision. I don’t like deliberating over someone else’s life.  I take this very seriously and there has never been a single moment where I was happy with my decision. But I am unwaveringly sure in my decision.”

And then someone else said “Why can’t you find him guilty? Because you believe deep down that he is not guilty? Or because you don’t want to find him guilty?  We’ve laid out all the facts and evidence, there is no evidence to support your opinion on what happened that night. There is no evidence supporting this boy’s innocence. I don’t think the issue right now is knowing what the truth is – it’s your willingness to speak the truth.”

And then she cried.  And cried.  The men were uncomfortable. She ended up leaving the room and two women went with her to speak with her.  And when she came back, she admitted that she agreed with the decision. But she didn’t like sending anyone to jail. She didn’t realize how strongly she felt about this before the trial began.

We could all sympathize with that.

And then, we breathed a huge sigh, and moved on to determining 1st or 2nd degree murder. Did you know that premeditated murder can happen in a split second? That it doesn’t mean someone purposely decided to kill a specific person, but that when they drew their weapon, they did intend to kill someone.  Reaching this verdict was the easiest part of the process for us.  Someone who doesn’t intend to kill doesn’t shoot three rapid shots at point-blank range. They don’t have a getaway van illegally parked around the corner. They don’t avenge gang deaths with broken legs or a bullet to the thigh. And they don’t sit in an interrogation room at the police department and ask “Is he dead?”

I have no idea how other juries handle the question of “What to do next.”  I’d be curious if our decisions were extremely normal or extremely weird.  I’m not going to justify what we did except that we felt the occasion was solemn and should be treated so and we also strongly felt that we would not go down into the courtroom sobbing (as we all were). We would not go down until we felt strong and unified.

The solemn part was this: Our jury foreman filled out the slip of paper.  And then we all sat there in silence as it was passed from person to person and we held it, and read it, and made peace with our decision.  And we thought of the family who would be relieved by this verdict, even if it didn’t bring their loved one back. And we thought of the prosecuting attorney who was not present that day (how badly we wanted to see her face when we gave our verdict). And we thought of the cops and the detectives and the witnesses. And we each held the paper, one by one, around the table. And then – we let it go.

We did not tell the court officials we had reached a verdict yet as once we did that, the rest of the proceedings were out of our hands. Instead, we cleaned up our room – took down all the maps and sticky easel pages and chalkboard notations and ripped up our trial notes and shredded them and boxed up all the evidence and turned all the large exhibits around so they were facing the wall. And then, we played Pictionary on the chalkboard for half an hour.  We drew movies and amusement parks and inside jokes from all the time we spent together talking and teasing when we couldn’t talk about anything deep. We needed this half hour – to reconnect as a group of strangers – to feel united after 4 1/2 days of heated discussion and being on different sides and being frustrated with each other. And mostly, we needed to calm down and decompress a little before the verdict was read.

And we made some decisions:

  • No jurors would leave the building alone. We would leave the building all together (and I asked the court official to take us out through the basement which he did).
  • And we would all go out for lunch and a drink together afterwards and show pictures of our families and debrief about things we couldn’t discuss earlier.

And then we gathered in the hall, in our long line of 12, for one final time. The court official told me, since I was the first one to walk down, that the defense lawyer would ask for “one-by-one polling.”  I nodded.  And then a juror behind me said, in a very small voice “You mean we have to go into a room alone with the defense lawyer one by one and tell him our verdict and he can question us about it?”  If she hadn’t been so scared looking, I would have burst out laughing. That’s one way to never reach a guilty verdict!

I began these posts describing the actual verdict so I won’t reiterate it all. Mostly because it still doesn’t feel real. Here is what I remember: I looked at the defendant, Ricardo Arias, as I walked in. I’ve read that if all the jurors look away from the defendant, it means they reached a guilty verdict. I looked at him because I didn’t want to give him the pleasure of having any idea what decision we had reached. I looked at him because I am not scared of him. And I looked at him because, for the first time ever, he was surrounded by court officials and although that makes perfect sense, it was such a different courtroom than the one I had grown used to, I was taken aback.

And I looked at his mother.  And I felt compassion. I believe in a God of love and a God of grace. I believe that I am a sinner, no better than anyone else. But I also believe in a justice system that sets out rights and wrongs, I believe in consequences for disobeying those laws, and I believe in consciences that know that murder is wrong. I believe in a God who can be perfectly loving and full of grace and justice at the same time. His gracious nature does not negate his judgment. He cannot be more or less than who He is, because He is God.  He is ALL grace and ALL justice and ALL love and ALL authority.  And I felt the smallest speck of this when I thought of Ricardo and his family – more outrage and anger at what he did, confidence that he deserved this sentence, and compassion and mercy on a boy who made a life-altering mistake. Whether he views it as a mistake or not, I do not know. I may be capable of judging facts and evidence, but I will never be capable of judging a soul.

And I looked at the grieving family and felt compassion and sadness.  Because this verdict doesn’t change anything for them, really. It closes a horrible chapter and maybe gives them some sense of peace.  And it definitely keeps a murderer off the streets. But it doesn’t bring back their baby, their son, their brother, their friend. Does it make it more or less tragic that the murder didn’t even accomplish its sole objective: kill a feuding gang member?  Instead, he killed an innocent boy who was naive enough to admit the truth “I live around here” and die for his answer.

When I had called my Mom once to explain how emotionally exacting and exhausting this trial was, she said “Well, if I were ever on trial, I would want you on the jury. Probably more than anyone else in the family, I would want you.” (Which is a nice sentiment, however unrealistic.  You know there’s an issue with the justice system when a family member of the defendant serves on the jury…)

I will never be glad I was chosen, just like I will never be glad that this trial existed at all.  But I do believe in a God who cares about the details. And so I believe that each of the 14 of us jurors was chosen not by the lawyers and Judge but by a God who cares. And I never knew this more profoundly than when we finished affirming our 1st Degree Guilty verdict and twelve “Yeses” resounded through the courtroom and the Judge dismissed us and said she would speak with us shortly. I had no idea she would give us a wonderful gift.  For our one very undecided, very unhappy birthday juror, it ended up being the best present of her birthday.



3 Responses to “In the Courtroom: The Verdict, Part 5”

  1. nicolemkurz September 25, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts about this experience. What an amazingly difficult time and decision, and your strength through it all has been really inspiring.

    • ezelie September 26, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

      Thanks! It was bizarre and not how I expected to spend my summer but definitely a worthwhile lesson. And it helped me hit some running and Crossfit PRs (all that pent up stress) so so that wasn’t too shabby either. It’s always good to be reminded of all those working tirelessly to bring justice and keep our cities safe.

  2. A reader September 26, 2013 at 7:53 am #

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