Jury service in disturbing case instills confidence in our judicial system
I was ambivalent about the jury summons in my hand as I waited to get through security at the Mesa County Justice Center two weeks ago. I was certain that I wouldn’t get picked to serve, so I was just biding my time until I was excused.
The jury selection process was tedious. All morning, the judge asked question after question. People provided medical, personal and work-related reasons why they couldn’t serve. They were excused. After the lunch break, I was still there answering questions, along with the rest of the folks whose names were randomly drawn from the pool of potential jurors in Mesa County.
The lawyers for both the defense and the prosecution asked more questions. More people were excused. Finally, the judge announced that the 13 of us sitting in the jury box would be the 12 jurors and one alternate for the case at hand.
Opening arguments were given.
Only then did I begin to feel the full the weight of my situation. A man was accused of sexually assaulting two girls — the girls are about the same age of my daughter. We were tasked with listening to the testimony, weighing the evidence and deciding the fate of the defendant.
The next two days were gut-wrenching. I reminded myself several times that I needed to remain composed. These two girls — and the man who stood accused — deserved to have the trial proceed without histrionics from the jury box.
It helped to remind myself that serving on this jury was my duty as an American. It’s how our legal system works. Those accused of crimes are to be judged by a jury of their peers. What I was doing was serious and important.
The girls testified in court in front of the judge, the lawyers and the strangers in the jury box about the abuse they suffered at the hands of the defendant. We watched the girls’ taped interviews with a police detective.
As jurors, we could ask questions of witnesses. After the two lawyers were done with their questioning, we could submit written questions that the judge and lawyers previewed. The lawyers could make objections and the judge ruled on whether or not they could be asked.
One of the instructions the jury was given by the judge was that we could not talk to each other or anyone else about the case. During the numerous breaks in the trial, we were friendly and chatted about whatever we could find in common. One man brought in hot chocolate to share. We got really good at lining up to enter the courtroom, squeezing into the tiny, jurors-only elevator and not talking about the case.
Then, at 4 p.m. on the third day of the trial, closing arguments were over, the alternate juror was named and excused. We were taken once again to our jury room.
I was immediately relieved when I realized that the other jurors felt as I did. We had to get this right. It didn’t matter what we believed was true, we had to follow the law. To be found guilty, all 12 of us had to believe the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, based only on the evidence presented to us in the courtroom.
There was no DNA or physical evidence or eyewitnesses other than the two girls. We only had testimony and interviews to consider. We had to decide whom we believed and who we thought was lying.
We went over the notes we took during the trial, rewatched the interviews and weighed the testimony we heard in the courtroom. We read and reread the jury instructions and the charges. To say we were diligent, thorough and fair is an understatement.
Even though the judge commented on the number of questions the jury asked, we had so many that were left unanswered. But we didn’t speculate or assume things not presented in evidence.
We went over each count against the defendant, discussed the evidence and voted on whether we felt he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
We agreed on a verdict for three of the four charges. The last charge was the hardest to decide. There was no consensus. After an initial vote, it was eight to four. After more discussion, we voted again, 10-2. Then 11-1. Even then, no one pressured that one unconvinced juror. Instead, we went over the evidence and explained why we believed what we did. No one argued. We respected each other and worked together.
After four long hours of deliberation, we finally reached a unanimous decision. It took an excruciatingly long time for all parties to gather once again in the courtroom. The judge read the verdict. Guilty on all four counts. I walked out of the courthouse with a clean conscious, but a heavy heart.
I will never forget those two girls, their faces, their voices, what happened to them. If I could say anything to them, it would be that I believed them.
The process of being selected and then serving on this jury has changed the way I view our legal system. I can confidently say that, in this case, the process worked. I am thankful that I was seated with those 11 people. We worked hard to ensure that justice was served.