Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Jury Experience, or, Why I Can't be Outraged by the Casey Anthony Verdict

When I checked facebook and twitter this afternoon, everyone was abuzz about the Casey Anthony verdict. Some were cracking jokes (um, too soon?) but most were indignant, espousing variations of, "How is this possible?" and "It's unbelievable!"

I haven't followed the case very closely, though I will admit to clicking on a few of the more sensational headlines.  Shockingly--or perhaps not so much--many of these stories appeared on "entertainment" sites like People.com.  However, I'm not intending to write about the murder-trial-as-entertainment issue, as that's been covered frequently elsewhere, and by people with more experience and credibility in that arena.  All I will say is that if Nancy Grace is covering it, I probably want to stay far, far away.

Rather, hearing about the verdict and reading the subsequent reactions remind me of my time as a juror on an attempted murder trial--an experience I haven't felt comfortable documenting publicly until now.

To set the scene: it was my first time being called to jury duty: one of those natural rites of passage that everyone complains about.  Anytime someone I knew--family, friends, co-workers--got called for jury duty, their immediate response (at least, the first one they expressed) was either one of, "I hope I don't get picked" or, "I'm going to try and get out of it."

Now, in most cases, I am a play-by-the-rules kind of gal, as I know many of them are in place for a reason.  For example, I always power down my electronics on airplanes when told.  (I freak out when I see others using their cell phones during takeoff and landing; I have to restrain myself from screaming, "DEAR GOD, DO YOU WANT US ALL TO DIE IN A FIERY CRASH, YOU ASSHOLE?  TURN THAT PHONE OFF NOW!")  Perhaps the term I'm looking for is socially responsible--like, the reason I follow traffic laws is not simply because it's "the law" or I don't want a ticket, but because I don't want to run over someone's Gran while she's on her way to church.  So when I got picked for jury duty, I felt the same sort of responsibility.  I resolved to be honest, to not actively try to get out of it, because it was the right thing to do.  I thought, well, if I were ever put on trial, I would want someone like me to be on the jury.  It's a terrifying thought that you might be wrongfully accused, and then convicted, of a crime because you didn't get a fair trial.  (Though, let's face it, the odds of me, a white, middle-class female, being accused of a felony are pretty slim.)

Suffice it to say, I went in there, answered honestly, and was picked.  Apparently I'm not the only person who'd want a middle-class white female on their jury.

My juror experience was fascinating and, at times, terrifying.  The defendant was accused of shooting a man in broad daylight over a silly argument.  At the outset, we were told that there were witnesses, including the victim himself, and that we'd be hearing from them.  We were also told there was no forensic evidence, that this wasn't like CSI or other TV shows; this was reality, and we'd simply have to use our best judgement, based on testimony, to come to a verdict.  That was slightly disheartening--who wouldn't want "scientific" evidence?--but it seemed reasonable enough.  This wouldn't be so bad.  I was completely unprepared for what followed.

The eyewitnesses were brought to the stand in handcuffs.  At first, this wasn't explained.  I wondered--was this person being brought in from jail, on an unrelated charge?  Was this court policy?  Eventually it came out that the witnesses--including the victim and his family--did not want to testify.  While on the stand, they all evaded the prosecutor's questions.  They didn't know; they couldn't remember.  The prosecutor became visibly agitated.  Hadn't they picked the man in a lineup?  Hadn't they testified in front of a grand jury?

On one of the last days of the trial, the prosecution brought in the only witness not wearing handcuffs.  While this was a noteworthy development, my attention was divided between him and a man in the "audience."  There had been a smattering of observers throughout the trial: some seemed to work for the DA, others may have been law students, and some appeared to be associated with the defendant.  This man fell in the latter camp.  He had a menacing stare, and made his hands visible.  At one point, it was pretty clear his hands were forming the shape of a gun.  Was he signaling to the witness, or to us, the jury?  Or both?  Was this really happening, in real life, even though it seemed straight out of Law & Order?

During the next recess, we later found out, some of the jurors asked to speak to the judge to express their concerns about this mystery person.  The court officer/bailiff* (I was never sure who was who) also noticed the disruption, did his due diligence, and essentially chased the guy out.  Still, that couldn't scrub the incident from our collective memory as we were told we were done listening to testimony, and would reconvene the next day to deliberate.

That night I couldn't sleep.  While it seemed like there was some intimidation going on (the handcuffed witnesses), I had to base my decision on what was said in court, not what was unsaid.  And the intimidating man, who wasn't part of the trial, couldn't be factored in at all.  But was I rationalizing in this way, leaning toward a not guilty verdict, because I was intimidated?  I don't really think so, though I was scared.  It was just that, frustrating and counterintuitive as it may have seemed, there hadn't been much that we were told or shown in the trial that pointed to the defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The next day, we waited in our stew room, still unable to speak to one another about the trial, waiting for the judge.  Then, word came.  There had been a plea deal; we no longer had to deliberate.  In other words, we were off the hook.  I was so relieved.  I hadn't really known what I would have decided; especially when the other jurors expressed their belief that the guy was guilty, no question.  Would I have argued the other side?  Would they have swayed me?  It may be a cop out, but I was glad to have fulfilled my duty without actually having to take responsibility. On the other hand, it could have been another eye-opening experience to go through that process with a roomful of strangers.

So what does this have to do with the Casey Anthony verdict?  For me, it makes it hard for me to feel outraged about the outcome, no matter how unfair it may seem. While media outlets have largely made their sentiment--guilty!--clear, what happens in a courtroom is a different story.  When you are made to see only the evidence, and hear only the testimony, without all the outside noise, the only thoughts you can rely on are your own.  And that, at least for me, was incredibly difficult.  In a courtroom, there are rarely "facts" or "truth," just one side versus another.  You have to confront the fact that all human decisions are subjective, even when you don't want them to be.  You may be sending an innocent person to jail, or letting a guilty one go.  Do you base your decision on what you think is right?  Or what you feel is right?

The good juror that I was, I refrained from researching my case until after the trial was over.  My half-dozen searches brought up absolutely nothing.  A guy getting shot in broad daylight in a poor neighborhood didn't even warrant a write-up in a community crime blotter.  Again, arguments can be made and lines can be drawn about the crimes that go unnoticed, and the ones that draw national attention--but I'm not going there either.

The only sort-of argument I wish to make is this: perhaps the next time you get a jury slip in the mail, don't consider it the worst thing.  At the very least, the experience could provide some perspective.  (Or you'll read a book for a few days and get sent home.)  At most, you could find yourself a part of some television-worthy drama.  And--admit it--you wouldn't rue that kind of excitement.  I'd certainly do it again, even after a (possible) intimidator pointed an (alleged) finger gun at me.  It makes for a great story.

*Everyone I encountered who worked for the court was incredibly kind, smart, and helpful.  It definitely affected my experience.

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