What Is Serving On A Jury Really Like?
12:30 pm, March 18th | by Carly McElroy
I imagined jury duty going two ways: in one scenario, I would be placed on a jury with a handsome stranger. We would disagree fundamentally on every issue, and the deliberation room would turn into a powder keg of sexual tension. The other fantasy was just plagiarized from “Runaway Jury.”
Rather than becoming the star of a real life RomCom or courtroom drama, I spent the first morning fiddling with my phone and trading awkward small talk with a decidedly un-mysterious and married fellow juror. When we were finally called into the courtroom to begin selection, I joined my peers as a bored participant in the legal system, my enthusiasm dampened with every level I had just beaten on Angry Birds. Once the potential jurors were seated, the judge thanked us and introduced us to the attorneys for both sides, as well as the defendant. When his name was called, his lawyer tapped him gently on the shoulder, indicating he should stand. When he made eye contact with me, I smiled.
Before any questioning began, the judge explained that the jury would be ruling on a sexual assault case, in which there were multiple victims – two of them children. If this information created bias, we were instructed to approach the bench. I wondered if I should step forward. In general, I believed that the conviction rate for rapists was too low, and that we lived in a society that tends to blame the victim. Did that make me biased? I stayed seated.
The group of jurors was thinned by nearly half before we were taken into the jury box to be interviewed by the lawyers. When the defense attorney took his turn, he spent a long time with me, and his questions became more philosophical. Why do people lie? How can you tell? He asked if I could imagine being on the stand testifying about a sexual assault, and if I thought I could remember every detail. He wanted to know if I thought I could remember every detail. I said no, I couldn’t possibly imagine being attacked, a response another juror later described as “sassy.” Despite my sass, at the end of that day I became juror number 7.
Listening to the opening statements two days later, I had a new fantasy. I wanted to be an advocate for these women (never mind that there was a prosecuting attorney already filling that role). The defendant’s DNA was linked to four out of the five attacks, though the fifth had been the one to identify the attacker and link him to the four prior assaults. I waited to hear the defense say that the women were lying, or that they had dressed provocatively, or sent mixed signals, points I could later pounce upon in the deliberation room.
The defense attorney approached us, studying his notes for a minute or two before speaking.
“What happened to these women is horrific,” he began. “No one is denying that they were attacked, and that what happened is terrible.” As he went through his notes, it became clear that all he was hoping to do was put enough doubt in our minds to move the needle just shy of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Throughout the trial, he questioned police detectives relentlessly, highlighting evidence not collected, trying to poke holes in their work. When the DNA expert took the stand, he questioned her about a woman who had been fired several years earlier, insinuating that she might have compromised the evidence. The only people being shamed on the stand were the experts.
Despite his best efforts, the evidence was insurmountable. We were sent to the deliberation room with 24 charges to debate. The first person who spoke was a woman who announced to the room that she didn’t need to deliberate; she was ready to vote guilty on all charges. A number of jurors nodded.
I felt disappointed. Was it really going to be that easy? I knew that it should be that easy, every time, but it was almost harder to accept that the system might work and I wouldn’t get to be the hero than it was to realize what our verdict would mean for the defendant. After a few minutes, we were up to 20 guilty verdicts on 24 charges. We had come to question of the final victim, the one with no DNA. Another young female juror wasn’t sure she could vote guilty without DNA evidence.
I sat directly behind our foreperson as she delivered the verdict. I could see her hands shaking. The defendant’s mother sat in the gallery, visibly deflating with each pronouncement of “guilty.” When all 24 charges had been read — all guilty — we gathered our things and were led out from the winding hallways behind the courtroom. On my way out, I saw the defendant’s mother sitting on a bench, crying.
“He was a good boy,” she repeated. I got on the elevator and returned to my regular life.
[Photo via Shutterstock]