Here’s a link the local coverage for the murder by hire trial on which I was an alternate juror during the first three weeks of December 2005. It was quite an experience, and here are some highlights. It’s going to be long, but I hope that it’s interesting. We learned more about the trial process after the verdict was announced, when the judge and the defense attorneys talked with us for a little while in the jury deliberation room.
First, there was a jury selection process, and I still am surprised that I was chosen. The defense attorneys said that they were looking for professional people who were used to evaluating things in a logical manner, and my fellow jurors included a pediatric trauma surgery resident, an accountant, a social worker working on her PhD, among others. There were also several African Americans on the jury, since the defendant and most of the witnesses were African American. They tried to exclude anyone who seemed to want too much either to be on the jury or not to be on the jury.
The actual trial never happens as slick as it does on TV; after all, they need to fit the fictional ones into the standard three act one hour drama format. At one point the prosecutor sounded like he was asking one of the witnesses the equivalent of, "Did you meet the victim before or after he was killed?" There was a lot of waiting for us on the jury while the judge and the lawyers discussed what evidence and questions would be allowed. We on the jury were also allowed to submit our own questions to the witnesses through the judge and to take notes on the testimony offered also.
The testimony both of the eyewitnesses and the expert witnesses, such as the coroner and crime scene investigators, was what the judge advised us was the evidence we were to evaluate, and the attorneys’ arguments for or against the charges were not in themselves evidence. In addition, the physical evidence we saw was pretty much either contaminated or inconclusive, except for the DNA evidence for the victim’s blood; it looks now to me like the investigators on the CSI shows hit a home run with the evidence in every scene.
We were permitted to go home each day while we were hearing testimony, but we were advised not to listen either to media reports on the trial nor to discuss it with anyone. We weren’t actually sequestered, though, until it was time for deliberations. Then we were kept on the floor of a hotel when deliberations were not underway. It only lasted for one night, though, since the regular jurors came to a decision early on the afternoon of the second day of deliberation.
The rights under the US Constitution of presumption of innocence, to face the witnesses against oneself and against self recrimination were in evidence throughout the trial. The defendant never had to take the stand in her own defense, and she did not, and the judge instructed us that this could not be held against her. The grand jury indictment of the defendant on first degree murder could not in itself carry a presumption of guilt. Her codefendant could not be compelled to testify in any way that might result in self recrimination.
The regular jurors came to a decision of not guilty, and it was not because they were all convinced of the innocence of the defendant but because the prosecution had not met the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt. We alternates pretty much agreed with this decision.
On the one hand, I hope that none of you never have to hear a three time convicted killer tell on the witness stand how he committed two of his murders or to see any photos of such a brutal beating as the victim received. It was also horribly shocking to hear how the person who actually did the killing could take his own whims for the slightest material gain as a reason to take the life of another person w ho had done him no wrong. But at the end, I was glad to have known my fellow jurors as people, and to know how carefully they did work to consider the evidence and try to make the best decision that they could. I’m reminded how imperfect our courts, judges, juries, and laws are but how many normal conscientious people there are that actually try to get things right.