Lesson 8: The Debriefing

The trial is over, Dear Reader.  If you haven’t been reading this series of Lessons, you might want to begin at the beginningsince what follows will be a bit of a SPOILER.
The judge invited the jury back into the courtroom for a debriefing once everyone else had left.  The lawyers and the detective who had assisted the prosecution remained so that we could ask questions and get clarification on issues raised in the trial, issues we couldn’t research or read about, such as DNA testing—and more specifically how much DNA is enoughDNA.
The defendant, July 2011

One of the first things we discussed was the absence of DNA on the red jacket, and we told the judge and the prosecutor we determined the defendant must have worn a hoodie under the jacket as we could see something pointy on his head and assumed it was a hood or ski mask.  The lawyers and judge chuckled and shook their heads—and the judge handed the bailiff his laptop for us to look at.  There was a picture of the defendant at his first court appearance sporting a very different hairdo than the one he wore for the trial: Well, the photo certainly explained the pointy head in the video, and I felt much better about the conviction.  Still, I wondered why we couldn’t have seen this picture during the trial as it sure would have made our decision easier.  But I think we all breathed a huge sigh of relief when we finally did get to see this photo.  We’d convicted the right person.
We asked about the DNA and if one nanogram was enough DNA for a conviction.  Turns out that touch DNA (i.e. DNA gathered from touch rather than from blood, semen, or other bodily fluids) is quite a new technology and one nanogram is quite a lot.  What about the possibility that the DNA jumped from the paper envelope containing the defendant’s sample DNA to the paper envelope in which the pieces of latex gloves resided?  Why didn’t law enforcement agencies utilize plastic tamper-proof envelopes?  The  prosecutor explained that they had, once, used plastic, but the evidence contained within had putrified in transit, ruining their entire case.  No agencies anywhere used plastic envelopes for just this reason.  Makes so much more sense now, I thought.  If only I’d thought of that.
We then discussed the glasses, which had played a pivotal role in our decision-making.  The defense lawyer had another engagement and wasn’t there to answer our questions, but the prosecutor told us that he hadn’t even considered the glasses until the defense attorney brought them up in his closing arguments when he pointed out that it was impossible to see glasses in the video, that the gray face we could see clearly did not have glasses on it.  But our review of the video indeed confirmed the presence of glasses on the suspect’s face.  The defense’s mention of the glasses allowed the prosecutor to address the issue further in his final comments to the jury.  Immediately I had to wonder if the defense attorney had handed us the case in that moment.  Did he know his client was guilty?  Did he want us to know as well?
One of the jury’s primary concerns during the trial had been for the little boy, the defendant’s and murder victim’s seven year-old son.  The prosecution assured us he was being well-taken care of by his mother’s family in Missouri; he was receiving counseling and lots of love.  Still, his new status as an orphan would be with him forever, and when he learned the details of the crime later in life, how would he deal with the knowledge that his father killed his mother in cold blood?  Life for the boy was not going to be easy, but we all felt better knowing he was with his mother’s family.
Why had no one from the defendant’s family shown up at the trial?  As we considered the sides of the courtroom each day, it became clear that the defendant was pretty much on his own; no support system, no friends or co-workers testified in his defense.  Turns out he had about eight other girlfriends, besides the ones who had testified against him, and he was a product of the foster-care system.  No time for friends, obviously, and no family. 
The prosecutor felt certain the defendant was a psychopath, he told us.  He was also sure that the crazy girlfriend, aka CFCP, was next on the defendant’s list of women to kill, given that in his pickup truck the cops found a shovel, a huge roll of plastic wrap (like that used to wrap things onto pallets), lighter fluid, and buckets. I pondered this information—it could explain why, upon conviction, the defendant didn’t even flinch.  He didn’t cry out or tear up.  He stood without emotion as the court clerk read the verdict. 
One juror asked what the prosecutor thought about CFCP, how he could trust what she said, and he shared with us that he did think she was nuts, but that her craziness stemmed from being abused as a child.  He told us that the first time he met with her, he walked out in frustration as her comments and answers to questions were all met with airy-fairy psychobabble rather than facts.  When she attempted suicide he told us, she was serious, cutting deeply and vertically up both wrists.  Her need to be loved and needed surpassed her common sense, and “Monster” was indeed a protector and not capable of murder.
What sort of sentence would the defendant face, now that we had convicted him of first degree murder with the special circumstance of being committed with a firearm?  The death penalty?  Life in prison without parole? I am not a fan of the death penalty—too many innocent people have been murdered by the state at great expense to the taxpayers.  I have long had a fear of being unwrongly convicted of a crime and being sentenced to death (I know, weird, right?), and can not imagine being led to the execution chamber.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.  Killing someone will not bring the murder victim back.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think televisions and air conditioning have a place in prisons either.  Punishment should be punishing.  But who are we to decide if someone lives or dies? 
Turns out the maximum penalty the defendant could get would be around 30 years in prison, an extra five for the commission of the crime with a firearm.  With parole and time off for good behavior he could be out in twenty or fewer.  Somehow that sentence did not seem severe enough.  What was the criteria for a harsher sentence?  The prosecutor told us that in his 40 years practicing law, he’d had only two death penalty cases:  Kenneth Bianchi (who ultimately ended up in the California penal system) and some guy who had driven a spike through his daughter’s head. 
As we left the courthouse, a few of my co-jurors stopped me and thanked me for my “bravery.”  One asked me if I was going to be “okay” and said she was worried for me.  I have to say, this sort of attention surprised me, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it all.  My intention going in had been to make sure this guy, presumed innocent at the outset, got a fair hearing.  I wanted to make sure we did not convict him based on feelings or prejudice, that we not jump to conclusions.  The thought of sending an innocent person to prison, or worse, weighed heavily on me.  So did the possibility of letting a killer go unpunished.   
The defendant would be sentenced the following week, and the bailiff promised to let us know in case we wanted to be in court for it.  I doubted my work would pay for me to attend the sentencing, so I let it go. 
He ended up getting 32 years.  I still don’t know what one has to do to merit a life without parole sentence.  And as white-collar criminals get lifetime sentences for fraud and the like, I do have to wonder about our priorities as a nation. 
Lesson 8:  The system works when we all participate.

2 thoughts on “Lesson 8: The Debriefing

  1. I really appreciate your sharing this process with us. And I am much heartened by your attention to detail and the seriousness with which you performed your civic duty, one that so many do their utmost to avoid. Just reading this, and particularly the last two posts, I found emotionally challenging, to hold such responsibility over another's life, getting it right, or getting it wrong.
    With much respect,

  2. Thanks Pip! I'm so glad I had the opportunity to do this and to write about it. People need to stop dodging this responsibility. I was fortunate to serve with a good group of folks who took me and our role seriously. Thanks for the heartfelt comment.

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