This was supposed to be a funny column lampooning the legal system.
When I received a bright green packet in the mail several weeks ago, and subsequently attended the jury selection process, I had already started forming jokes about summoning and courtroom high jinks, planning to open with a “Law & Order” these-are-their-stories spoof and outline the absurdities of lame excuses and a jury made up of “Gilligan’s Island”-like characters.
But then I, along with 13 other people, was selected out of more than 500 to serve as a juror for the case, and as the trial sludged on it ceased to be funny. Making light of a situation such as this would not only be distasteful, but also a slap in the face to every single person—victim, accused, judge, witnesses, attorneys, officials, officers and jurors—involved.
I won’t go into specifics about the case here. Chances are you already know, and if you don’t all you need to do is flip to the front page of this issue. To rehash the details here after the verdicts have been filed seems inconsequential.
The trial lasted five days before the jury was sent to deliberate.
I will admit that at times the process felt like a joke: seemingly pointless evidence, petty arguments and stories that inflated during each telling discouraged us from validating the state’s accusations “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
But we did.
At first there was a lot of apprehension and discrepancies in our opinions. But during our 16 hours of continuous deliberation a seemingly insignificant detail ultimately wielded a greater impact than any of us initially imagined.
It’s worth noting, however, that if there is one bright area from this experience, it is the 13 wonderful people I had the opportunity get to know.
Never have I worked with a more dedicated and caring bunch of individuals. When a member got emotional, we rallied around that person for reassurance, and when the days got long we encouraged one another to keep working no matter our exhaustion or outside responsibilities.
I am honored to be a part of such a committed group of people laden with this incredible responsibility.
Finally, under the darkness of night and heaviness of burden, at about 1:30 Thursday morning everyone was called into the courtroom and we the jury delivered our verdict.
I wish it was easy to simply say, “We got the bad guys.”
But it’s not as black and white as that.
This wasn’t a television episode with a villain who is so evil that there is not one ounce of humanness inside them. Ultimately, every single individual involved is a person, a person with their own flaws, redeeming qualities, relationships and concerns.
You can’t find a person guilty of being wicked, you can only find them guilty of one incident—a solitary decision or action—in his or her life. Sitting in deliberation, this became chillingly apparent to each of us.
The enormity of stress involved in making a decision for another human’s life is a responsibility I would never wish upon anyone. I still get knots in my stomach realizing that an insignificant action such as simply raising my hand played a significant role in that person’s life.
In fact, when reflecting back on that entire process—especially delivering the verdicts—I experience the same inner sensation as remembering a bad dream. Not a nightmare, just a bad dream.
Maybe it was the lateness of the night or the intoxicating blend of exhaustion and anxiety that gives me this reflective feeling. But I think it’s more the mental image of each defendants’ face as they heard his or her name followed by the legalistic structure of the condemning verdicts.
This is not to say that I question our decisions. I am convinced that our judgments were as fair and accurate as possible considering the evidence given to us. Yet neither I nor the rest of the jury members could shake the magnitude of the conclusions we were given to make.
There is an episode of “M*A*S*H” titled, “The Interview,” in which Father Mulcahy is describing a difficult experience. After a deep breath he concludes with the question, “Could anyone look on that and not feel changed?”
Following a sparse line of red taillights home at 2 a.m. after adjournment, that quote echoed in my head.
The previous week and a half is still a blur of emotion, shock, disgust and tension. The actions we found the defendants guilty of are sickening and twisted. I was brought to the unpleasant realization that this sort of thing happens in my own backyard, not just in fiction as my warm, sheltered cocoon had reassured me all my life.
To answer the question asked by Mulcahy, I do feel changed. A piece of innocence I clung to has been lost to me and years have been added to my emotional age. But I also feel stronger, and more capable of living on this earth, and maybe, someday, making it a better place.
Maybe this chapter of my life wasn’t all a bad thing. I’ve come to realize that there is a lot of sickness, hatred and pain in our world.
But there’s hope.
It will never be something to laugh at, but I’ve found it’s not something to dwell on, either.
There will be more cases similar to this one. No matter how hard we resist, they will still occur. But as long as there is a set of jurors for each of those cases, I’m reassured that care, closure and justice will be provided each and every time.
And I say that without a reasonable doubt.