Guilty of Murder in the First Degree.
Testimony rolled over into the third week because a witness for the defense was a no-show on Friday. We all came in and seated ourselves in the jury box. Just as I was taking my jacket off the Judge said, “Don’t get comfortable!” As she put it, “Some times these things happen”, but since there was to be no additional testimony, we could all go home. With a cheerful “Enjoy your long weekend!”
Monday was the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Gina and I went downtown to a theater to see the President’s inauguration speech on a really big screen. But for the rest of the day, well into evening, we watched network coverage of the day’s events in the comfort of our toasty warm living room.
The Judge had other hearings on Tuesday, so we were “off” for another day. On Wednesday, everyone, including the final defense witness, showed up. The testimony took only a few minutes to complete, and Counsel rested her case. Next, the Judge literally read the jury instructions to us. The DA made her final argument, about an hour long, and we broke for lunch. In the afternoon, we heard the Defense Counsel’s argument and the DA’s rebuttal. After some additional “procedural” instructions from the Judge, the bailiff escorted us to the Jury Room. The one remaining alternate juror – one replaced juror number six when he came down with the flu about 3 days into the trial – received the thanks of the Court and went home.
The Jury Room was surprisingly small – just enough room for us to barely circulate around the table, upon which the Bailiff had piled paper bags of physical evidence. Fortunately, there was a coffee maker and a water dispenser, along with a canister of ground coffee of uncertain age. While not of gourmet quality, it did serve to keep the coffee-drinkers among us “in the game”. The room had a wall of windows, so our deliberations occurred in the light of a bright California sun.
To our universal relief, one juror volunteered to be our Foreman. After a vote of confirmation, he started us off with an around-the-table session where we could say what we thought of the trial, and, if we wanted, to express our opinion about the defendant’s guilt or innocence. At this point, it was pretty apparent that three of our number were entertaining “reasonable doubt” about guilt. No one asked for a vote, though. We were content to sleep – or not – on our individual considerations of the evidence and testimony.
We reconvened at 10 the next morning. The Foreman and two other jurors then took us, point by point, through the elements of the evidence and testimony: did it establish convincingly that the defendant was in the area at the time of the murder? did it convince us of the weapon that was used? what was the motive for the crime? was the crime gang-related? The answers to some of these questions were not direct, particularly because the one eyewitness to the crime was a hostile witness who refused to actually name the murderer in Court. At one point, we requested the testimony of two witnesses be read to us. For this the Court was reconvened, with all the actors – Defendant, Counsel for Defense, District Attorney and Judge – present. After brief instructions, the Judge excused herself, and the Court Reporter read the requested testimony. Back in the Jury Room, we worked without break – pizza was ordered in for lunch – and at the end of the day, we took a secret ballot vote: 11 -1. At 4.30, we called it a day. We needed to sleep some more on the information we had.
Friday morning saw us present and cheerful at 10. We did another review of all of the points of evidence. We agreed to another secret ballot, this time with each voter writing his or her points of uncertainty. You could feel tension in the air as the Foreman opened and read each ballot. The tension quickly broke when the final ballot made it unanimous: guilty. Bailiffs escorted us to a nearby restaurant for lunch, and when we returned, we set about deciding the other allegations: use of a weapon – an easy “guilty”, and a crime performed for the benefit or in association with a street gang – not convincing, as jurors saw an element of personal vendetta in the murder act.
The Foreman signed off on all of the verdicts and we once again rang for the Bailiff. Court convened in very short order, and once again all the actors were present, this time with an audience section well filled with what we presume to be families of both victim and defendant. The Judge directed the Foreman to hand the Verdict form to the Bailiff, who delivered it to the Judge. After briefly perusing it – showing no reaction whatever – she handed it to a Clerk of the Court who read the verdicts out loud. The Judge asked Counsel if she wanted us individually polled – one of the jurors had cautioned us that this might happen – and she said, “Yes”. The Clerk then intoned, “Juror Number One, did you vote ‘guilty’?” “Yes.” “Juror Number Two, did you vote ‘guilty’?” “Yes.” “Juror Number Three….” With the polling confirming our unanimous vote of guilt, the Judge thanked us for our service noting that it is difficult to obtain juries for long and difficult trials like this one. The bailiff escorted us out of Court through a door at the front of the room, so we didn’t have to see the families’ reactions. Two jurors, however, had noticed that both mothers cried at the announcement of the verdict. One juror said that the DA mouthed, “Thank You” to us as we filed out.
It was an amazing experience, and I’d serve again in a trice. Each juror took the duty very seriously, and while there was humor – at one point, one of us called out to another in the bathroom, “Is it Number One or Number Two?”, as we were plumbing the definitions of Murder in the First Degree and Murder in the Second Degree – we all felt the serious nature of our task. Several jurors had kept quite detailed notes during the trial, and where two or more of their notes confirmed a point of testimony, this was very valuable. I was especially taken with the respect each of us had for the others: there was no bullying argument or rolling of eyes. Each and every juror spoke out with opinions, questions, reasoning; or a comment on some nuance in the testimony that the rest of us may have missed. One juror expressed the need to be “fair” and to re-weigh selected bits of the testimony, and this was respected without impatience. In the end, in the Courtroom, every juror’s “Yes” was spoken with a firm voice of real conviction.
Guilty of Murder in the First Degree.
©2013 Thomas L Snyder