With Liberty and Justice for All—Lesson Three (for lessons one and two, see my previous posts
The jury room crackled with anticipation as the fifteen of us (including alternate jurors) waited expectantly for the wheels of justice to start turning. Waiting would become part of our routine, we quickly learned. The small room pressed in on us, stuffy, crowded, and awkwardly silent (except for the loud screams coming from the nearby jail) since we had been ordered not to discuss the case with anyone, including our fellow jurors. This first day we were still sizing one another up, or at least that’s what I was doing. As I scanned the faces around the table in our cramped quarters, I wondered about my compatriots: who might be racist, who had children, how many might be retired, and where those who weren’t retired might work.
One of us appeared to be Hispanic, the rest white. We seemed to be a fairly conservative group in that I did not see any tattoos, radical hair styles, funky thrift store outfits, or multiple piercings among the 11 women and four men. About half of us were under 50, a couple of us appeared to be younger than 30. As juror number 5, I sat between jurors number 6 and 4—a woman about my age (probably younger) and an older fellow who seemed slightly overwhelmed, but who was reading a book about investing in the stock market so I judged him as competent. A woman across the table appeared to be a lesbian about my age, with short brown hair and neatly but casually dressed.
Before I could complete my assessment, the bailiff came to fetch us, and we filed out into the jury box. Everyone in the courtroom stood as we walked in, and when the bailiff announced “You may be seated,” my stomach clenched. The weight of our mission heavy upon me as I settled into the wooden chair. I looked around. A smattering of people dotted the courtroom, a few on each side of the aisle like a wedding: friends of the defense on my left, friends of the prosecution on my right.
The lawyers made their opening statements, expounding upon what they had indicated the day before: the prosecution asserted that the defendant had murdered his estranged wife. The defense proclaimed it could raise enough reasonable doubt about the evidence that we would have no choice but to acquit.
And then with no further fanfare, the trial began. The prosecution opened with a blast of evidence, a series of photographs from the crime scene, the most startling of which were of the murder victim clad in only a blood-soaked t-shirt lying on a blood-soaked carpet. Other photos included pieces of the shotgun slug, bits of shotgun wadding, pieces of a latex glove, a bunch of Vicodin tablets scattered about. We saw photos of her purse, contents intact, which, the prosecution pointed out, meant this murder was not a robbery. She lived in a tiny apartment, her bed only a foot or so from the front door, the shelves crammed with books, the walls decorated with her child’s artwork.
The prosecution continued to introduce evidence: the bits of latex gloves from which they claim to have lifted the suspect’s DNA, photos of the accused’s girlfriend’s house, pictures of the girlfriend’s car, pictures of the suspect’s truck, the buckle swabs on which resided the accused’s “known sample” of DNA (what they got when they swabbed his cheeks), a red Gap jacket with fluorescent stripes on the sleeves, and a pile of melted/burned trash that may or may not be rags or clothes or buckets used in the murder.
The hours flew by as I took notes and tried to process the preponderance of information, but I could not get that very first picture out of my head: the poor dead woman, naked except for the t-shirt, and not a small woman either. What a horribly tragic way to go, but even worse I thought, an awful way to be remembered: her ample naked butt writ large upon the courtroom wall.
The judge dismissed us at 4:30 and reminded us not to discuss the trial with anyone, not to do any research on our own, and not to read any news articles about the trial. We would reconvene in five days.
And so I went home with a new Life Rule: Never, ever answer the door in the middle of the night with nothing on but a t-shirt.