In spite of being in my early 30s, I had never been summoned for jury duty until this past summer. Clearly, there’s a first time for everything!
I also believe everything happens for a reason.
I wasn’t able to serve on the date for which my original summons was (August 16) because I was going to be in Chicago that week for work. So I was rescheduled for jury duty on October 11, which, at the time, seemed like an eternity away.
October 11 was a tough day for me. I’d just come back from N.J. the day before — a whirlwind week of a conference, va-k with my family, the death of my nana, a wedding and a bridal shower for my cousin. I was exhausted and did not want to spend the day sitting around waiting for my name to not be called — as everyone said would likely be the case. I brought a book and settled in, not even bothering to make small talk with anyone, figuring that with this group of about 60 or 70 potential jurors, my odds were low to get called.
Once we got settled in, we learned the nature of the case: homicide. All of a sudden, court didn’t seem quite so boring … but I still didn’t think I’d be called. Nonetheless, I put my book down and listened as the judge, defense attorney and prosecutor talked to us about the law, jurors’ roles in the law (i.e., not worrying about the potential punishment for the crime; keeping in mind that all defendants are innocent until proven guilty, etc.) and then listened as potential juror after potential juror gave excuses as to why they couldn’t serve. Many were super-lame … and only one person was let go up front: a police officer (which made sense given the police department’s role as well as number of witnesses in the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety.
I paid extra-close attention as the first two groups were called up and questioned for literally two hours. At this point, I was wracking my brain wondering, “Could I really do this if I end up being called?” and then thinking, in spite of knowing next to nothing about the case, “It would be really interesting to be a part of this and seeing justice at work …”
Being a Libra, I’m naturally predisposed to see both sides of every story, so I had no doubt I could be unbiased if called …
Finally, around 3 PM, I heard my name. I went up and passed the litmus test and remained up there with the rest of the jurors who had been asked to stay. By 5 PM, we had 14 jurors (14 so 2 could be alternates). This was it.
They told us they thought the case would end in three or so days. It did not. It ended this past Friday, the 21st. It was a long, grueling experience and one I wish never to have to repeat. Between the nightmares and anxious thoughts that pervaded my brain and wouldn’t give me peace … it was a harrowing two weeks.
I won’t go into details of the case, but the long and short of it is we the jury found the then-17 year old (now 18-year old) defendant guilty of every single count with which he was charged, including first degree murder. Because Michigan doesn’t have the death penalty (thank goodness!) he will be sentenced by the judge next months to life in prison with no chance of parole (though I think he could always appeal our verdict, I honestly don’t know how any other jury would conclude anything else but what we concluded).
We couldn’t talk during breaks so we never knew who was thinking what these past two weeks, but in the deliberation room, we discovered we were (surprisingly) unanimous in the guilty verdict. What we weren’t all sold on initially was determining if it was 1st or 2nd degree murder — the only difference between the two being “premeditation.” You see, I’d always taken “premeditation” to be like someone saying, “I’m going to XYZs house to shoot him.” But the law defines it differently. Premeditation basically means that someone had time to reason and rationalize and still decide to commit the crime … and “time” is left to the jury’s discretion. In the end, we realized it was, indeed, premeditated.
We deliberated for just two hours in total. An hour later, we were sitting in a crowded courtroom, each of us staring straight ahead as our foreman read the charges and our verdict. I didn’t dare look around — not at the defendant, not at the lawyers, not at the judge or anyone in the gallery. I could feel their eyes blazing into us and my stomach was lurching. My heart was thumping into my mouth and I was visibly shaking. Truth be told, we were all pretty uncomfortable – not with our verdict, but with the impact it would ultimately have on someone else’s life and knowing many people would be angry with us for our decision. How could we not feel nervous/anxious/uncomfortable?
It was one of those moments I’ll never forget — hearing one side of the room shouting, “Praise Jesus!” and crying tears of joy … and the other side letting out a gut-wrenching, agonizing “Nooooooooooooooooo!”
Essentially, one family’s life had been shattered by the crime; another family’s family was now shattered by our verdict. It was a lose-lose situation … but I believe in my heart we made the right decision given the facts of the case — and now our community is a little safer. I have to remember that … but it doesn’t change how sad the whole experience was (especially the four-hour video of a police interrogation of an eyewitness who, fearing being a snitch, has a complete mental breakdown before admitting the shooter was the defendant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as sad as this).
When it was over, the courtroom doors opened for us twelve jurors to make a quick exit and police officers whisked us to our respective cars before the people in the gallery were allowed out. I didn’t turn around to see the reactions of the lawyers, judge or even the defendant. I just wanted to get the hell out. I had so much to process…and in many ways, still do.
What I did learn is that our judicial system exists for a reason. It’s to protect those who are innocent but also to protect society from those who do harm. It’s an imperfect system, but a good one … But though I believe justice was served, it doesn’t mean I feel good about having been part of a jury that delivered a 1st degree murder verdict … It’ll always be on my conscience and that’s something I’ll have to live with the rest of my life.
I do believe people are innately good and maybe in 30 years the defendant will be a different person; that’s where I get tripped up at how our system works. But I have to put those feelings aside and realize we did the right thing … if not for our community, for the family of the victim.
How about you? Have you ever sat on a jury? What was the nature of the case and how did it make you feel?