The Couple that Deadlifts Together

16 Oct

A few weeks ago, I found myself working on my one rep max clean at my Crossfit gym. The guy in front of me hoisted heavy weight after heavy weight and then said to the coach “I’ve never lifted this much before.” He was a bundle of excitement and nerves. Mostly nerves.

Then he turned around. “Liz, I’ve never lifted this much before. I don’t know…” And I had to cut him off. Although I don’t believe in the hokey “believe in your mind and you can achieve anything” I do believe that you can be strong enough, warmed up enough and skilled enough, and let your mind hold you back.

“Look at this weight,” I said. “This is about to be your new one rep max. You’re about to PR.”

And he did. It was fantastic. Particularly when he realized he’d done his math wrong and not set a 10 lb PR but a 20 lb one. How good does that feel?

This is one of the reasons I love my Crossfit gym. Much as I love encouraging others to run, it’s still a constant challenge to be happy for their successes and not feel bad about myself if my own PR times don’t match up. It’s definitely a work in progress. But I feel differently at Crossfit and I find myself celebrating with each new strength, gymnastic, endurance or other skill that is improved on. By anyone. Even those I’ve only met that day.

So when I woke up yesterday and knew it was a deadlift day and I hadn’t done a 1 rep max since August, I figured it was time to try for a PR. And I also knew I owed it to myself to twist any negative thoughts into positives. Replace every “I’ve never done this” with “I’m about to do this.” Then, if I fail, at least I know it’s because I’m just not strong enough yet and not because I doubted myself. Self-doubt always wins. If you tell yourself you can’t do it, you can’t. Simple as that. (Not that people who don’t yet have the skill and instruction to do it correctly should try for heavy Olympic lifts that they’re aren’t prepared for yet.)

As I biked to the gym, I thought about the Deadlift Couple at my last gym. “The couple that deadlifts together, stays together” we used to joke. Until they broke up. They deadlifted every day. And they only deadlifted. In an hour, they would lift 5-12 times total. And they videoed each lift and watched each one over and over. It was a little strange as neither one appeared to be an Olympian or anything. In fact, the female looked quite unhappy most of the time (she got critiqued a lot). And she often commented “I don’t know why I haven’t lost any weight or gotten stronger with all this lifting we are doing.”

One day, they broke up. It was sad to see him deadlift alone but it also made me happy to think that maybe she was doing other things – growing a stronger healthier body with a diversified exercise program. Hopefully the next time she deadlifts, without the harsh words and the videos and the 5-10 minute rest in between, she will see progress.

I am not part of a deadlift couple. But I do work out in a community that watches my form and pushes me to get stronger and cheers me on whether I fail or succeed.

Today, I succeeded. Maybe it’s because I’m stronger than when I last tested my one rep max before the half Ironman and the recent marathon and half marathon. Maybe it’s because two coaches were standing there watching my form and my fellow classmate was cheering me on. Or maybe it’s just because over time, if you train correctly, and if you train in something you love, you will see improvements. And you don’t need videos of yourself to get there.


I PRed at 195 lbs. Excited to hit 200 next! And then I was kept humble when our workout was 8-6-4-2 deadlifts at 80%, 2-4-6-8 push-ups, and 10-10-10-10 lemon squeezers and my coach lifted double the weight and finished in 2/3rds of my time. Nothing like celebrating a PR with a visual reminder that there’s no need to rest here – always more to accomplish.


That First Step Away

15 Oct

There we were, running the BAA Half Marathon, and I noted that nearly everyone was running with a portable device for listening to music. Except me. I’m sure there were others but we were few and far between. It made me think: When did I decide I was brave enough to run without music? Without distraction? With just my own thoughts?  I’ve run a smattering of marathons now and not a single one of them with music. Is it easier to take the first step out of a comfort zone when you don’t know its a comfort zone, when you don’t know that what you are doing is going to be unusual?

In Crossfit this week, I PRed in a few lifts. None of them as scary as when I finally committed to trying both the push jerk and the split jerk and actually jumping forcefully enough to bring my feet off the ground.  I know, I jump all the time. But a 24″ box jump can’t compare with the sheer terror of jumping while simultaneously pushing heavy weight over your head. And granted, a few hours later, while watching the Crossfit Games, I saw men split jerking 355 pounds.  I was only trying for 85.  Not even in the same ballpark.  But anytime you try something new, that is slightly dangerous, its hard to take that first step.

We are running now through crowds thick with spectators, after a 2 mile hush where the only sound was pounding feet and heavy breathing as we labored up a hill. And I see a lot of children and think – maybe that’s the first time we ever do something that scary – when we take our first step away. Often away from the couch. Or a coffee table. Sometimes a hand.  We learn to stand, then to shuffle around holding on for dear life. Gradually, our legs grow stronger beneath us and we learn to balance. We get a little cocky and land on our padded diaper butts and then we get up and do it all over again. But that first step – that first attempt to strike out on our own without the protection of a firm grip on something solid is frightening.

And empowering?

Most often we are not just stepping away from security but also stepping towards something we want – an encouraging parental face or an enticing object we probably shouldn’t have.  There is danger of failure but also potential reward in victory. And at some point, the desire for victory succeeds the risk of failure and we look at the giants around us, walking around with seemingly no effort and we decide its time to join them.

I think of a baby’s first steps often during this race – not because its a new race to me or a particularly challenging one. But because I am attempting to take my first steps in areas that I never would have previously imagined. Areas that will challenge my desire to stay quietly hidden in the crowd, areas that will require me to meet new people, even areas that will require jumping with heavy weights over my head. Each new skill – each new recipe tested – each day at the office – each hour of exercise is a chance to push our boundaries and test out legs. Can we stand? Can we balance?  Ok, let’s get moving then. It’s just one step…

I Blinked and It was Fall

14 Oct

I blinked and it was fall.

One minute I was tanning in the lovely garden next to my building and the next minute I was regretting only wearing two layers of shirts biking across the Mass Ave bridge to work.

One minute I was visiting family in Pennsylvania, running around outside in short sleeves, and the next minute we were buying pumpkins and gourds and corn husks for my grandma.

One minute I was wearing as little as possible in my gym, trying to stand as close to an oscillating fan as possible, and the next minute I’m contemplating long sleeves and full length workout pants.

One minute I was excited for a long Labor Day weekend of fun and sun and the next minute I am thinking about what fun dishes to make for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I’m not complaining. I love fall. But the passing of time does make me pause and contemplate the brevity of each season. The quick thought of “it’s almost summer” followed by a blink and “we’re in the midst of  summer” and a deep exhale of “summer went by so fast.”

I like to savor my favorite things. I much prefer looking at wrapped Christmas presents under the tree than unwrapping them.  The anticipation of fun events and memorable outings keeps workdays fun.  And fall? By January 1st, I’m already eager for September to November. Does everyone feel this way or is it the special curse and blessing of those us born and raised in New England?

I blinked and it was fall. And I jumped right in.

Inside the Courtroom: Epilogue, Part 6

29 Sep

It’s strange how quickly something can begin (you go to your day of jury duty and end up being there for 3+ weeks) and how quickly something can end (you give your Guilty, 1st Degree murder verdict and its all over).

After our time in the courtroom came to an end, we were instructed to head back to the jury room (our holding cell, as we called it) to wait for the Judge who wanted to thank us in person. We were also given time to pack up the evidence (we’d already done so) and shred our notes (also done). The two alternates were finally allowed to join us and we were grateful when they both said “You reached the same verdict we had.”

We stood there feeling relieved and soon the Judge came, accompanied by two individuals we had spent a lot of time speculating about. Turns out they were both law students interning for a lawyer that summer who asked them to sit on this case so they could see what a full court case looks like. They had accompanied us on our crime field trip and we had seen the Judge speaking to them often so when she introduced them to us and said “lawyers never get to tamper with the jury pool so inviting these law students back here gives them rare insight into a part of the case they will never see again” and then said “Now what questions do you have for me?” we all had to laugh as our number one question had been “Who are those 2 people always sitting in the back row?”

The Judge explained that very few judges give out written copies of the jury instructions and we were shocked – they were an instrumental part of keeping our deliberations on pace, staying on topic, and an invaluable reference source to remembering all the parts of the law. The Judge added that she wouldn’t tell us how she felt about our verdict and that she didn’t want to hear about our deliberation process, as that was a private matter between the 12 of us. Then she added that we had our First Amendment rights to speech back.

I can tell you what I wanted to ask her but knew that I couldn’t. And I can tell you what the other eleven wanted to ask her but knew they couldn’t. Because it was one and the same: When the lead sergeant detective said that he had direct evidence of Ricardo Arias’ guilt and he was allowed to make that statement but he was not allowed to tell us what the direct evidence was. We were angry, frustrated and really, really upset about that statement during our deliberations. It was tantalizing, we all knew it was helpful somehow, but we did not know why. Just like we knew that the witnesses were scared, none of them brave enough to say “I saw the murder. I saw the gun. I saw who shot the gun.” On one hand, it made us wonder how we would react in a similar situation. On the other hand, as a “disinterested” juror only concerned with gathering up every kernel and crumb of evidence that we could, it was frustrating.

And then the Judge said “I am able to give you some information on the court case now that wasn’t permissible in court. Do you want to hear it?”

My heart jumped into my throat. I knew the Judge was intelligent and reasonable, she wouldn’t tell us additional evidence that would prove his innocence and ask us to live with the knowledge that we wrongly convicted someone of 1st Degree murder for the rest of our lives. I knew that she was about to give us peace in the form of answers proving his guilt. Closure to the case. A rare gift that most jurors don’t have.

I was right.

She explained that one of the four guys in the getaway van confessed about the crime and who had committed it to the officers that night. His testimony was captured on video. He explained the same at the Grand Jury Trial but (I’m a little fuzzy on the actual law so forgive me as I try to repeat it as it was explained to me) it was not permissible in our case because the burden of proof is much lower at a Grand Jury Trial (the trial determining if there is evidence enough for a criminal trial) and the defendant and the defense lawyer are not present. A few days or weeks after the Grand Jury Trial, he was gunned down while riding in a car and killed. By his own gang members. No wonder the witnesses, some of whom were clearly involved in the rival gang, were too scared to speak the whole truth: if a gang will kill its own members for testifying, how much more will they kill a rival gang member for the same offense?

I took a step back and into the safety of one of the jurors standing behind me. He gave me a huge hug, wrapped his arms around me, and I looked around the room to see that all 14 jurors were either hugging or holding hands with another. And tears were falling.

It’s hard, as in most life events, to capture all the emotions that were co-mingling:

  • Tears of relief that the case was over.
  • Tears of relief that we chose a guilty verdict for a clearly guilty person.
  • Tears of frustration that we didn’t have all the evidence.
  • Tears of frustration at how fair and unbiased the legal system is.
  • Tears of shock at how close we came, many times, to a not guilty verdict.
  • Tears of shock that two young men were killed in such senseless ways.
  • Tears of anger towards this gang. Towards all gangs. Towards all the violence and crime that pervades our cities and the money and heartache and time it costs.
  • Tears of anger towards the defense lawyer for choosing to defend someone he knew was guilty. (I know, I know, it’s their job and the #1 reason I didn’t go to law school after thriving in my pre-law classes.)
  • Tears of admiration for a Judge who kept her mouth shut, respected our decision, never once said anything to sway us towards anything but having open minds.
  • Tears of admiration for the witnesses who tried to help us, even if they were too scared to speak all the truth. Particularly for the gentleman who spotted the boys while on his balcony and went out of his way to find the cops and force them to search for the van he had seen.
  • Tears of admiration for our Boston Cops. This case did not convince me that all gang members are criminals. It certainly did not convince me that all cops are good. But it opened my eyes to just how much is going on in our city on a daily basis, that so many of us are completely unaware of (thank God) and gave me new respect for those who didn’t take jobs as engineers and lawyers and accountants but toil away as fire fighters and cops and detectives and nurses and doctors and forensic scientists striving to bring justice and safety to our citizens. Not to mention the court officials who all got huge hugs from us in the basement of the court house – and maybe a few kisses on the cheek as well.

I will never be glad I spent the month of July on this court case because I will never be glad that this case had to exist. But an experience like this can only change you – make you more aware of your personal biases and your own predilection to jump to conclusions and assign blame, your own naivety as to the world we live in, give you a new gratefulness for each day you live. Life is precious and rarely lasts as long as it should. People make bad choices and ruin their own lives (and so many others) by seeking revenge (over and over again).

As Edmund Burke once said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

The only beauty that I can take away from this horrible tragedy is that I got to see good men do something. And I got to see a defeat of evil. And both of those glimpses leave me deeply humbled and incredibly grateful.

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.


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.


In the Courtroom: The Crime Scenes, Part 3

9 Sep

One day, a week into the trial, we took a field trip.  We were excited for the change of scenery and made lots of silly comments about “remember your signed permission slip” and “shall we partner up and hold hands?”  If you don’t have a sense of humor and lighthearted banter with your fellow jurors, you will not survive.  It might sound a little cruel to “look forward” to viewing a crime scene but you have to remember that 1) the crime scene was nearly 2 years old and 2) we had no idea what it would be like and it’s helpful to mask nervousness with humor and 3) I bet most of us pass by at least one crime scene every single day without ever realizing it.

We didn’t realize lots of things about a jury “viewing” (as they call it) until it happened.

  • We all sat on a large charter bus. The judge and the lawyers and some first year law students and the court reporter all sat up front.  Us jurors all sat way in the back.  The court officials sat in between.  M and I were the last two on the bus and noticed that all the other jurors had paired off – no one wanted to sit alone. I remember that we talked about my job and his career as a civil engineer and the magazine Wired and Quincy Center redevelopment and my racing. It was easy, so very easy, for a few minutes, to pretend we were going on a real field trip.
  • Then the bus started and…we were suddenly very aware that we were not on a real field trip.  A lot of people on the street waved at us, I can only assume that they thought we were famous or very important.  Why?  Because there were 10 motorcycle cops blocking off all the intersections so that our bus could drive straight though.  I was fascinated by the mechanics of a motorcade – the cops in front, the cops behind, the motorcycle cops alongside, some shooting ahead to block off the next intersection, some staying behind until we had cleared the area, continually leap-frogging each other until we reached our destination.
  • Destination One: A barber shop on the corner of Tremont St and Aguadilla St where the murder took place. The area was cordoned off (not physically, with ropes, but physically by the presence of many detectives and cops) and all the barber shop workers had been moved a few blocks away while we walked around the crime scene.
  • The only people who could speak were the two lawyers.  And all they could say was “please note that security camera” and “please note that balcony” and “please note that door frame” and “please note the distance to the sidewalk.”  They could not and would not answer any questions about why that security camera/balcony/door frame/sidewalk mattered.  We were not allowed to speak to each other or ask any questions and our notebooks were not with us. You relied solely on your memory of witness statements and tried to take mental photographs of everything.   One juror nearly broke down “But I don’t know why this is significant!” she cried.  “It’s okay” I reminded her. “We will use our collective memory later on when we can talk about this. Just remember your question and you can ask it later….like in 2 weeks….”
  • The court officials carried two large poles around the viewing. This is to signify that we were “still in the courtroom” even as we were outside in a different locale.  It was an amazingly powerful visual to remind us to continue to conduct ourselves as if in the courtroom.
  • There is not a lot of talking on this  type of field trip.  It is the exact reversal of the typical school field trip.  Also, you are encouraged to take as much time as you need.  To walk away from the group and view things from different angles. A cop or two might walk with you but no one will pressure you to move faster, to catch up with the group (actually, that should read no one should pressure you. More on that soon).
  • Destination Two: Mission Hill housing area, near the main Police HQ and1/4 mile from my apt. Here is where the 4 suspects, including our defendant, were apprehended and the weapon was found discarded in a dumpster with live ammunition and the drive-by identification process took place.
  • I am still in shock from just how helpful the field trips were. We had huge charts and maps during the trial. There was some video footage and a lot of photographs. But seeing the areas in person, specifically how much smaller they were than what you can ascertain from images, was incredibly helpful.  Being able to plant witnesses and victims and suspects and their approximate or exact locations at certain times was really helpful.  Even without notes and the ability to discuss what we were seeing, it played a crucial role later during the deliberations.

I had stood under the street light where the identification process took place for quite a while.  The other witnesses were standing where both cop cars had been positioned with witnesses to ID the suspects. I knew they were finding it helpful to look at me – how easy is it to ID a person from this distance at dusk.  When they finished, it was my turn to take a look at the various angles. As I did so, most of the other jurors headed back to the bus finished.  Only two of us remained.

A few seconds later, the police stopped a woman with a full grocery cart of cans and bottles to be recycled. They let her know that she could wait a few minutes or she could go around the area but she could not continue on her path straight down the road near the waiting bus.  One of the jurors saw this happened and for whatever reason, he let out a piercing whistle and summoned me back to the bus.  I looked at the other juror who was looking at me wondering what to do. I looked at the lawyers and judge who were all staring at us and I whispered “Don’t move.  We have the right to take our time. No one can pressure us. And we don’t want the judge thinking that there is some sort of juror hierarchy and we take orders from anyone.”

So we waited.

Back on the bus, M said “I’m glad you waited.”  And then, he squeezed my hand and one of the jurors sitting behind us patted my shoulder and I felt incredibly safe. Safer than I had felt with 45 cops (including my personal favorite Sgt Detective) milling about.

When we arrived back in the jury room, there was a bit of a confrontation. The incensed juror from earlier, O, approached me to let me know how upset he was that I had inconvenienced a homeless woman.  “I’m sorry that you felt that way” I said. “But we’ve all been given a duty to do. And although I don’t like inconveniencing people, we are trying to decide a murder case right now.  This boy deserves our full attention (O had never taken a note in the courtroom and I had woken him up 4 times in the past 2 days during witness testimony).  If I were ever on trial, I would expect the jurors to take it seriously and put my interests above anything else. It’s not just the homeless woman – we are all being inconvenienced by this trial but we have to step outside of that and concentrate on our task.”

I don’t love confrontation but when I feel that I’m right (and, in this case, I still do) I have no issues with voicing my opinion.  It doesn’t feel good to challenge a fellow juror but when he responded with “Well, he’s guilty so our task is easy” I got pretty upset.  We had only spent a week in the courtroom, there was absolutely no substantial evidence linking the defendant to the crime yet (we spent 2 days alone ascertaining that yes, the victim was dead, yes, he was dead from a gun shot wound and which of the 3 bullets had caused his death), and all suspects are innocent until proven guilty.  I suddenly had a very bad feeling in my stomach thinking “What if I end up being an alternate and this guy who has slept thru half of the proceedings and has a closed mind about this case ends up deciding the case.”

The good news is that early the next morning, we were told the Judge had excused him from the case.  Whether it was the piercing whistle, the fact he arrived late every single morning, or the sleeping sessions in the courtroom, I will always be grateful for how insightful and keenly aware she was of what was going on.

After the field trip, I headed to the gym that evening to let out some pent-up emotion. It was a very full day and the emotional swing from good “All these cops are protecting us” to bad “these crimes happened in bright daylight minutes from my home” was a lot to handle. At the gym, the coach for the evening came over to talk to a group of us girls who were gathered – one of the rare times when the workout left some room for interpretation and he wanted our thoughts.  For whatever reason, he draped his arm around me while he talked – something he had never done before or since. I felt incredibly safe. Like God knew how the day had gone and that I couldn’t talk about it but I just needed a little extra understanding.

During the workout, I ran a couple extra miles to encourage a friend. When I finished the workout, I went back to where she was and finished alongside her.  Our coach said “That’s what Crossfit is all about” and a few weeks later at a party said it was one of his happiest moments of class.  My friend said “Thanks, Liz, for knowing that running isn’t my thing and I need someone alongside to make it thru.”

From the cops directing our motorcade to M squeezing my hand to our coach giving me a hug to me making sure my friend finished her workout. Sometimes we just need someone alongside, even if only for a moment, to help us push through.