Your Choice: His Life in Jail or A Fresh Start

How would you react if you had to make a choice that could send a young man (just turned 20 and soon to be a father) to jail for 30 years? What if you had to make your decision and there was absolutely no direct evidence that clearly pointed the finger at him? No fingerprints, no convincing witness, nothing that conclusively placed the defendant at the scene of a horrific crime: a brutal stabbing of a random stranger who was left to die in his torched house.

What if the majority of the other jurors were convinced the defendant was guilty, sure that the accused was a pathological liar, but you, and a few others in the minority, wanted to base such an important decision on solid evidence, not the gut instincts of your fellow jurors.

A year ago, I was called up for jury duty – my first time ever – in Dakota County. I had been randomly assigned to a pool of 40 potential jurors, which was whittled down, over the course of a few days, to a final jury of 12 plus 2 alternates. Eventually the alternates would be called to the jury box after one juror left due to an illness and another requested to be released due to the overwhelming stress.

I was fortunate to work for a company that provided generous jury duty pay, and even then, the trial all but exhausted it. A fellow juror, a woman, wound up losing her job due to the four week absence from work. Our juror pay? $10 a day plus mileage.

The nicely dressed young man sitting across from us at the defense table had been accused of stabbing a divorced, 50-year-old father of two, ransacking his house, setting it on fire, and stealing his car to get away. The victim had been chosen at random: he’d accidentally left his attached garage door open after returning earlier that day from a prayer meeting at his church.

The perpetrator’s total take from the senseless attack? About nine dollars from the few collectible coins stolen from the house and pawned in a neighboring town.

For nearly four weeks the twelve of us listened to gruesome, excruciating, dramatic, tearful and sometimes sleep-inducing testimony – with no possible chance to discuss or share anything we’d learned – until the attorneys had rested their case and the judge gave us our instructions.

I took copious notes, which I was required to leave everyday in the courtroom. Every night I’d write down everything I remembered from the day, winding up with a 25-page single-spaced document once the trial was finally over. Many nights I tossed and turned, my thoughts in an obsessive whirl about all the conflicting information constantly being presented.

We finally got the case and, as my mother and a friend told me later they’d predicted, I was quickly nominated to be forewoman. I was honored to have earned my fellow jurors’ trust, but overwhelmed.

On one hand, if we were able to acquit the defendant, as I thought we would when we began to deliberate, how wonderful would it be to announce ‘innocent’ and release the young man to his future, his family, a chance to start fresh. What celebrating there would be, if….if we found him innocent. There had been several family members in attendance everyday – his grandma, his father, his younger brother. The young pregnant woman carrying the defendant’s baby – attended most days. I wondered whether they would shout, or cry, if they learned we’d found the young man not guilty.

On the other hand, what if it turned out we found him guilty of some, or all, five charges? Would the guilty man hunt me down somehow, one day in the future? Or send his friends after me? I could hardly imagine the sorrow of the mother of his baby, who would wind up raising the child alone. What would she tell her child about its father?

What a solemn, and frightening, duty it is to sit on a jury and decide which version of the story is true. The jurors never have all the details and background of the defendant: his past triumphs or crimes, his challenges. All you know is the story of the particular crimes brought to trial.

Even more exasperating is that for every bit of evidence brought forth by the prosecutor, there was a completely plausible explanation proposed by the defense attorney. Day after day, we sat and heard how evidence was collected, stored, and analyzed; for example, how fingerprints were collected from various surfaces, how the chain of custody of fingerprint evidence was managed, how fingerprints were analyzed. Multiple witnesses would be called up to discuss their role in the collection, storage and analysis of fingerprints. Then, finally, we would hear that only partial prints were collected and couldn’t be matched to any known fingerprints. Or, the surfaces were so damaged by, for example, the fire, that no fingerprints were collected at all. The end result, after days of fingerprint testimony, was that there were no fingerprints.

The same was true of every piece of evidence introduced. And when we were deliberating, we had all of the evidence that had been collected with us in the deliberation room. It was completely useless to us, though we did examine the broken and still bloody knife.

Somehow, we had to make a decision, possibly the most life-changing decision one can make about another person, a complete stranger whose fate rests on your judgment. In the end, we finally agreed on the five verdicts. I knocked on the door of our deliberating room, and announced to the jury attendant that we’d reached our unanimous decision.

I would be the person announcing what we had decided. I wasn’t sure whether I would cry, faint, throw up, or speak in a steady voice. Juror #1, also the jury foreperson, would somehow have to manage in conveying the choice the jury had made. The choice that would either send a young man to jail, or set him free.