Dear Shades of Gray,
As much as trial lawyers want to paint a clear, black-and-white picture of an incident and its surrounding circumstances, you inevitably exist, and are particularly important for the jury who only sees what gets put on the table.
Earlier this week I mentioned my unsettling experience during my jury duty last week. I've now had almost a week to churn it over and over in my head. As with things over which I no longer have control, the only thing I can do now is let it go. Sorting out my thoughts and putting them down in words will help with that. And so I share my experience here.
There were several factors to why I came away from the case feeling so icky. First and foremost, the judge's reaction after she read our verdict was unexpected. She was someone whom we have come to respect and admire over the course of several days. And she was clearly upset over our decision. We walked out of the courtroom feeling like we had done something terribly wrong.
The case was a first degree murder trial involving gang violence. Prior to the trial, the judge had told us that our state does not have a death penalty, and that we were to only decide on the charges and not worry about the sentencing (which is her responsibility). She further explained that The State carries the burden of proof; the prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant has committed the crime he was charged with. They will call witnesses to provide testimony and evidence to support the charge. The defense team, however, has no burden of proof. It does not even have to call anyone to testify.
After the trial and during deliberation, the jurors were to first consider whether or not the defendant was guilty of first degree murder. If we were to find him guilty, then we consider a mitigating factor that could lessen the charge to second degree murder. At the end of the trial--after opening remarks, testimonies, and closing arguments--we the jurors unanimously agreed that The State had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had indeed committed first degree murder. The "not guilty" verdict went out the window, and we began looking at the mitigating factor to see whether or not the charge of second degree murder applied.
Well, here is where all the water was murky and gray. The defendant was fifteen years of age when he committed the crime, nearly five years ago. Many jurors wondered why he was being tried as an adult, as well as why this case took so long to go to trial. We just thought that perhaps that had to do with the grand jury indictment process and we were not a part of that decision. So we read and reread the mitigating factor to understand what it means.
Back during the trial, much to our surprise, the defense counselors put the defendant on the stand. Remember: he doesn't have to prove that he didn't commit the crime. Nevertheless, his story unfolded the way his counselors posed the questions. He gave us a "self-defense" story, and I say that with quotes because it contradicted the testimony of The State's witnesses and seemed like an excuse. Truthfully, none of the jurors believed his "excuse."
Again, the defense does not have a burden of proof. It only has to make the jurors believe the defendant's justification of actions, based on a preponderance of evidence. We were told to apply this preponderance to the mitigating factor in consideration of second degree murder. So the gist of the "mitigating factor" verbiage was: was it probable that the defendant believed that his use of deadly force was justified at the time it occurred, even if it was unreasonable? I have no recollection of it mentioning--the foreman had read it out loud four or five times, and I personally got up to read with my own eyes countless times--the words, "self-defense." As such, this discussion went toward a broad consideration of the defendant's age, his upbringing, his environment, and the gang culture that he was living in. We looked at a bigger picture, if you will.
At the beginning of the discussion, I felt that the jurors were split, about 50-50, on first and second degree murder charges. After the first round of discussion, we took a vote, and 9 out of 12 hands went up in favor of second degree murder. Those that didn't agree were concerned that lessening the charge would be telling the world what he did--which was in fact, kill a man--is okay. But the others quickly argued that it wouldn't be condoning his actions because we did have to first charge him with first degree murder in order to get to this point anyway. He is still guilty of murder. But this group of jurors--some more than others--believed that his age was a big factor in his immature actions that lead to a deadly consequence (and there were details that could support this line of thinking).
It didn't take too much longer for the jurors to unanimously agree on the charge of second degree murder. The deliberation took two hours and forty minutes.
As you might be able to imagine, none of us wanted to go back into the courtroom. We had to go and face the family members of the victim and the defendant. We had to come face-to-face with the defense counselors, who gave an over-the-top, theatrical, and almost sickeningly untruthful closing argument. We had to be in the presence of the prosecuting team, who presented an incredibly strong case with multiple eyewitnesses and looked us in the eyes and asked for justice.
It doesn't take an intellectual to read someone's body language. When the judge read the verdict aloud, she was obviously upset. I took an accidental glance at the defense table and saw a big smile on one counselor, and I wish I hadn't seen that. Aside from being blocked by another juror to see any reactions of The State's attorneys, I did not dare even look that way.
In that moment, I felt that our decision made the defense team feel like it won the case, even though the defendant was still charged with murder. I felt that our decision failed The State because we did not bring justice to The People. My heart sank. Either way, we did wrong.
I can only hope that we did right by one person. And it's up to that one person how to live the rest of his life.
We were then shipped back into the jury room, and many of us were stunned by what just took place. The judge then came into the room to give us our jury duty service certificates. There were a few question and answers exchanged, and this is what I mean by Shades of Gray that the jury does not see. The judge revealed the following to us moments after the verdict had been made:
- That the "mitigating factor" specifically referred to the "self-defense" story; without the defendant going on the stand, there would have been no possibility of a second degree murder charge.
- That there is usually never "this many witnesses" in cases like these.
- That because the defendant received a second degree charge, he will now be sentenced as a juvenile and "will be out very soon."
I'm sure the counselors fought over the verbiage of that "mitigating factor." Perhaps the ambiguity played a big part of the decision. Perhaps not. I followed the judge's order not to talk to anyone about the case during the trial, so immediately after the case closed, I came home and talked for hours to Dear Husband, who tried to help me make sense of it (he's an attorney, though not in criminal law). Interestingly, these are some facts that he found out after the case was closed:
- In our state, the law is that anyone 15 years or older who commits a serious crime (from a list of particulars) is tried as an adult.
- Once a juvenile serves his time, the crime is expunged from his records. (That the defendant has already served a number of years means he will be out soon with no prior records.)
- The judge came to her position from the way of the District Attorney's office.
So, it is easy to walk away from being jurors on this trial wondering if we had done the "right thing." And I am afraid that we will never know that. As one juror said, "we can only pray--and for those of us who don't believe in God, hope--that he will learn from this lesson" and do something to show for it. Another juror walked away believing that this is fair, "because he committed the crime as a juvenile and will now be sentenced as a juvenile."
As for me, even though it was so hard to walk back into the courtroom and face everyone, I know I am going to be able to live with our decision. I know for a fact that the brain of a 15-year-old is not the same as an adult, and had this defendant been a 35-year-old man, the deliberation process would have been much different.
I understand that people all have different views on the severity of charges on such serious crimes, but please understand that it is impossible to fairly deliberate on a case unless one has been through the entire process--listened to all the witnesses and observed their demeanor on the stand, and seen all the testimony and evidence presented. I hope that you can take this just as my sharing of what happened as well as my own struggles with the case and being an integral part of the verdict.
This has certainly not been easy--being plucked out of my home, away from my family, and into a courtroom to help decide the fate of a person's life, who, in turn, took that of another's. This was a completely unexpected event that put me in the face of gang violence, a culture that I cannot pretend to understand and thus am unqualified to judge. But I had to--we jurors all had to.
And we did the best we could.
So, Dear Shades of Gray, we the jurors served our civic duty by trying this serious and difficult case. I think we arrived at our decision because our life experience and common sense made us aware of your presence. The world is rarely as black-and-white as we want it to be, and you are the proof of that false depiction.