The verdict was easy.
There were two charges with one element in common. If we could all agree, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the evidence showed that that element had been proven, then we could advance to consideration of the other two elements, and possible convictions.
But if we all agreed that, beyond a reasonable doubt, that element had not been proven, then our work was done, and it was an acquittal.
We had already taken one vote – guilty or not guilty – and that came back seven, four and one, with a slight majority favoring not guilty.
Then we talked some, and each made our points, and we voted on the pivotal element.
And we all agreed.
It had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. We had to acquit.
I had known that would be the outcome since the prosecution rested. I was surprised the defense even mounted a case. If it had been me, if I had been the defense lawyer, I would have made a three-minute summation and sent it to the jury.
But it didn’t go that way. There were two more days of testimony, none of it relevant, lengthy and impassioned closing arguments, the explanation of the law and the charges, and then we were all in a room with a couple of pizzas and some stubby little pencils.
And that’s how justice works in America. At least the way I watched it over the last week.
It was the first time I’d ever been on a jury. I’ve been to plenty of trials, high-profile trials, as a newsman, and I know the ins and outs pretty well – from the back side of the rail. I know the rules and the procedures and the ploys, I’ve looked at the back of attorneys’ heads for more than 30 years. I know the good ones and I know the bad ones.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not cynical or jaded. I love the courts. I believe in them. I see them as a bulwark of freedom, a cornerstone of the Republic, one of the things we do best.
But I’d never seen them operate from the front of the room, up by the witness stand, eye-to-eye with the judge, looking the defendant full in the face.
I was surprised I was picked. Shocked, really. Reporters used to have an automatic exemption, and since that went away most lawyers have still found an excuse to kick them out of the pool. And I can understand why.
But there I was, when they read the names. Juror Number 7. Show up tomorrow morning at quarter after 9 for opening arguments.
It was a little surreal. I had covered the father of the district attorney, and I had covered the father of the defense lawyer. And I had covered the judge and – I believe – the last five judges to sit in her seat. I had been to a trial or two in this courtroom, and a swearing in or two, but there I was, in the jury box, and this was the real deal.
And I was thrilled. Fascinated, really. Every inch and bit of it. The way the judge spoke, how the court clerk operated her machine, the posture of the prosecutor, the whispering of the defense lawyer to her investigator, the busts of Lincoln, Washington, Webster and Marshall on the walls. The fidgeting of the witnesses, the earnestness of the deputies, the affectations of the attorneys, the sparring between witnesses and lawyers.
And the wonderful discovery that a jury of one’s peers can be comprised of salt-of-the-earth people whose wisdom and sense of duty are inspiring. Inspiring, and at the end of it all, the safeguard of liberty. The law exists as a structure and a process, but it is a dozen men and women of integrity and character who ultimately protect the law, the rights and the community.
I always knew that as a theory, now I have experienced it in reality.
I think we had two teachers, an old pilot who fought in Vietnam, a young guy who works the desk overnight in a motel, an architect, some logistics whiz, the only female fire chief in the county, a nurse who looks after people in a convalescent home, a firefighter who blew out his back in a blaze up in the city, a mother of four sons, and a couple of others. Half sat in one room during breaks in the trial, and half sat in another room – a covid precaution – and in the room where I sat most of our attention was spent watching one of the teachers work on a jigsaw puzzle.
They were wonderful people. Good hearted, kind, smart and fair. I enjoyed and admired them immensely.
But there were a lot of breaks. We grumbled about that. I had the sense that while we were out of the room one side or the other was getting sliced and diced by the judge. Based on what we saw in the courtroom, it was probably the prosecution.
Based on what we saw in the courtroom, it was hard to tell what really happened in this case.
I’m not going to say what the crime was, or who the accuser or the accused were. Neither they nor it ought to be put in the glare of the bright lights on the basis of who sat on the jury. If the news organizations of the region have not thought the situation newsworthy, that doesn’t change just because I sat in on the trial.
But like I was saying, it was hard to tell what really happened in this case. Many of the arguments from the lawyers were about things which really had no bearing on the accusations before us. There were several bridges to nowhere. At a certain point, it looked to me like some of the arguments were diversions, sidetracks that could lead to a verdict, but not on the facts and the law.
And when we finally got the case, when the arguments were over and the judge gave us our charge and we retreated to the jury room – when we could finally talk among ourselves about the case – it was a meltdown. We complained to one another. Sometimes angrily. Ultimately sadly. We were angry at what looked like a half-assed investigation by the State Police. We repeatedly spoke about simple, obvious investigatory steps that could have been taken that would have made our job easier and justice surer. We didn’t like the prosecution, and half wondered why it had even been brought, and why obvious witnesses had not been called. We didn’t see the point of much of the defense, and made snide remarks about “billable hours.” There was an expert who wasn’t and evidence that wasn’t. I marveled that the defense didn’t raise an obvious and deciding issue – which I raised in the jury room, and which seemed to be a large factor in the speed of the verdict, if not the verdict itself.
We resented questioning on both sides that seemed theatric but not probing. Witness after witness was released with obvious and pertinent questions unasked. Other witnesses were called who contributed nothing. And the very crux of the accusations – the thing upon which both charges hung – was left unexplored, unexplained and, consequently, unaccepted.
And we had to acquit.
We all knew that.
But what we didn’t know, there in the jury room with our consciences, was if we had done what was right.
We did our duty. There is no question about that. We kept our oaths.
And that led us to a verdict.
But it may not have led us to the truth.
And that realization was a hard thing to carry out of the jury room.