I've been a bad blogger lately because I haven't had much to say. Or rather, I've had loads of things to say, but none of them have been appropriate for the blog. I don't write about my extended family and I don't write about work and lately, those two items have been sucking up all my time and energy.
I probably wouldn't be writing now, but I just read a post by thatgirl, in which she wondered what it's like these days to be on jury duty
. In a city far, far away, not that long ago, I served on a jury for a murder trial.
Just to warn you, this is the first time I've written about this experience. It's turned out way longer than I thought it would be. (Names are changed because isn't story a lot cooler-seeming when pseudonyms are used?)
I never thought I'd actually serve on a jury, since I'd been to law school and I'd been mugged at gun point, either of which can cause an attorney to break out a peremptory challenge. When I got the summons to jury duty in Chicago's criminal court, I figured I'd get a day off work, sitting on uncomfortable chairs and reading a novel. Not a bad way to spend a single day, even though it required driving deep into the South Side.
I only spent about an hour sitting on the uncomfortable chair before my name was called. I went with about 50 other prospective jurors to a courtroom. The judge called 14 names (12 jurors + 2 alternates) and my name was the third one called. I settled into a chair in the juror's box and took in the scene. Two attorneys sat on the prosecution side, a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to the putzy guy on "Spin City"
and a younger woman in a dark business suit. At the defense table was a F. Lee Bailey-type
guy, older and distinguished looking, and a young attractive woman lawyer. Sandwiched between them was a woman who looked about 18. She had blonde hair, a pointy face, and was thin, maybe 110 pounds.
The judge looked like a judge (maybe it was the robe, maybe it was his exalted perch) and he read the charges against the woman – first-degree murder in the death of John Simon. More than a few mouths dropped open in the jury box, trying to wrap our minds around the idea that the small girl in front of us could have killed anyone. The judge read a few basic statements, pretty much straight out of the Constitution, and asked us if anyone had a problem with any of them. One guy raised his hand and admitted that he couldn't accept the concept of innocent until proven guilty – if the police nab you, it must be for something, right? He was dismissed.
The voir dire
portion of the morning events was brief. We were each asked basic questions – what we did for a living, our educational background, what we did in our spare time, did we have relatives in the police, did we belong to any organizations. Any clarifying questions were asked individually in the judge's chambers. A couple of people were dismissed, a few more were interviewed and before you knew it, we had a jury.
We were sent home for the rest of the day and were given instructions for the next morning. Going into the jury room the next morning was like walking into homeroom on the first day of high school. I felt nervous and awkward and was afraid the other kids wouldn't like me. I was also a little freaked out by the whole prospect of a murder case. The jury room was fairly narrow and was dominated by a table. We were a motley crew, ranging in age from maybe 21 to about 60. I ended up sitting by a neurosurgeon, an Italian guy who worked in flood recovery, a young Hispanic woman, and a middle-of-the-road motherly type.
The Italian guy was the class clown. He was entertaining us with stories about how his boss wanted him to avoid jury duty by acting like a racist during voir dire. He was good at breaking the ice and we were all a bit nervous about this jury thing. All we knew was the charge and the name of the victim. Both the Italian guy and the Hispanic woman speculated on a domestic abuse thing gone wrong. Then the neurosurgeon said that we didn't know the age of the victim – what if it were her child? That freaked us all out.
Opening statements were just like you see on the TV. First Putzy man took his turn, pacing in front of us. He told us about the defendant, Lynn Smith. He told us about her checkered past: a crack cocaine addiction, a child out of wedlock with a married man, an explosive temper. He said that we would hear how Lynn had coldly and cruelly murdered the elderly and kindly neighbor-man John Smith. After a fight with her married boyfriend, Lynn sought refuge for herself and her son in John's house.
John owed Lynn some cleaning money, but he told her he would give it to her in the morning, so that she could buy groceries and items for the baby. Lynn didn't want to wait until the morning. She wanted to buy crack and so when John wouldn't give her the money, she grabbed a lead pipe and attacked him while he was changing a light bulb. Then she took her baby and ran to a motel where the police eventually found her.
How would we know for certain that Lynn had done the murdering? Because John Simon survived long enough to call 911, talk to the paramedics, and talk to the police. He only died later at the hospital. He told police that his neighbor had done it, because of a monetary dispute.
After Putzy was done with his opening statement, it was F. Lee's turn. F. Lee told us that indeed, Lynn had struck John Simon with a lead pipe but she had done so protecting her son. She had awoken in the night to her baby crying, had gone out to the kitchen, and seen John Simon molesting her son. That's the only reason she had struck him with the pipe and she only struck him enough to back him away from her son.
The prosecution's case was a parade of damning witnesses. The daughter of the murdered man, who was basically there to tell us that her father was a good guy with a gentle heart who never abused children. She was the first witness and her pain was so raw, even after three years, that it hurt to listen to her.
The married boyfriend also testified for the prosecution. He confirmed the fight. He said that he had seen her smoking crack earlier that day. He said that when she called him to meet her at the motel, she hadn't said anything about molestation.
There was a parade of official-type witnesses – the cop who went to the neighbour's house, the arresting cop at the hotel, the forensic specialist, the coroner. Each laid down irrefutable proof that Lynn had picked up the pipe and beaten her neighbor at least twenty times.
Blood spatter evidence figured heavily in this case. We heard about where and how the first blows were struck. We saw picture after picture detailing the blood patterns. We had to look at everyone's clothes from the night – the victim, the defendant, and her son. The absence of splattered blood on the baby's clothes was something that lodged in my head. We also had to look at some of the autopsy photographs, all of which showed a pale man with several vicious-looking dents in his skull.
The prosecution's case took all of the first day of trial and part of the second day. As the jury, we took notes and listened carefully. When we had breaks or were shuffled out of the courtroom so the lawyers could debate an evidential motion, we were careful not to talk about the testimony we'd heard. We were sequestered during the day, having to eat the same lunch that the prisoners in the jail got. (It was disgusting – chicken mcnuggets that were fried in oil used to fry fish, so it tasted like both chicken and fish.) We were lucky enough to go home at night, under strict instructions not to talk about it.
That was the hardest part of jury duty – carrying around these images and statements without being able to process them. We weren't supposed to draw conclusions. We weren't allowed to share our fears and dread over what we would see or hear next. All we could do was show up at court, listen, and then try not to think too much about it.
The defense's case took about half a day. We didn't start right away because of motions and a mystery witness. The mystery witness turned out to be a young woman who lived down the street from John Simon. She testified that he had abused her when she was ten years old. If listening to the daughter of the victim was hard, listening to this woman was absolutely soul crushing. It was clear that she'd had a difficult young life and that her adulthood wasn't turning out much better for her.
The next surprise of the case was that Lynn actually testified. We hadn't expected that to happen and we hung on her every word. Her female defense attorney did a good job in making her seem like a reasonable person who had made some mistakes in life, but had tried to protect her son. The female prosecuting attorney did an even better job on the cross examination at bringing out an explosive temper and some inconsistencies in the story.
Closing Statements and the Deliberations
The closing statements were again just like something off the television. Putzy waved the autopsy photographs in front of our faces, which made me both angry and uncomfortable. While the opening statements had been mostly reasonable outlines of the facts in question, the closing statements were shameless appeals and assaults on our emotions. I didn't like that at all, preferring a more logical, factual approach.
After the closing statements, the judge read the charges and instructions, which was about 3 or 4 pages long. Then we were sent to the jury room to get on with things. We had to pick a foreperson, and the main concern for most of the jury was that this person would have to speak in court. (I thought the more important role of the foreperson was to direct the deliberatons.) The Hispanic woman volunteered and no one disagreed. During the deliberations, she showed little interest in directing the conversations and the neurosurgeon stepped in and moderated the debate. We had been told not to do a straw poll, to first discuss the evidence and not to prejudge the case. We went around the table and each said a little bit about our thoughts.
It was interesting to see how people took the premise of innocent-until-proven guilty very seriously. I don't think many defendants get such a benefit, but first impressions count. Our first impression had been of a small, nearly child-like woman. Had she been a big strapping man, I don't think the deliberations would have lasted longer than 15 minutes.
We were able to come to the conclusion that she had struck the victim with the pipe. That was the easy part. The tough part was discerning her intention, her mental state, the extent of her premeditation. When she picked up the pipe, was she thinking "I'm going to kill this guy because I want my $30" or was she thinking "I have to protect my baby." ? How can anyone decide what is on the mind of any other person?
The blood evidence featured prominently in our discussion. It was what swayed it for me. The fact that most of the splatter was in the hallway, not in the kitchen, that the baby's clothes didn't have splatter on them, that a broken lightbulb was found in the man's pocket and another was found on the floor. It seemed more likely that she had come up from behind him while he was changing the lightbulb than that she had discovered anything untoward going on in the kitchen.
After discussing the blood evidence, we were moving solidly in the direction of first degree murder. Then we had to look for mitigating circumstances – was it defense of her child, as she claimed? Two middle-aged men wanted to talk about this a great deal. They seemed to identify with the defendant, like in a father-daughter way, and wanted to be sure that she was lying about the molestation. Again, it was the blood that did it for me. I have no doubt that someone abused the poor mystery witness but I don't think it was John Simon.
After an hour and a half, we were moving solidly in the direction of a unanimous first-degree murder verdict. We were taking our final vote when one of the quietest, oldest men in the room spoke up. He was one of only two African-Americans on the jury and had been reading a religious book during our breaks. (I think it was the Church of Latter Day Saints' book. I know it was advertised on television quite a bit at that time.) He wanted to talk about forgiveness, about not rushing into judgment, about acting like Jesus. (Yeah, so much for the separation of church and state.) He talked for about 20 minutes and then he was done. He had changed no one's mind and the final verdict was indeed first-degree murder.
We went back out and our foreperson delivered the verdict. The defense asked for a poll and so each of us had to individually state that this was our true verdict. The judge started to give us a boilerplate speech, thanking us for doing our civic duty. During this speech, he started to tear up and his voice was cracking. We were then sent to the jury room to await the debriefing and to receive our certificates.
We were stunned and nervous, second-guessing our verdict in light of the judge's seemingly emotional reaction. Did he know something we didn't know? Did we just deliver the wrong verdict?
The judge came in after about 20 minutes. He was smiling, joking, a completely different guy than we'd seen in the courtroom. He asked us if we had any questions about the case. Someone asked if we'd made the right decision. He said absolutely, we had. He said there was a ton of evidence we didn't get to hear and several other matters of a violent nature pending against her. The relief in the room was tangible, it was as though after having the wind knocked out of us, we all caught our breath at once. One brave soul asked him why he seemed choked up.
Turns out that after 20 years in the criminal court, he was "retiring" to the civil court. He'd been the judge on one of the most famous and racially divisive cases in Chicago's recent past and the fallout from that case had finally convinced him it was time to back away from the criminal cases. But he hadn't realised how emotional it was going to make him, on his very last day, his very last criminal case.
He answered a few more questions, handed out our certificates and sent us on our way. We were told that although the lawyers could approach us, we didn't have to talk to anyone. When we walked through the courtroom to leave, John Simon's family was waiting in the gallery for us. They gave us a standing ovation and that was the most difficult thing to bear. We had just followed the facts as we'd seen them, we didn't want to be credited with finally bringing them peace or justice. That's too much for 12 regular people to bear. My face felt like it was on fire and I didn't make eye contact with anyone.
I don't know what happened to Lynn. Obviously, she went to jail for a good long while. The sentencing was done separately, by a judge, sometime well after the trial. About six months after the trial, I wrote to the court asking for a copy of the record. The last entry was a continuance on the sentencing.
That was my jury experience. (It's maybe more than thatgirl or anyone else really would want to know.) I don't know if it was typical or atypical. I don't know how juries differ in Ireland. The blood evidence, while not explicitly CSI-glamorous, was crucial to the case.
I'd say that we all took our role as the jury very seriously. We wanted to do the right thing and to discover the truth. I've always been satisfied that we made the correct decision, but that didn't make it any easier to make the decision.