The other morning, I read a blog about one man’s recent experience on jury duty, which called to mind my own service as a juror. I’ve only had to serve once. I’d guess I was about twenty-one, about the same age as the defendant. He was accused of burglary, robbery, multiple charges of assault with a deadly weapon, and first-degree murder. The crimes didn’t occur far from the neighborhood I grew up in, and in fact, were within the boundary of my high school.
The victims were returning home and found a burglary in progress. The surprised burglar had no way out except to confront the victims who were blocking his escape. In his efforts to get free, he stabbed them both, and also stole the woman’s purse, which was part of the evidence against him. The accused did not testify on his behalf. He was identified by multiple witnesses as well as by a victim of the assault and a victim of a separate, previous burglary. His fingerprints were everywhere, including on items that had been stolen and recovered in both burglaries. The defense consisted mostly of mistaken identity; basically, their argument was that it could have been any number of Hispanic hoodlums in the Phoenix area who committed the murder. The defense tried repeatedly to question the memory of the witnesses rather than profess the innocence of the defendant.
Being a juror wasn’t terribly difficult. The trial lasted a couple weeks and I enjoyed commuting downtown to where the architecture was more interesting, rather than out to the suburbs where my uninteresting job placed me in the bland monotony of a lame customer service job in a typical west Phoenix strip mall. It was a task out of the ordinary, and therefore more appealing than regular life. But there were some aspects of serving as a juror that were not easy. The first of these was staying awake. Testimony was generally rather boring, because as my dad says, a lawyer is never going to ask a question unless he already knows the answer to it.
The most emotionally difficult moment was being required to view autopsy photos of the murder victim, a middle-aged man who was stabbed several times. These were glossy 8 x 10s that were passed around the jury box. We held these photos in our hands. More than twenty years later, I can still recall what he looked like and what his body looked like after dying in that manner. It was also not easy to hear the testimony of his girlfriend, who was also stabbed, and in whose apartment the murder took place.
At the beginning of deliberations, I was chosen as an alternate, as was another young man. I was relieved to be chosen as an alternate, in part because it meant the tedious trial was over for me. But I also felt, in a very real way, that the accused was guilty. While the jury began its discussion, the other alternate and I were allowed to meet briefly with the lawyers. He revealed his same stance about the accused when he asked the defense lawyer how he could defend a man who was so obviously guilty. In the rawest sense, it was a question of morality. The lawyer replied that his charge is not necessarily to have his client be found innocent. Rather, his task is to ensure that his client receives a fair trial. At once, I was grateful to this perspective, as this is a very important task, and something that those outside of the courtroom often overlook and under-appreciate.
The defendant was found guilty on all counts, the same day that deliberations began. He was sentenced to death, and as far as I know, remains on death row as his appeals are processed. In the years since the trial, I have reflected on the experience from time to time. With each year that passes, I become more relieved that I was chosen as an alternate. It is not because I disagree with the death penalty. If anything my feelings have become even more ambiguous, although in my younger days I would have said this man deserved it.
As a mother of two girls, I can say definitively that there are crimes which can never be forgiven. There are crimes for which my sometimes vindictive Scorpio personality devises horrifying punishments perhaps worthy of mention in Dante’s Inferno. But in the wake of DNA testing, of new scientific methods, and of exonerations decades after convictions, do we really need more blood on our hands as a society? What of the disproportionate number of people of color on death row? Do we have a problem of crime, of poverty, or of opportunity?
In the case I served on, I believe the court did its best to ensure a fair trial, but what if some important piece of evidence was left out or artificially amplified? The older I get, the less worthy I feel to judge the actions of another. The world has become, for me, less black and white. I struggle with words like guilty and innocent because they do not allow for degrees of either. Without much doubt, I see our justice system as likely one of the fairest on earth for those accused. It is not without faults, though, as it relies upon human beings to administer justice. I still think of this crime – of its victims and of the perpetrator – and I still wonder if any of them has found some measure of peace.