Friday, January 25, 2013

Dear Shades of Gray


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. 

Sincerely,
Me


14 comments:

  1. Doing the "right thing" and following the letters of the law are not always mutually exclusive. As a jury member, you are going to disappoint someone, no matter what you decide (could be the judge, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, the accused, the victim's family, and so on). So, you do the best you can do with the information and instructions that you are presented. Your jury mates were in agreement with you; there was no question of your decision. I hope you really do come to peace with the process (which, I find fascinating) and the results.

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    1. Thank you, Nilsa! I guess I went into this process NOT thinking it was going to be tough or hard. I thought we'd just make the "right" choice and "be done with it." Call me naive, but I didn't think about how complicated such things are, especially a criminal case. Lesson learned, and yes, I think I have come to peace with it--particularly having purged here. :) I appreciate your compassionate comment!

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  2. Gosh, Sandra. I don't know if I could have handled a case like that. I'm kinda scared to be called for jury duty now. Before I could never serve but now that I'm a citizen I don't have any more excuses. I'm glad you made it through.

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    1. Susi, I certainly don't mean to scare you off! This is my very first time as well, and it was just quite a shock. I've never heard any friends' jury duty experiences to be this tough, so I thought sharing it would help some. There definitely are other civil cases that are not as complicated and serious. Thanks for following this saga of a jury duty process!

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  3. You are right, you did the best you could. Hopefully this young man does learn his lesson from all of this. I am sorry you didn't have the greatest experience with the case or the outcame; luckily it wasn't too long of a trial.

    (When I first saw the post title in my reader, I thought this was going to be a review of those books that everyone has read except for me! I'm glad I clicked through anyway--your review of jury duty was definitely better than a book review :)

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    1. Haha, no, not a review of that book which I didn't read and don't ever plan to. It was definitely a conscious omission of the word, "50."

      Yes, it really could have been worse. I thought about how it could have been a longer case, or the weather could have made the drive a nightmare (it was only cold but no snow!). So even though not the greatest experience, it could have been much worse. There's always that. Still, I hope you never get called or picked, at least for these dramatic cases. Thanks, Rachael!

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  4. This is a tough situation and a heavy decision to be put upon 12 people - ordinary citizens. I think your group did well because you tried your best to follow the instructions to the letter - not letting your own emotions rule your decision.

    The sentencing rules are state mandated and shouldn't be put upon the jury. If the judge isn't satisfied that the sentencing for second degree murder isn't enough, she should begin lobbying to have laws enacted for harsher sentences.

    The defense attorney's reaction makes me sick. They gambled on a second-degree murder charge...so in a sense, they did win since it wasn't the harshest sentence.

    I'm glad you made it through your service and are recovering!

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    1. Hi, Janna! I actually did want to write about jurors who were from all walks of life and just ordinary peeps. The post became too long already, so I may have a separate post about that.

      The defense really had nothing to lose, and The State had everything to prove. Like I said, it seemed like it was so clear-cut, but when it came down to it, it wasn't. We did our best. Yes, I felt awful about the "supposed win." As well as The State's "perceived loss."

      I'm glad this is all over, too. But would you believe it? DS is sick yet again. Fever of 104.5 this afternoon... Sigh. Thanks for following this exhausting story, Janna. I have a lot of catching up to do over at yours! :)

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  5. Hey Sandra! I don't know if I followed the entire legal verbiage but it certainly seemed like a very emotionally-taxing time on jury duty. You not only have an internal conflict, but you also have external ones with the rest of the jury. You are right, who knows if the decision was "right" since "right" can be so gray. Glad you found peace with the ultimate decision though and hope you recover from this emotionally and physically draining experience. Just reading it drained me.

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    1. Hi, Lisa! The entire process took much more out of me than I had anticipated. Sorry--I certainly didn't mean to drain you with this post! :) A lot of writing this was therapeutic for me, and I thought sharing this process might be helpful for people who have never gone through this before. Knowing a little bit about what to expected is always good, even though usually no one wants to be selected for jury duty. Thanks for your comments!

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  6. when juveniles commit crimes, it is always shades of gray. on one hand, you most definitely want the defendant punished for the actions, but there is the gray area of it being a juvenile, with a juvenile mind and understanding of life and actions/consequences. something in the defendant's life brought him to this point. there is never just one victim. no one is ever "satisfied" with a ruling - whether you get the outcome you want or not.

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    1. Cindy, now that this is a few weeks behind me, I feel that I've allowed Time to do a little healing and give me even more perspective on this case. When I read your comment, I was in total agreement, but that sentiment was not something I could come up with just after the verdict. Perhaps I was too involved and it was just too in-my-face. But you are so right: there is not just one victim, and satisfaction is far from what people want from a ruling. Thank you for your objective view on this--it's so much more helpful for me than you can imagine. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  7. As a lawyer, it was always an inner struggle about defending somebody who might be guilty and prosecuting somebody who might be innocent. A lawyer hides behind the evidence available to him. Of course, a skillful lawyer can always discredit the other party's evidence no matter how good it is. Well, the stronger it is, the greater the effort to have it thrown it away.

    Do not feel too bad. You and the rest decided on the evidence that was available. If it was short of proof beyond reasonable doubt, you were right not to convict the defendant of the more grievous crime. You would have gone against your conscience and the law otherwise. Do not mind the defendant lawyer - they are gladiators, they will whoop! in triumph regardless of what side they happen to be with. You decided as you did because that was the right thing to do and that is what matters.

    On a different note, just imagine the stress judges go through on a regular basis, and honest lawyers for that matter. :-)

    Thanks for sharing, Sandra.

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    1. You are absolutely right, Imelda! I cannot imagine what judges and lawyers go to on a day-to-day basis. That is why I do not have that sort of profession, since I'm afraid I would not be very good at handling the emotional bits of it.

      Now that some time has passed, I am feeling better about the verdict. It is out of my hands now, and maybe I'll go and find out the sentencing in a few weeks. I do want to have that closure, you know what I mean? Thank you for your comments and your perspective as a lawyer; I appreciate your comforting words!

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