On the second day of jury duty, I was prepared for the shuttle and the metal detector. The bailiffs had shown us how to get in the special door and how to sign in, so I was prepared for that too. What I wasn't prepared for was what would happen after we were instructed to file into the courtroom.
Believe it or not, we heard the opening statements and all dozen witnesses in a single day. We had been given pencils and steno pads, the kind I used to use for vocab lists for Latin and Greek classes, and told to take good notes because we only got once chance to hear the testimony.
To everyone's credit, all thirteen jurors paid rapt attention to the proceedings. But honestly, it was impossible not to. Perhaps I've watched too much Law and Order, but I kept zoning into the proceedings so hard that I'd have to remind myself that I wasn't watching a movie, that I was a real juror and that this was real life.
We heard from a few expert witnesses but mostly we heard from folks from the neighborhood. The neighborhood in this case was in the absolute depths of crack-riddled poverty. Several of the witnesses were admitted crack users. Several were convicted felons. All of them were terrified to be there--wary of the law because of one bad experience after another with the police, confused about the proceedings and the idea of being cross-examined, and most of all absolutely petrified that their testimony would end up costing them their lives. Snitches get stitches.
What played out was a fascinating study in complete cultural incongruity. The witnesses didn't understand proper courtroom decorum. You can fault the prosecution for that, but then again I can appreciate that it is difficult to make someone comfortable with the very structured proceedings of a trial in a short amount of time. The witnesses tried to get on the stand and tell their side of the story, and they became frustrated and seemed to shut down when the judge or the lawyers would stop them and explain that they had to only answer exactly the question they were being asked. Several got worked up and talked back to the judge and the attorneys. A few were friends of the victim, so they got (understandably) upset when they recounted the details of the night. The witnesses spoke with a strong accent (I am still kind of shocked that 'African American Vernacular English' is the preferred term but that's the best way to describe it--very deep AAVE with a Georgia twist) and had varying ability to speak precisely, which lead to really interesting semantic issues. For example, back window meant window in my back bedroom that faces the front ie front window. The prosecution seemed fairly well-versed in working with witnesses from this type of background, but I was not very impressed with his ability to identify the miscommunications that were taking place and straighten them out clearly for the jury. Confusion all around.
We went all day with just a brief break for lunch. I headed down to the Italian place on the corner and was giddy to discover that they'd make me a personal pizza covered in green olives. My favorite. It was so incongruous, to go from that courtroom and the details of that night to a sunny day and my favorite food and a little time to myself. I turned down an invitation to sit with two lovely ladies from the jury. I knew I would not be able to keep myself from talking about the case with them, and we were forbidden to discuss it. They never asked me in voir dire if I was good at keeping secrets. If they had, they wouldn't have picked me. But I did what seemed like the right thing and tried to separate myself from my fellow jurors for the time being.
Ugh. I am really dying to post all the details, to tell you about what happened and the witnesses and the unintentionally hilarious things the defense lawyer said, but I really feel like it would be disrespectful to all the families and might place me in needless danger. If you are interested in reading about the case, email me and I will send you some links.
Otherwise, I can tell you this. I heard scared people. A lot of scared people. I saw photographs of a dead person. Lots of those too. I heard 911 calls. I saw videos of police statements. I saw the families sitting in the courtroom. I saw the defendant sitting just across the way from me, another human being who by chance I stood in judgment of. I saw photos of buildings, photos of bullet holes, photos of the victim 'in life'. I heard people crying and I saw other people crying silently. That's all I can tell you.
I don't know why I didn't expect the day to affect me, to come home with me like a dog that followed me home. The judge told us to just go home and forget about the trial for the night, but I found that to be impossible. The horrible images I had seen all day, the pleading voices and frightened people, the stories and how they matched and where they differed. It all rushed through my mind unbidden all night, stopping only briefly when I was able to distract myself. I spent a few futile minutes trying to think of any way I could get out of it, any possible excuse I could invent that would excuse me from the next day's deliberations. I couldn't think of anything.
Can you think of a time when you were traumatized unexpectedly?
This is part two of four in my series about my experience as the foreperson of a murder trial.
one: jury selection
two: the trial
four: the verdict