Focal Point: Twelve Angry Jurors

Published on Saturday, 8 February 2014 23:53 - Written by Dave Berry dvberry@tylerpaper.com

“‘Well, I’m not used to supposin’. I’m just a workin’ man. My boss does all the supposin’, but I’ll try one. Supposin’ you talk us all out of this, and, uh, the kid really did knife his father?

— Juror No. Six, “Twelve Angry Men”

 

She was only 9; she would be 20 now.

I hope she beat the odds and found happiness, for that emotion was nowhere to be found 11 years ago in District Judge Kerry Russell’s courtroom.

Her name isn’t important. We didn’t identify her then; we won’t now. She was a victim, and nothing written here is meant to cause her more pain.

She had already suffered enough of that when living in a crack house at the age of 6. She and her 2-year-old sister were sexually assaulted in their beds by their mother’s boyfriend.

What should be remembered is her incredible bravery when, standing on tiptoes atop a stack of books in the witness box, she pointed a trembling finger at the defendant and identified him as her attacker.

Small for her age, stretching to reach the microphone, answering in a small child’s voice, she fielded questions by prosecutors and defense attorneys for two full hours.

It was a front-page story, and I couldn’t read a word of it. I was, after all, a member of the jury. For a week, my wife carefully excised trial stories from the morning paper.

Jury selection took two days. As a rule, journalists are booted off early. But my number was called just after both the prosecution and defense used up their last strikes. The last three of us never answered a single question.

Over the next two days, the prosecution laid out its case, a convincing lineup of experts, medical evidence and witnesses, capped by the girl’s testimony. The defense had little to refute what seemed a solid case.

Following closing statements Friday morning, 12 jurors retired to the jury room. Probably because only one of us wore a tie, I was elected jury foreman.

Nine men, three women — a good mix of races, ages and backgrounds — we set about our deliberations. All but one thought the choice was obvious.

Our first vote started with the man to my left. “Guilty,” he said. “Guilty,” said the next. “Guilty, guilty, guilty…” And so it went, “guilty, guilty…” Clockwise around the table, “guilty, guilty…” Until that one dissenting vote. “Not guilty,” said the man at the end of the table. Eleven heads swung in his direction.

My vote finished the square, making it 11 solid verdicts of “guilty.” No doubts. No qualms. No second thoughts … except for one, who wanted to set the defendant free.

“Let’s go around again,” I said. Once again, we completed the circuit, this time asking each person to explain their vote. Several had “no doubts at all.” Others commented on medical evidence and details about the sexually transmitted disease the attacker gave both girls.

Others talked about the mother’s ramblings, the officer’s report, forensic experts and the various bits of evidence that had convinced all but one. To a person, they mentioned the young girl’s powerful testimony.

“He’s guilty. How can you not see that?” declared one man, addressing the end of the table. But without animosity, Juror Number 11 responded, “I’m just not convinced.”

“Little girls lie,” he said. He didn’t want to send another man to prison based on what he had heard. “Yes,” he said, “I have reasonable doubts.”

“Let’s go over the evidence,” I suggested. We ordered donuts and broke for coffee, starting what would become a seven-hour ordeal.

If you’ve seen the movie, “Twelve Angry Men,” you can appreciate our situation.

The jury room was a tiny windowless place, a conference table with 12 chairs filling the space, a small restroom and a coffee counter off to the side. We were locked in there until we could arrive at a verdict.

Nothing we said could sway him. He offered no specifics about his doubts. The evidence just wasn’t there, he argued. We insisted it was. We went back over key pieces of testimony. We talked about the little girl’s positive identification, what she said and how she said it.

“I’m still not convinced,” the holdout repeated.

“No verdict yet,” we told the judge. The donuts went stale; the coffee was cold. We broke for lunch, following the bailiff to a restaurant, where we ate in silence.

Returning to the jury room, we found fresh coffee, but the same roadblocks. We were still hung. Harsh words were spoken. The hours ticked away. A single mother worried about who would fix dinner. One man worried about missing too much work. Another fretted over tickets to a ballgame. One, frustrated over his failed efforts to sway the holdout, retreated to a corner and slid to the floor, where he sat glowering, head down, arms around his knees.

Again, the judge sent the bailiff. “We are split 11 to 1… but still trying,” I wrote back.

Finally, late in the day, a juror broke, asking why we shouldn’t just “find him not guilty and end this.”

That wasn’t going to happen. “Not guilty is not an option for me,” I said, telling the group I was convinced and had no doubts. The defendant was guilty and should be off the street.

“Then just tell the judge we’re hung and let’s get out of here,” said the man with the tickets. More protests; one woman was near tears at the thought.

“Let’s go around one more time.” More groans.

“What’s that going to change?”

“I’ll start,” I said. “If we continue to be split, the judge will call a hung jury. We can do that, but then a week’s effort is wasted. Another jury will have to do this again.”

“Worse, that little girl will have to confront her attacker again. I don’t want that.” I sat closest to the victim when she testified. I believed her, believed everything she said. I heard the quiver in her voice, saw her hands tremble. “I don’t want her to go through that again,” I finished.

Most were too upset to talk and passed their turns until all eyes were on the holdout. “Give me a minute,” he said, disappearing into the restroom.

Someone complained. “Just give him a minute,” I said.

The judge sent the bailiff again. “Give us a minute,” I responded.

Twenty-five minutes later, he was back, announcing he wanted to change his verdict. “Are you sure,” I asked. “Is this what you really believe?”

“Yes,” he said. “I believe he’s guilty.”

We sent word to the judge. It was late; the courtroom was empty. It would take a few minutes to retrieve everyone. We sat in silence; no one was in a talkative mood.

In open court, we announced our verdict. “Guilty,” I said. The judge polled each member. All said yes, that was their verdict.

Sentencing would have to wait. Admonishing us not to read or listen to news reports, the judge recessed until Tuesday. That day brought more testimony, and this time we were allowed to know what everyone else knew — that the defendant had a long criminal history and was currently in prison for sexual assault of another child. Our sentence would only add to his sentence. The prosecution wanted a life sentence, the maximum.

As we retired to the small jury room, the former holdout spoke first. “I vote life,” he said. Before a minute passed, the others agreed, voting 12-0 to lock him up for life.

The group wanted to rush out and announce its decision, but decorum dictated we give it a few more minutes. There were fresh donuts on the table and a pot of coffee on the counter. So, with smiles and small talk, we enjoyed a few minutes as guests of the county.

Our duties complete, we were dismissed. Twelve jurors filed down the stairs, out the doors of the courthouse and back to our own lives. One by one, they departed. Juror No. 2 to the north, Juror No. 6 west across the square, others heading east ...

Finally, just two of us remained, walking together to the juror parking lot. At our vehicles, we stopped, shook hands and introduced ourselves for the first time.

And for just a few moments we talked of families, of jobs and our lives outside the jury room.

Then, with a smile and another handshake, we wished each other a good life and went our separate ways.

###

Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears every Sunday. Next week, we’ll visit a warrior-poet of the Vietnam War whose words live on long after his death. Thanks for reading.