Wednesday, February 23, 2011

SITTING ON A DEATH JURY

I have been called down to the Jackson County courthouse several times to do the civic duty of being in a pool of possible jurors.  I have only been selected for a jury one time.  It was one of the most educational events of my life and gave me new insight to the Henry Fonda classic "Twelve Angry Men".  I was in my early twenties at the time and did not know what was to be my fate on that day.

It was summer when I went down to the courthouse at eight in the morning.  I took the elevator up to the proper floor and saw a huge line of people waiting to check into the jury waiting room.  As I stood in line I heard complaints from others in line.  This was a disaster for them.  They had work to do.  They had kids to take care of.  Any complaint about the inconvenience of jury duty that could be thought up was discussed among the potential jurors.

When my time came to check in they took my jury summons and checked my identification to be sure I was who I was suppose to be.  Apparently there is a black market in Jackson County for doing someone else's jury duty.  We were herded into a large room with very uncomfortable chairs.  Then the entertainment for the day came on.  It was a tape being shown on three televisions about how great it is that we are all downtown sitting in a stuffy room with people we don't know to do our civic duty.   Don't get me wrong, I am a firm believer in the peoples privileged to be on a jury.  It is one of the most important parts of our form of government to insure that we keep our rights.  But don't tell me that it is going to be fun.  The coffee was bad, the room was stuffy and worst of all it was noisy.  A judge then asked for those who couldn't be on jury duty that week to come up and give him their excuses.  I had no excuse not to be there so I sat.

I started reading the book I had brought along with me.  It was difficult to read with all the chaos going on.  Then a loud voice started calling out some of the numbers that we had been assigned when we checked in.  They called about twenty numbers and about twenty people stood up and got in line and were taken away.  After a while another group of numbers were called and more people were led away.  It was eerily similar to cattle being taken off to slaughter.  While I was thinking that thought a group of people from the first line to leave returned.  That was a relief.  Cattle usually don't return after being led to a slaughter.

The day progressed and more groups were led away and more people from the groups were returning.  Juries were being selected throughout the morning as I sat there bored and trying to decide whether to try to take a nap or not.  Too noisy for napping.  When lunch came around I took advantage of the situation and went outside and walked around downtown a bit before I had to return to that stale room.

The afternoon went much the same way as the morning until about two o'clock.  My number was called.  Not only was my number called but about everyone in the room's number was called.  I guess there must have been about a hundred of us being led to the elevators and then into a courtroom.  The first fourteen numbers called were set in the jury box while the rest of us sat in order on the pews that made up the gallery of the courtroom.  They then began the ritual of dismissing people because they didn't fit the profile that the prosecutor or the defendant wanted.

The first to be dismissed were any that knew the judge or any of the lawyers in the room.  Then if you knew the defendant you were excused.  If you knew of the defendant or any of his family, you can go.  After it was established that no one in the room knew anyone else they gave us one last chance to get out.  The judge asked if there was any reason for you not to serve on a jury.  One lady raised her hand and stood up.  "I am mentally incompetent" she said.  It was with a firm tone of voice and after the lawyers looked at each other and the judge, they let her go.  You could see a hundred light bulbs going off over peoples heads at that point.  I am sure all of them were thinking "Why didn't I think of that?"

They then began to question those in the jury box and with each dismissal of a person we all scooted up one place in line.  Pretty soon I found myself sitting in the jury box being questioned by these lawyers.  I passed their test and was assigned to the jury.  I wasn't sure how I felt at that point.  I had come to the conclusion that it was to be a murder trial because they were asking everyone how they felt about the death penalty and if we would hesitate to sentence a man to die.  It seemed that if you had any hesitation on the question at all you were excused.  I knew where I stood on the issue and the judge decided to keep me.

After fourteen of us were selected the rest of the room was excused and then we learned the shocking news.  We were to be sequestered through out the trial.  They were expecting the trial to last five or six days.  We were to go home and without talking to anyone, pack a suitcase and be back at the Holiday Inn downtown for our little working vacation.

Barb and I  were to have carpeting installed that week which would require a lot of furniture moving that I would now not have to do.  It was going to be Barb's problem.  I packed a suitcase, kissed her goodbye and headed downtown.  We all congregated in the lobby of the hotel as the bailiff got our room keys and paired us off into roommates.  My roommate was a young man about thirty years old and with a scraggly beard.

The county had reserved a whole floor of the hotel for us and we were not allowed to leave the floor.  Thankfully it was the floor with the swimming pool  and I found myself sitting out on the deckchairs into the night watching the city.  It was relaxing.  When I went back to my room that night, my rooomie pulled out a plastic bag of weed from his suitcase and offered me some.  I declined and decided to try to get some sleep as the trial would be starting in the morning.

During the course of the trial we all had to stay together.  They walked us in single file down to a cafeteria for lunch everyday.  I felt like I was in kindergarten again.  We ate in the hotel dining room for breakfast and dinner.  We were not allowed to watch television or read any newspapers.  Phones in all of our rooms were disconnected.  This is what life was like in Dicken's time I thought.  Well we DID have electric lights but other than that, not a lot going on.

It is hard to live with a group of people for a week and get to know them without discussing what you are there for but that was what we had to do.  No discussion of the trial was allowed at all until the case was turned over to us.  It made ofr a long week.

The case was that of a man who had killed his girlfriends mother for her social security check.  The woman had been stabbed over twenty five times as she succumbed to death.  We had to decide if there was sufficient evidence to say that this was the man who had done it.  After a week of testimonies from prostitutes, girlfriends, gang members, neighbors and after being shown photographs of the victim and the crime scene the case was turned over to us and we were locked away over the courtroom to decide.

The bailiff had told us that he could always tell when a jury had come to a decision because the toilets would start to flush a lot.  That night we decided to flush the toilets time after time before asking for dinner.  The bailiff was not amused but went ahead and brought us in some dinner.  It was Friday afternoon when we began deliberations and at about nine that night we had all come to agreement.  We declared the defendant as guilty of first degree murder.  It was a very tense moment.  They had placed two armed officers in front of the jury box, two officers in front of the judge and another two officers behind the now guilty man.  Except for an outburst from the gallery it was pretty quiet when the verdict was read.  The presence of the officers had done what it was suppose to do.

We would have to decide on the punishment the next day so it was back to the hotel for one last night together.  There wasn't much sleep that night.  The tension was still hanging around from the courthouse.  You begin to think of the gravity of what you just did and what will be asked of you the next day.  A man was now in the county jail knowing he would either be sentenced to life without parole or death the next day. They jury was thinking about it as mcuh as the convicted was.  It was not a restful night.

The next morning found us back in the courthouse as arguments were given for mercy and for death.  The man's father came to plead for the life of his son.  As the morning went on the weight of the decision became heavier with each argument put forth.  Life or death.  Life or death.  You just kept hearing those two words over and over in your mind.  Life or death.  Life or death.  When they sent us back to the jury room to make that decision, we were all laden with a heavy heart and a sense of importance in doing the right thing.

We discussed it for a couple of hours and it came down to an eleven to one vote for death.  It had to be unanimous but no matter how hard we tried to come up with a consensus there was one man who would not vote for death.  His reasoning was that a lifetime in jail was much worse of a punishment than death.  Soon he was joined by two others and so with a vote of nine to three for death, we sentenced the man to life in prison without parole.

Immediately after the sentencing we were rushed to an elevator and taken to the basement of the courthouse.  A van with darkened windows awaited us and we were shoved into the van and driven away to the hotel where we collected our things and all headed in different directions home.

With the logic of my mind and my voice, I sentenced a man I did not know to death.  In my heart I was relieved that he had received life without parole.

Life or death.  Life or death.  Life or death.  We say we have life or death decisions in our everyday lives but until you literally have to make the decision of life or death, you have no idea how heavy it weighs on you.

Life or death...............life or death............................. life.

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