The Day I Delivered Justice

A summons for jury duty is always a surprise and usually unwelcome. In my lifetime, I have been called three previous times. In the first instance, I didn’t have to report. In the second, a settlement was announced just before jury selection began, and in the third, a civil lawsuit, I was not selected.

But this time, Monday, August 29, 2022, my number literally came up. The computer spat out 21 names from the pool of about 50 people. My name was third and I was immediately seated in the jury box. Thirteen more were seated with me, 12 jurors and two alternates, and seven were put on standby, with everyone who remained sitting in spectators seats. Then the questioning began. Of the 21, five were dismissed for reasons that are never announced; everyone else was excused. Jury selection took all morning.

There were two prosecutors — a short, older woman and a very young woman, and two defense attorneys, both men, older and middle age. The lead prosecutor stressed this would not be like a TV crime show, especially because you’d never see a 4’11” prosecutor (like her) on TV.

The defendant was a young man, not quite 30. The crime was the brutal murder of his mother in 2020. There were four charges —  two for murder and two counts of felonious assault. This was not a capital case, so the death penalty was not a consideration.

The first step was a bus ride to the crime scene, about a half-hour away. We simply walked around the house, noting the driveway and the position of the front door. We didn’t actually enter in deference to the current occupants. We were there all of five minutes, then it was back to the courtroom for opening arguments.

The prosecution’s opening was vintage, “We will prove…” The defense’s was curious: there was an archer who had a reputation for hitting the bullseye every time. When asked his secret, he simply replied, “It’s easy. I shoot the arrow into the target, then paint the bullseye around it.” In other words, things are not always how they appear.

The prosecution was very thorough, calling witness after witness. The young man’s entire history was unknown to us; anything not germane to this specific crime was not presented. I won’t go into the details about the crime itself, except to say the mother knew her elder son, living with her, had drug issues and was a danger, and she had filed police reports on more than one occasion. It all came to a head one day. Because of that, I now know the difference between a cut and a stab: a cut is longer than it is deep, a stab is deeper than it is long. And the coroner had no trouble finding the murder weapon.

While listening, my thoughts vacillated from “I can’t wait to see what the defense has to say about this” to “Why are we here? With all this (admittedly circumstantial) evidence, shouldn’t there have been a plea bargain?”

On Thursday afternoon, the prosecution rested. Then to my mild surprise, the defense also rested. In other words, there was no defense beyond cross-examinations. In the defense’s defense, I couldn’t think of a plausible defense either.

The prosecution took 45 minutes to summarize the case in great detail. The defense took 25 — there’s an inconsistency here, that was never proven, don’t hold this young man’s idiosyncrasies against him. After the prosecution’s last word (which they always get), the judge gave us final instructions, including not to consider possible penalties (that wasn’t our job). The case was now ours.

First, we chose a foreman. There was a brief silence, then two of us said “I will if no one else will” at about the same time. Since I happened to be standing at the head of the conference table when I spoke, I was given the job by acclimation. (In truth, I was feeling drawn to it, as my contribution to justice.)

We went around the room, making sure everyone had a say. There were some reservations: “I’d like to know more about this, I see a contradiction here…”, but no serious objections to the obvious conclusion were expressed.

Then it was time to vote. We were given four sheets, one for each charge. The charges were simply stated, not explained, which gave me pause, but we proceeded anyway. We settled on a simple show of hands, which went very quickly. I wrote “guilty” into the blank in the paragraph the judge would read on each sheet, then we all signed.

After signing, I pushed the wall button to summon the bailiff. The entire process took about 45 minutes. It took almost as long to reassemble the court as it took us to vote.

There were no spectators during the trial. The witnesses were brought in one by one, and left immediately after their testimony; none of the witnesses knew what the others had said. For the reading of the verdicts there were about eight spectators — the sister, the younger son, the best friend who found the body, the township chief of police, and several others who had been witnesses. The verdicts brought quiet elation.

We were thanked and immediately sent back to the jury room. The judge came by to personally thank us and answer any questions. He did confirm what we suspected — public defenders represented the young man. In retrospect, this session with the judge also gave the principals time to leave the courthouse before us. (You can never be too careful these days.)

So what did I learn? First, don’t get into trouble — the state has abundant resources: coroner’s office, crime lab, audio & video from police cruisers, expert witnesses… The odds are all in the state’s favor.

Second, there is only so much society can do to protect you. The police are more reactive than proactive — they can solve a crime, but can only do so much to prevent one. In the final analysis, you have to look out for yourself.

Finally (and this is the good news), if you have a chance to serve on a jury, seize it. The entire four-day experience was a fascinating lesson in how our justice system works for all of us.

Plus I was paid $20 per day!

My final thought — as I told the judge in the jury room, “Society failed this woman.” He replied, “I completely agree.”

For the curious, this is all the reporting I’ve been able to find about the trial so far:

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