October 22, 2015
Four years into my undergraduate career, and I had changed addresses five times. Within the first two changes, I had given up keeping track and sent all of my [important] mail to my parents’ house. Not exactly #adulting, but I figured if anything was urgent, my dad would let me know.
An afternoon at my sorority house led me to check my mail cubby. From time to time, I’d find catalogs or candy waiting for me in that room — usually nothing more than a subsequent trip to the garbage. But that afternoon was different. A letter from the government? I tore open the envelope to find several forms and a deadline I had already missed by weeks.
Jury duty. I didn’t even realize it was possible to get jury duty when I was still going to school. “Who can I call to get out of this?” was my first thought, as I was currently scrambling to finish college and enjoy spring break.
After successfully pushing my sentence back, I quickly forgot about my civic duty and went about life as normal for several months. But September quickly came, and the fateful day approached. I braced myself for the most boring week I could imagine – a week of waiting in rooms filled with awkward strangers. But after only a couple hours of this, my name was called, and into a courtroom I went.
We found out within the first day that our group of 45 was waiting to be selected for a criminal case. We also found out that the defendant was being charged with premeditated attempted murder and was found at the scene of the crime with a knife in his back.
What? This felt like the movies, and I couldn’t help but get sucked in by the incremental reveal of information.
Then they asked questions — personal questions — to get to the bottom of who we were. Had we ever been the victims of domestic violence? If so, when? How? Have we ever been charged with a crime? If so, what? Did we trust the police? If not, why?
Parts of me wanted to sink deeper in my chair as person after person shared information that felt all but a little TMI.
The second day passed, and afterward, they chose 14 of us to sit through the trial. In the end, I think it was my exceeding normalcy that made me a good candidate for this jury. I lacked the life experience to make me jaded, was bright-eyed and curious but had enough spunk not to be intimidated by older jury members. Ranging from age 25 to 65, we were a truly random bunch. We represented the justice system at its finest.
We were each given a pen and notepad to write down anything we pleased. Afterwards, during deliberations, we were not allowed any transcript or repetition of the words said in court, so if we wanted any chance of remembering, notes were the way to go.
The first day began with witnesses. Witness after witness begrudgingly took the stand, including the defendant’s ex-wife, whom he allegedly tried to murder back in November. Their backstory was eventually revealed, making the tension in the room all the more potent.
The two had met in college, and their relationship was whirlwind. Both involved in gymnastics, they bonded over common interests and were soon married. Their only child was born with special needs – what was repeatedly said to be the major source of contention in their relationship. Several unhappy years passed before the defendant filed for divorce, and several unhappier years after that, the split was finalized. They interacted from time to time for their daughter’s sake, but had what was described as a “heated” relationship, one filled with child-custody battles and hearsay. It was clear the two didn’t like each other. But could this dislike really lead to murder?
The tension in the courtroom was high, and there was more than one time that I felt emotionally beat during breaks and after hours. Day after day passed with incessant displays of evidence. We looked at over 300 items, including hundreds of photos, the weapon and blood-soaked clothing. The State was trying its hardest to prove to us that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
But it didn’t add up. Not all of it, at least.
Each of their concluding statements lasted nearly two hours. I was left feeling confused and disheartened by what appeared to me to be the competing testimony of two blatant liars. With pages of notes and no real answers, we entered the most intense part of our service: the deliberation room.
We deliberated for more than two days, stuck in a windowless room with no access to electronic devices. When we read our verdicts, there were five or six sheriffs in the courtroom, standing suspiciously close to the defendant’s table. At one point, we had to go down the line and individually say we agreed with the verdict. But we were finally done. Two weeks of graphic testimony and blood-spatter expertise were finally done.
Sometimes, my life feels so random. But for those two weeks and two days, that random led me on just about the most interesting side trip I have ever taken. I guess in this case, I really did win the raffle.