Monday, April 12, 2010

the verdict

It didn't feel like the jury room anymore by Thursday morning. It felt like a hospital quiet room where the nurses take you to wait for bad news. Stale coffee and frowning people.

In some ways it made sense to pick up where we left off, but I knew the intervening hours since we'd called it a day the night before had affected the other jurors like it had me. I had new angles I wanted to consider, witnesses I wanted to analyze afresh, and new ideas about the deliberations process, and I knew I couldn't be the only one. So I took a cue from Tennessee Young Writers Workshop--something I find myself doing all the time.

I was a student at TYWW--a week-long writers' retreat in Tennessee--for six years and a counselor/mentor/teacher for another seven. Every day after our afternoon classes, we observed a sacred tradition known as temperature check or just temp check for short. Temp check was a time for the students to sound off to the staff--to tell us what they were enjoying and what wasn't working for them and what questions they had and all that good stuff. Everyone looked forward to temp check as their chance to share and center themselves for the rest of the evening.

It turns out temp check works just as well with a deliberating jury as it does with angsty Southern teenagers. We went around the table and spoke frankly about how we were feeling, what we were thinking, what we wanted to discuss more, and how we felt we should move forward. Despite the fact that we were all of different minds about the case, everyone listened to one another intently and even encouraged one another. When my voice cracked a little with emotion when I was describing the train of thought I'd been following since the night before, one juror reached out and touched my hand to comfort me.

And then I baked all the jurors a cake made of rainbows and smiles

Once we'd heard from everyone, we tried our best to move forward. It was hard not to wander a little. We found ourselves getting caught up in minor details. Maybe it felt safer to dwell on the minutiae so we could take our minds off the enormity of what we were deciding. I did my best to keep the conversation on-topic and productive but I didn't really know what I was doing.

And then it was lunchtime again. We had a new bailiff that day who elected not to stop traffic so we could cross the street to the cafeteria. The disappointment was palpable as we waited patiently for the signal to cross.

It was harder to make conversation without talking about the case. We made halfhearted chitchat about how good the chicken salad was and how awful traffic had been the night before coming home.

No one really seemed to be listening to what they were saying. I think we were all completely preoccupied by the same thought: how on earth were we ever going to reach a verdict?

One particularly well-spoken juror finally articulated this thought when we reconvened after lunch. "We've been at this for two days now," he said, looking around at all of us significantly. "We need to talk about the possibility that we might be a hung jury." Everyone had to admit that he had a point. A few people felt strongly the defendant was guilty, a few felt strongly that they had reasonable doubt, and most of us still felt pretty conflicted. We discussed it as a group and decided that, although we were ready to render a verdict on one of the minor charges, it was starting to look like we were not going to be able to reach a consensus about the other charges. There was a little stirring of relief. Even deciding that we couldn't reach a verdict felt like something like a decision.

The bailiffs had explained that I could ask a question of the judge by memorializing it on paper, signing it, and having a bailiff bring it to the judge. This question, I was told, would be entered in as official evidence in the trial, and then the judge would be able to answer our question.

I turned to a fresh sheet in my steno pad. Your Honor, I wrote, feeling something like I was back in 8th grade, We think we might be deadlocked. Can you give us instructions as to what to do if we are? I resisted the urge to add PS I like you, do you like me? Check yes or no. I pushed the button to page the bailiffs.

A few moments later the door opened. "Did y'all reach a verdict?" the bailiff asked hopefully. I shook my head and handed her the note. She took it without a word and disappeared.

It was only a few minutes later when she came back. "Ms. Foreperson?" asked the bailiff. "The judge wants to see you in the courtroom." Another what made me think this was a good idea? moment. I stepped into the courtroom through our special jurors' door only to discover the entire courtroom assembled--the lawyers, the defendant, the spectators. Somehow it had not occurred to me that they were all in there waiting on us.

It only took a second. The judge, who was very kind and patient through the whole process, asked if we were deadlocked. I told him we weren't sure but we thought we might be. He basically told me to get back in there and keep at it.

And then the strangest thing happened. Little by little, we reached a verdict. First I had a breakthrough--I realized that the only testimony that was creating our reasonable doubt (by placing other armed people at the scene) was the same testimony that stated unequivocally that the defendant was guilty. Therefore, I reasoned, we had to find him guilty. Either we believed the testimony, in which case we had an eyewitness account that the defendant was guilty, or we decided not to believe her and would have to throw her entire testimony out--including our only knowledge of other armed people at the scene. All the other abundant amount of evidence pointed squarely at the defendant, so the idea of other people at the scene with guns was the foundation of the last remaining shred of reasonable doubt I had. With the last bit of reasonable doubt eliminated, I was ready to convict.

The others started to come around one at a time. The people who felt strongly all along that we had to convict him started to speak up more. Finally, our most stalwart skeptic finally decided that her doubt was actually not reasonable, and she admitted that she was prepared to render a guilty verdict on all but one count. As soon as she changed sides, everything fell into place really quickly. The other holdouts started to agree, one by one, that they were ready to convict on all but one count too. It was an interesting compromise.

When the last person finally agreed they were ready to render a guilty verdict, we all looked around at each other with wild, hopeful eyes. Not two hours before we had asked the judge for instructions on how to proceed as a hung jury. Had we actually reached a consensus?

I polled the jury once and then again and then maybe again. I wanted to be absolutely sure that everyone was absolutely sure and confident in their verdict. Once and then again and then again we reached the same conclusion: we were ready to find him guilty of all but one count.

I tried to remember how I was supposed to render the verdict. "Did he say I just flip over the indictment and write the verdict on the back?" I asked my fellow jurors, and they nodded. I looked down at the stapled stack of paper in my hand, shrugged and flipped it over. I started to write out the verdict, count by count.

"Do you want me to write that?" one juror asked me. I looked down and saw that my hand was shaking so hard that I could hardly hold the pencil. I let him take the pencil and paper from me and write the verdict while I took ragged breaths and tried to calm myself down.

We pored over the written verdict over and over again, making sure I'd written everything correctly. We buzzed the bailiffs and I told him we were ready to hand down the verdict. "Who's the foreperson?" asked the grumpy one who had escorted us to lunch. When I pointed at myself, he just laughed and shook his head. The door clicked shut.

And then silence. Just a few moments after the bailiffs left, one of the fluorescent overhead lights started to flicker on and off like a strobe light. "Ugh!" I exclaimed, instantly nauseated. "Can we turn the lights off!" Someone flicked the light switch and the lights dimmed but the strobe effect continued. I had to press my forehead against the big glass window looking out over downtown Atlanta and close my eyes tightly. I chanted Thiswillbeoversoon, thiswillbeoversoon inside my head.

And then they came back for us. We looked around at each other with looks that meant something but we didn't really know what and took lots of deep breaths. My hands were trembling and I wasn't sure I could actually unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth long enough to speak.

We filed in and sat down. The attorneys, the defendant, the spectators, the court reporter--they all rose for the jury. I took my appointed seat at the end, closest to the judge.

"Has the jury reached a verdict?"

I stood up. "Yes, Your Honor."

"Would you read it for us now?"

I froze. The judge had not even looked at the handwritten verdict. Had I done it right?

"Your Honor?" I managed. "Would you take a look at this and make sure I did this right?" I felt like a child. I could feel the weight of many pairs of eyes on me.

The bailiff handed him the verdict. The judge gave it a quick glance and nodded as the bailiff handed it back to me. "That's fine."

I hesitated again. "So if I read it, like, verbatim it will be right?" I cringed at how timid I sounded. The judge smiled. "Yes."

I took a deep breath and I looked around. I saw the attorneys sitting with their hands folded, sizing us up. I saw the defendant looking back at me with sad eyes, already seeming a little defeated. I saw the families in the back of the courtroom--the defendant's mother behind him in her Sunday best and the victim's family behind the prosecution, stone faced.

And then I read the verdicts. The competitive speaker in me couldn't help but look around at everyone as I read my lines like I was saying Four score and seven years ago instead of We the jury find the defendant guilty of count four. I tried to speak loudly and clearly and not stumble on any words.

The reaction was underwhelming. I was expecting cries of anguish or victorious cheers or at least some silent tears or meaningful skyward looks. Instead the defense attorney requested that the judge poll the jury. I think the defendant was looking at his hands resting in his lap. The judge called on the jurors one by one and asked us three questions:

Is this your verdict?
Was this your verdict in the jury room?
Is this your verdict now?

Thirty-six yeses later, the bailiff silently handcuffed the defendant and led him out of the courtroom, even as the judge was making mollifying remarks about the service and commitment of the jury. He thanked us for our time and dismissed us. The bailiffs opened the door that lead out of the courtroom and into the jury room.

I was closest to the door and thank goodness. I bolted for the jury room and so did the juror behind me, a friendly middle-aged guy who had sat next to me throughout deliberations. He ran into the bathroom and I could hear him wailing, sounding like he was pleading. I sobbed, open-mouthed, into a wad of paper towels in the corner by the coffeemaker until the judge entered the jury room. He handed out excuse notes for our employers and told us it would be best if we just went home and tried to forget all about it. And just like that, my jury duty was over.

* * *

Myself and two other jurors were the last to leave. As we were walking in heavy silence back towards the elevators, we found ourselves face-to-face with someone we couldn't help but recognize: the victim's nephew, the spitting image of his uncle, who had been seated in the front row for the entire trial.

Alone in the hallway, the huge man approached us. Standing so close, I could hardly distinguish him from the photos we'd seen of his uncle 'in life'. Without a word, he offered his large, warm hand to shake one by one. When he got to me he closed one giant hand over our clasped hands and looked me dead in the eye. "You did good," he said. And then he walked away.

That actually happened.

Discussion Question:
Think of a time when you did good but it didn't feel very good.

* * * * * * *

This is part one 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. Katie, I cannot for the life of me think of a time when I did good, but it didn't feel good. I know it's happened to me before, but all I can think about after reading your story here is how awesome I think you are. I wish so badly I could have been there to shake your hand, too. Then give you a high five. Then take you out for a cider at The Vortex. I could not have done as well as you, and think about how differently that trial would have been without you on the jury, let along without you as the foreperson. You are one hot lady. Everyone is lucky to be your friend.

  2. This was riveting, Katie. I have always been semi-obsessed with courtrooms and trials, but never really gave much thought to how it would feel to have to be in your shoes and do what you did. Thanks again for sharing.

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment Meghan and Lynne! It means more than you know.

  4. this series of posts is so fascinating and well-written! thank you so much for sharing it.

  5. I've already said this to you once before - but this is seriously some of the most interesting stuff I've ever read on the internet.

  6. You have no idea how much that means to me, darlin. Thank you so much--that is such an incredible compliment!

  7. I have looked forward to this post with dread and anxiety and hope for closure. It was actually the first thing I thought of when I woke up Saturday morning. Thank you for bringing us all through your journey. (And for putting a better perspective on the scope of my own 'problems').

    And without going into too much (or any) detail, I do good and feel shitty about it all the time at my job.

  8. Wow, Melody Ann! Thanks for following so closely. It really took a while to work up the nerve to write this last post. It feels really good to be done with writing this series--it's been really cathartic.

  9. Dear Katie,
    Let me preface my remarks by letting you know that I am a professional jury/trial consultant. So, I evaluate juror behavior for a living. I think that your account of your experiences at this trial is outstanding. I particularly appreciate that you found a way to capture the uncertainty and emotional conflict associated with your experience without referring to any of the specifics of your case. It makes your story feel more universal (which I think it is in many ways). I plan to reference your experience in my own blog and I will be sure to encourage my readers to check out your posts. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the process you just went through. Well done!


  10. Hi Edward! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my posts. I just surfed over to your Jury Box blog and I am really eager to give it a thorough read when I get home.

    I'm so glad a professional stumbled across these posts! I've really been wanting to know more about the legal blogging community, since this experience really piqued my interest in criminal law. Do you have any blogs to recommend to a layperson like me? If I wanted more legal-type folks to read this series of blogs, where would be a good place to post links?

    Thanks again for your kind words. I do have one question for you: I was stunned that the judge and attorneys called the jurors by their last names. Is this protocol? Doesn't that endanger the jurors?

  11. I was so glad to see you wrapped it all up for us. I loved the entire series. As to your discussion questions, I feel like motherhood is full of moments of doing good, but not feeling good about it. You want to make your kids happy and to give them everything. It hurts to deny them these things even when you know it is to make them better people.

  12. Thank you so much for reading! I can't even imagine how many did-good-but-don't-feel-good moments go along with motherhood.

  13. Katie,
    I am also a jury consultant and live in the Atlanta area where you do. I posted links to your blog on a listserv to jury consultants around the country early this morning. I see you have already heard from one of them who was as impressed as I was with your posts. They were particularly interesting to me, as I am a former legal writer here in Atlanta. Well written! I will also probably reference your blog posts in a column I am doing for the Fulton Daily Report, the local legal paper. So you may get even more responses once that happens.

  14. Trisha,

    Thank you SO MUCH for posting links to my blog on your listserv. Writing this has been really theraputic for me and it means a lot to know that people are reading--especially jury consultants! Please link away and let me know if I can answer any questions or anything for you.

    Until today, I didn't even know there was such a thing as a jury consultant!

  15. I recently finished as a juror on a murder trial in DC. Your experience almost exactly mirrors my own. Isn't it funny that I thought my trial was unique?

    As much of a pain as it was (mine went for 9 long days), it was a fascinating look at our society and its flaws (and maybe its strengths.) It was interesting enough just getting a cross section of ages/races/education levels in one room, forced to speak to one another.

  16. Chase--I had the same experience. It's neat to see what people of all walks of life do when they are trapped in a room together for days on end!