Lesson Six–in which we begin deliberations. If you’ve not read the first five Lessons, you can begin here.
After closing arguments, the bailiff took her oath to not let us (the jury) out of her sight until we’d reached a verdict (except to let us go home), and the judge read aloud to us the twelve pages of jury instructions. Finally we were allowed to talk to one another. Of course we had to in order to begin our deliberations, and we were all excited to be able to discuss the case and the evidence after three weeks of silence on the subject.
I was anxious to take a quick poll to see where we all stood as far as the verdict: guilty or not guilty, but first we had to elect a foreperson. Once we got that formality out of the way we could request to review evidence since the foreperson had to sign each of our requests. Everyone started talking at once and for a while chaos reigned as we all got some of our biggest questions out on the table for discussion. I still wanted to take a quick anonymous vote and finally got everyone to agree. I was pretty sure that we would be split on the verdict, but as the foreman counted the little slips of paper, the guilty pile got larger and larger, and when he finished we stood at 10 guilty and two not guilty. So there was at least one other person beside myself who thought maybe we should carefully deliberate before we sent the defendant up-river for the rest of his life.
At this point, I wasn’t sure if this was a death penalty case or not, and one of the instructions the judge read to us was that we should not concern ourselves with the sentence the defendant might get if we found him guilty, except that in considering the sentence we should be careful. I took that to mean, don’t send this guy to the gallows unless we are really, really, super certain he did it. Which I wasn’t. Not sure at all. I looked around at my compatriots and felt slightly terrified. This was all it took to convince them, I wondered? What if I ended up being the lone hold out? Could I do it if I had to? What if I did and the case ended up a mistrial and this guy really did it? Could I live with that? Could I live with putting him away or sending him to die? I began to doubt the entire process. Who was I? Who were we to make such a critical decision? And why couldn’t the lawyers give us some better evidence? Or a more solid defense?
The first evidence we chose to review was the video. In his closing arguments, the defense attorney had referred to the fact that his client wore glasses and that no glasses were evident in the video we had seen. In his rebuttal to the defense’s closing statements, the prosecutor said that in fact there was some evidence that the person in the video indeed did have glasses on. We had to settle this question first because if the person in the video had glasses on, it could be the defendant. The other thing we wanted to clarify was why there was no DNA on the red jacket if in fact the defendant had worn it. We wanted to determine if the person in the video had some other shirt on which would have blocked his DNA from getting on the jacket.
The judge accepted our request and we spent the next hour or so going over the video in the darkened courtroom, one frame at a time. Tedious, yes, but also enlightening. Apparently the person who got out of the car did have another shirt on, possibly a hoodie or maybe just another shirt and a hat. He appeared to have something pointy or poufy on his head. Well, that makes sense, we all said, why none of the defendant’s DNA was on the jacket. And, it kind of looked like the person in the video had on a ski mask as the space around the eyes appeared lighter. As we continued frame by frame, we all noticed that at one point, the person on video brought his left hand up to the side of his face, either adjusting a pair of glasses or tugging on the hood of the jacket. We stopped on another frame and could make out two reflective dots, symmetrical just below the person’s eyes. Could those be reflections from a pair of glasses? Still, the only thing I was 100 percent sure of was that the car in the video, the car from which the defendant allegedly emerged, definitely belonged to Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs (CFCP, aka the crazy girlfriend)—it was an exact match of the car the police had impounded from her carport and had the same markings, same out parking light, same rims, same hubcaps, same sticker on the left back bumper, same shaped objects in the back window.
We returned to the jury room to continue our deliberations. Everyone but me seemed determined to convict based on the glasses question being answered, but I wanted to see more, hear more before I made up my mind one way or the other. Juror number four, to my right seemed to have her mind all made up, and juror number six, on my other side seemed ready to go with whatever the rest of us thought. I pressed on with my questions: what about the DNA expert, I asked. Didn’t his testimony merit some consideration? One juror, who had just started a new job working for the university police, appeared to be losing patience with me and with my questions. The foreman, however, as well as the other lesbian juror and a guy who worked at a local mission, were willing to discuss the situation further. How do we know the crazy girlfriend didn’t have someone take her car and kill the wife, I asked? After all, she had confessed AND she had that “monster” living in her. And she had texted the defendant, saying she was sorry for killing his wife. Seemed like a possibility, I thought. Or at least reasonable doubt.
I began to worry about groupthink. I’d read about the dangers of making important decisions in groups, how most people choose the path of least resistance and how difficult it was for one person with a dissenting opinion to be heard. I’d watched the video of the Stanford Prison Experiment, witnessing how quickly people could lose their very identities and give up their rights without a fight. I’d spent several semesters teaching units in English class based on the Milgram’s authority experiments, and how easily people believed things just because someone in a white coat said so. So, I listened to my co-deliberators with more than a little skepticism.
The guy from the mission talked at length about the CFCP and how she just did not seem capable of planning the murder and getting someone to whack the boyfriend’s wife. And why would she be throwing him under the bus now, instead of whomever she had hired? Well, I posited, she could have had her husband do it, or her son. We hadn’t heard from either of them on the witness stand. Why? I asked. What if one of them was dark-skinned and wore glasses? Maybe she was protecting family.
Why would her husband kill her boyfriend’s wife, someone asked. Good point, I conceded. This is why I wanted to continue discussions. Ok, but what about the DNA? Could it have escaped the paper envelope and gotten on the latex glove? I could feel the eyes roll, but I wanted to know. What did I know about DNA? Maybe someone among us knew more. We had this guy’s life in our hands—I believed we owed him an honest and rigorous deliberation. I knew that should I somehow ever end up at the defendant’s table, I’d appreciate an open-minded jury and at least a couple of days of deliberation before they handed down a decision. I hoped they’d be willing to examine any evidence that raised a reasonable doubt.
We seemed to have reached an impasse, and the foreman suggested we take the night to think things over, to process. Perhaps in the morning everything would look different. Perhaps. But I didn’t think that all of them would change their minds that fast.
Lesson 6: Speak up. Ask questions. Don’t worry about what people think.