A Cold April: My Time on the Jury of a Murder Trial

GavelOn Saturday, I drove past the scene of a murder.

There was the house of the victim, there was where the shooters stood. I could even see where the shooters parked their car for the getaway. They snuck through that yard, and over that fence, around the side there, and…

I circled the block three times, studying the real places that before only existed to me as images on a screen or as a faded picture circulated between me and the others on the jury. But it was real, so very real, and strangely all smaller than I expected. I think I made them all bigger in my mind, because during the three weeks I was on the trial they felt big.

So very big…

Monstrously huge, making everything in my life, my concerns, my worries, seem small and petty.

You worry about bills? We were discussing life and death and part of that was on me. Guns and bullets and questionable detectives and criminals aplenty. Two weeks of witnesses and theories and arguments, and one week of deliberations. And here it is months later and I still haven’t come to grips with the fact that I had a hand in deciding whether someone would spend the rest of his years in a jail cell.

That was my life then in April and I hated every minute of it… and I hate that I still think about it so much today.

You spend your entire life avoiding that shady underbelly of our culture.

I have no history or interest in crime, nor do my friends or relations around me. That has never been a thing for me (and it rarely appears in my own novels). Nor, have I had any desire to ever work in law. Heck, this may sound lame, but the only lawyer show I even watched on television was Ally McBeal (man, that was the worst series finale ever, by the way). It felt so unfair on some of those days why I was thrown into a situation that had no interest for me. It was almost like someone forced me to do accounting for two weeks… and if I did it wrong a puppy would be tortured.

Before I was on jury duty I was knee-deep in writing a novel. I was in an author’s heaven, watching a great idea grow and grow. The magic of the first draft. That trial brought reality into my head with such a smack that I almost wondered if my writing could recover from it.

See, we selected guilty, but I feel guilty as well.

Guilty for going back to my normal life, when there were others with loss and disappointment. Guilty of having a good life to return to. What the victim and his family experienced, chances are (knock on wood) I will never have to experience. I run in different circles, live in different neighborhoods. But now that running, has an extra element to it for me, because it is real.

I’ve seen it, and I feel guilty and I run.

I have never had an interest in being on a jury.

Jury Duty StampHonestly, I understand the dark fascination some may have about it, but I was the other side of that coin. Even for this round of jury duty, I had delayed my attendance by eight months (eight months!), using every excuse I had at my disposal. Child care, work, I used them all. And it did buy me some time, but it was never enough to take me off the list.

Some would snicker and say that I deserved it (and I probably did) when the first case came up and I was immediately put in the jury box. Almost a hundred people there and I was the second called. So be it.

I was fidgety, I was nervous. And at that moment I felt all of the eyes on me (something I would have to get used to over the course of those weeks, for someone in that room was always looking at you). I felt strangely like I was on an auction block as both attorneys asked me questions about how I view justice, truth, trust, etc.

At no point was I asked if I wanted to be there. At no point, was I given a chance to get out. They knew I had no choice, and I couldn’t help but think: “This? This in our country we are forced to do? Not voting? This?”

To this day, that still doesn’t make sense.

Over the course of those two weeks I saw witnesses break into tears, I saw convicts giving statements turning them into snitches (many times surrounded by corrections officers ten times more scary); I saw witnesses plead the fifth; and I have seen lies.

Yes, I saw people lie on the stand. One lie so obvious he was actually asked about a half-dozen times if he was sure. He claimed he was, but we all knew it was a big freaking lie.

It was all so dramatic, that sometimes I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a play, a performance. Definitely the attorneys acted as if they were in a show sometimes. They would work toward dramatic and surprising revelations (It could almost get a little silly), while at other times being methodical almost to the point of being frustrating.

The problem is that I realized after a few days that thinking that it was a play was an out. A sign of weakness on my part. An excuse to make the experience easier for me and my innocent life up until that moment. It was unfair to the person on trial and definitely to the victim.

For two weeks I was an expert. But I was an expert in a subject I had no interest in knowing. Did I want to explore true crime? No, not really my writing gig, but for those weeks, I could have walked you through the entire events of that horrible night. From the moment, the killers decided to do the crime to the moment they raced away, leaving the body on the ground, his fiancee crying over him. (Again, like something out of a show, but not.)

I would think about the case when I woke up in the morning, and I would think about it after I went to bed. I had a notepad with me when I was in the jury box and I would map out the timeline again and again, until it was part of my DNA, sewed into my being.

Another thing I would do while I was in the box is I would study the room. There was always a crowd in the court (it was a murder trial). I could tell you which were the journalists (they were not there every day, and now and then would sneak out; I’m assuming for a smoke or some food). I would also guess which were the relations to the victim and which were to the defendant.

That is not to say I didn’t pay attention throughout the case. I did. See, the thing is, and I hate myself for almost saying this, I began to see the thrill that some found in cases like this. It was consuming, it filled up your mind. To think, we spent all those weeks over an event that took a little more than a few minutes. The victim was dead in less that an hour. Our lunch breaks were longer than that.

Over the course of the trial I became a real fan of the judge. Sometimes people are in the right job, and that was the case with her. She was a force of nature, always aware of everything going around. And you could never question her, never.

I wish I had that strength. Heck, sometimes when I scold my kids they laugh at me.

The person I couldn’t read was the defendant. Man, I would study him. Try to see his reaction to events and witnesses. I did notice a few eye rolls, but nothing that really gave away his thoughts. Some pointed out that he had gained weight since he was arrested. Not surprising, I think anyone would gain weight with the stress.

The fact is I wanted to understand him. What went through his head, before he pulled the trigger or after? Some said he cried, that seemed right to me. I think only a cold snake would not feel guilty after any death. Death does demand tears, doesn’t it? But tears don’t change what happened. And a man was dead. I saw a lot of tears for him too.

In the end, it was all so depressing. Each day after we were sent home, I would need to find ways to unwind. Sometimes I would work out, other times I would grab the leash and take my dog for long walks outside. When even your dog is acting tired, you know you have a lot on your mind.

And again, I didn’t write.

I live with doubts. Not over our verdict (I truly believe it was the right call and we had no other choice in front of us), but with my own capability to make decisions like that. It sounds great in theory, almost romantic- jury of your peers.

Jury of your peers.

Yet, after my experience, I would rather have a jury of experts, people trained in investigations, law, etc. People that know what to look for with clues and witnesses; not us armchair detectives. Maybe that kind of a jury would have seen more, came to a conclusion faster.

In time, I hope the names and the dates fall away from my mind. I want it all swept away, like by a janitor with a broom. I want to no longer wonder about the person in the cell who would look at me each day, trying to guess what I was thinking; or the victim and his family, remembering him and wondering what life would be like if he was still around.

It is a tragedy, but no work of a pen can truly capture it. It lives in your gut, not on a stage. They are all in my gut. And I want them out.

New book! New book! New book!Permanent Spring Showers

My latest novel Permanent Spring Showers was just published by 5 Prince Books. You can find out more about my novel as well as my other books (including A Jane Austen Daydream and My Problem With Doors) and grab a copy via my author page on Amazon.com here.

Need an editor? Dream of finishing that book but need some help? Learn about my editing services by visiting this page on my site. Or you can contact Rebecca T. Dickson and request to work with me by clicking the image below.

Rebecca T. Dickson, Editor

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2 responses

  1. I have never been called for jury duty but I have to be honest I am one of those fascinated by true crime and the CSI type programme but I am also the totally wrong person to be on a jury for those very reasons, I would question everything, want to know that everything was done completely by the book and would over examine things

    • Yeah, your mind does really go down that rabbit hole. It really took over my mind for three weeks. I can understand the appeal of following cases like that, I just don’t want to do it again. It was too much weight to take home everyday for me.

      Thanks for writing!

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