Tuesday, April 6, 2010

deliberations: day one

It was the third day of jury duty when a sick, heavy feeling settled over me. The shuttle and the line and the metal detectors and the memorial to the Nichols shooting--it was all familiar now and I didn't like that. We knew we would assemble Wednesday morning to hear the closing statements and then it would be time to deliberate.

I had a thousand questions swimming in my head from the day before, and having watched a lot of Law and Order and stuff I fully expected a lot of rhetorical bombast, pregnant pauses, and persuasive puffery.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

I sharpened an extra pencil and tucked it into my steno pad and fixed myself a styrofoam cup of coffee.

The prosecution did a pretty good job with their closing arguments. They had a powerpoint that recapped everything we'd heard the day before and explained all of the laws we'd be dealing with in deliberations. They left a number of stones unturned but I had a feeling they were undisturbed for a reason.

When it was time for the defense's statement, I got kind of nervous. The defense had been so pitiful the day before and it was their last chance to get it together. This was their time to coax out our reasonable doubt and nurture it into something we couldn't ignore. It was their time to construct some alternative versions of the story of what happened on the night the victim was shot.

They didn't do anything like that. In fact, I can hardly remember what the attorney said. More of the same unconvincing, poorly structured arguments. I spent a lot of time looking at the defendant, wondering what he must be thinking. Wondering if was contemplating the institutionalized injustice that confronts the undereducated and impoverished, or if he was just scared that he was about to go to jail for the rest of his life. He looked scared but maybe not as scared as I would expect.

The state gave their brief rebuttal and then just like that the ball was in our court. We were going to need a foreperson, the judge explained, to facilitate the discussion and eventually to read the verdict in court. The judge informed us that we were to go into the jury room, pick a foreperson, and then adjourn for lunch as a group. Simple as that.

We got into the jury room and spirits were low. It was starting to sink in by then that we were about to be stuck in this tiny room with these dozen strangers indefinitely until we could all agree on one man's fate. We sat down around the table and stared each other down.

"Okay," I ventured, breaking the silence, "Who doesn't want to be the foreperson?"

Twelve pairs of very serious eyes stared back at me as twelve hands shot into the air in unison. I sighed.

"Okay," I said, putting on my patient teacher voice. "Who really doesn't want to be the foreperson?"

Twenty-four sad eyes, twelve hands in the air. I exhaled.

"Fine," I said, sounding every bit like I knew what I was getting myself into. "I'll do it."

A collective sigh of relief. "That's good," says one of the middle-aged male jurors. "I was going to say you anyway."

We filed back into the courtroom and told the judge that I would be the forewoman. He told us he was going to buy us all lunch.

Our bailiff lead us down the back elevator (maybe the same elevator Brian Nichols came down after he assaulted his bailiff?) and down to the sidewalk. Without a hint of irony, he strode into traffic and stopped all the impatient cars so the jury could walk across the street for lunch. We looked around at each other and smiled, feeling important for a moment.

We all loaded up on cafeteria food and thanked the tax payers for our 'free' lunch. While I nibbled on my chicken salad sandwich, I looked up jury foreperson responsibilities online. I didn't learn much except that I should probably take a straw poll to see where we stand before we start deliberating.

We all managed to make conversation without talking about the case. We talked about daughters and sons and commutes and jobs and husbands and honeymoons and television shows. We found little points of contact and let ourselves feel the small delight of connecting with each other just a little. We laughed and shared cookies and tried to psych ourselves up for what would happen that afternoon.

I don't know what I was expecting, honestly. In retrospect it is a little silly to think that they would explain to you how to deliberate, or even give you a jumping off point. They just brought us back from lunch, gave us the box of evidence, explained how to ask a question of the judge, showed us what button to hit when we were ready to render the verdict, and said good luck.

We settled in around the table. Everyone looked at me. That was the first moment, but not the last, that I wished I had not volunteered to be foreperson.

I didn't really know what I was going, but I jumped in with the help of my fellow jurors. We decided to use the white board to write up all of the charges and discuss them, to make sure everyone understood the charges. They were fairly complex and it turned out to be a very useful exercise. After that, we took a quick straw poll and discovered we were a pretty even mix of he did it, he didn't do it, and I have no idea.

It was just like this except there were some people who weren't white men

We spent all afternoon in there. We diagrammed witness testimony on the board, working methodically through our notes and scrutinizing the testimony. We looked at photos of the scene of the crime and photos of bullet holes. We didn't need to examine the photos of the victim but they just kept surfacing over and over again like a dead fish. I kept having to flip them over so I wouldn't have to look at them.

We had no idea what we were doing, no clue how to reach a consensus, and very little grounding in the laws at hand. But for a group of clueless citizens, we certainly found a lot to talk about. Everyone was incredibly engaged with the process, which was especially impressive considering that we were slogging through the second half of our third day. We'd go for hours at a time and then stop only briefly for bathroom and coffee breaks. It was exhausting and overwhelming and fascinating and awful.

The bailiffs popped their heads in when the sun was starting to hang a little low in the sky and asked us how much more time we were going to need. We looked around at each other with questioning eyes. We were nowhere near a consensus and couldn't even see the light at the end of the tunnel. "Can we have another hour?" I asked. The bailiffs cringed and told us we'd better wrap it up and come back in the morning. So we did.

I went home feeling like I had spent the day in a boxing match. I was stunned at what an exhausting intellectual exercise it was to comb through all the laws and testimony and make sure everyone got a chance to express their opinions and ask their questions. I have been through a few exhausting intellectual exercises in my day (see: 2001-2007) but honestly these deliberations were up there with the most difficult. I felt pushed to the absolute limit of what I knew about interpreting texts, and I am a trained professional at interpreting texts.

Nick was gone in Vegas so Lanier took me out to Señor Frog's, where I had two margaritas for dinner. That was plenty.

I had no idea what was going to happen the next day.

Discussion Question:
What is the most exhausting intellectual exercise you have ever completed?

* * * * * * *

This is part three of four in my series about my experience as the foreperson of a murder trial.

one: jury selection
two: the trial
three: deliberations
four: the verdict


  1. Wow, that was fasinating. I have never been selected for jury duty. Except for the fact that I am self employed and it would really hurt financially, I think it would be so interesting! Thanks for sharing that.

  2. Thank you so much for reading! It was definitely a fascinating experience.

  3. Excellently well written, natch. But really appreciate the still from To Kill a Mockingbird - the perfect visual!

  4. Thanks Mims! Just goes to show what an idealistic view of the world I have sometimes...

  5. This really is good stuff. A perspective I never expected to hear. <3

  6. excellent, excellent blog post. i feel a though so many people have no idea what goes on in the deliberation room. also very well written!

  7. When Ryan was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, his doctors and health insurance agents asked me, in one day, via phone calls and meetings, about his eating and exercise habits, lifestyle, sex life, childhood, etc. I'd only known him and been dating him for 9 months. Being diagnosed with a chronic illness that you won't die from, but you will have for the rest of your life and require medication is a huge deal. I did so much research, that I ended up using Crohn's disease for my senior capstone project because it basically wrote itself

  8. Damn darlin, I can't imagine what that would be like. It's cool how these horrible experiences can go on to yield positive things like that.

    xoxo thanks for reading

  9. Great post. Those of us who work as trial lawyers are endlessly interested in jurors' impressions and processes. I served on a jury in a criminal case some years ago. The stakes were somewhat lower, but it was still tough and challenging. I'm impressed that you and your colleagues took your responsibilities so seriously. As well, it's heartening to see that the lack of a strong defense didn't stop you and your panel from carefully thinking through the issues and weighing the evidence.


    ps-comments make me sign in via blogger, which I don't really use....Feel free to contact me at http://www.davidsugerman.com

  10. Thank you so much for reading, David! This process has gotten me really fascinated with criminal law and especially the role of the jury. I have to say that, even though it was really difficult, the incredible poise and thoughtfulness of my fellow jurors made it a really affirming experience.

    I'll be sure to take a look at your website. :)