Last week I spent four days down at the courthouse in Washington DC participating in the important civic exercise of jury duty. After each side had presented their case and made their final arguments, our jury retired to the jury room in order to deliberate and find on the defendant’s guilt. The relevant facts of the case can be reviewed in my longest blog post ever, available here.
The presentation part of the case ended Wednesday afternoon at approximately 3PM, leaving us only an hour and a half to deliberate on this day. As everyone filed into the jury room I could see a certain tension in the air, certainly felt quite strongly by me. I took a quick break to use the restroom and returned to find everyone discussing the process of choosing a “jury foreman” – in what seemed a somewhat predictable routine there was an expectation that an older dignified looking gentleman (Ken) act in this role because he looked the part, however he wasn’t interested in doing so. After listening to a few people seeming to be lost as to what to do next, I stepped in and indicated that I would act as foreman in order to get things moving.
I have a somewhat chameleon-like personality at times (INTP) – given a choice, I prefer to be a follower so that I can concentrate on getting things done. However at the slightest hint of ineffective or lack of leadership I have a tendency to attempt to take over, as one thing I cannot stand is ineffectual leadership. Thus within a few moments of listening to people seeming a bit lost as to how to proceed I went from not wanting to have anything to do with being foreman to organizing and directing the deliberation as such.
To begin with, we all went around the table and shared our names, which I carefully wrote down in a diagram in my notes – I am often horrible at remembering names and usually use carefully arranged business cards as a mnemonic to keep track in business meetings. Once introductions were made, I asked each individual, one at a time, to share their general opinion of the defendant’s guilt or innocence as well as a short summary of why this was the case.
As I slowly went around the table I was completely shocked – I almost started by just asking “does anyone actually think we should find this guy guilty?” but instead every single person except me felt the defendant was clearly guilty. The reasons why floored me, with most of the individuals of the jury stating that “the defense didn’t prove he was innocent.” Others said “he looked like he did it” and one young black lady even went so far as to say “I knew as soon as I saw him that he was guilty.” Only a few people seemed to have a genuine reason as to why he was guilty, stating that they believed it was clear from the evidence that he had to be guilty.
When it came to me, it was clear everyone was happy with the gestalt and was ready to finish up and go home right there. I took a moment to gather my thoughts and shared my opinion in somewhat of the following manner:
“I have to admit I am completely shocked and surprised by the fact that all of you believe the defendant is guilty beyond any reasonable doubts. I honestly expected almost everyone to agree with my initial position, which is that the defendant was not proven guilty to me beyond reasonable doubt – in fact, I have many doubts. I do not feel the defendant is necessarily innocent in this case however there are too many contradictory facts, too many confusing points, too many points of contention between the officers, and simply too much that does not make sense to me right now. I’m afraid that I can’t agree with all of you at this time and would like to discuss my doubts in more detail.”
I then broke down my key feelings on the trial as heard in the courtroom:
- On 11/24, if the defendant ran away from the cops after knowing they were coming at him, hid in an apartment room, had a flashlight shined in his face, why in the world would he not hide the crack and lay low?
- On 11/24 I felt that the differences in the details and the testimony of the arresting officers implied to me that they were emotionally charged at hearing themselves called “jumpouts” and made an emotional arrest without clarity.
- On 1/5 I did not trust the idea of an undercover officer making an identification in the dark and rain by driving by a black man with a black coat and face mask on. Even the detail of the red shirt which appeared to have been added later is not significantly identifying to me – in Washington DC of all places it seems that red shirts (caps/nats/redskins), black coats, blue jeans and balaclavas are the outfit of choice for young black men. In the winter I see 10+ people dressed like that just walking outside my place for a minute (but then I live next to the Verizon Center).
- On both 11/24 and 1/5 I did not understand how “key” comments made by the defendant were not entered in the paperwork on the case – even though we were not allowed to review said paperwork, it was discussed and testified to in court.
- On both 11/24 and 1/5 officers had conflicting testimony about seeing through the security window of the door and from my own personal experience I felt they were making the entire thing up, there’s no way they could see that door. I’m actually still tempted to go out to that place and see, but I really believe there is no way.
- I could think of many reasonable things the defendant could have been doing on 11/24, and reasonable reasons he could have been coming down from Apt 6 and thought to be coming from Apt 4, and reasonable reasons he might have ran from and complained about the cops. I think probably everyone in SE would’ve done the same. On 1/5 it could have been a case of bad luck, wrong place/wrong time.
- On 1/5, why did they not find any money on him? On both occasions why did they not find money, drugs, or any sort of link on him?
We briefly discussed these points, at times with other members of the jury contradicting details until others consulted notes and confirmed them. The only point where many people seemed to disagree with me over a specific detail was that I was the only one who felt the officers were offended and acting emotionally on 11/24 in response to being called “jumpouts.”
Before long the time we had for deliberation that afternoon ran out and the assistant came in to ask if we had a verdict – since I was still holding out, the answer was no and everyone was asked to come back the next day at 9:30AM to continue deliberation. On the way out, a few jurors approached me and indicated they also had reservations and appreciated me being willing to stand up against the group and continue discussion, something that meant a lot for me.
That evening and night was really tough for me emotionally. I literally had this kid’s life in my hands, with effectively my vote being the one that would seal his fate and send him to jail. I really felt that he was guilty because of the evidence against him, but at the same time I didn’t feel it was proven beyond reasonable doubt. What is reasonable doubt anyway? I spent hours reading about it and was so frustrated to find that it’s such an intangible thing, but the most important fact that I saw over and over again is that reasonable doubt does not mean “beyond all doubt.”
Once everyone arrived on Thursday, I started by going around the room again and asking each person to confirm their feelings on the verdict and if their reasons had changed. Once again we went around the entire room and everyone except myself still felt he was guilty – however this time at least four people expressed reservations about this verdict, and wanted to discuss more points.
As we continued to discuss these points (mostly those outlined above), I started to gain a slightly different perspective – specifically, I realized I had been putting myself in the defendant’s shoes and thinking about how I would deal with the situation if I were him. As a result, his actions (if guilty) made no sense to me since he made a series of incredibly stupid decisions. I was thinking things like “If I was scared enough to get rid of the money, I’d get rid of the drugs too” or “If I got caught once at this apartment I’d move my operation somewhere else” or “If I was smart enough to wear a face mask to hide my identity I wouldn’t leave my coat open showing a unique shiny silver pendant and bright red shirt.”
Thanks to the commentary of the other jurors I started to take a radical shift in my thinking – what if, instead of being an intelligent individual with years of training in logical thinking and process (especially in crisis), I were actually a somewhat ignorant young crack dealer? Or, simply, what if I were an idiot? Suddenly my perspective started to change, but I wasn’t completely convinced…
I finally hit upon the idea of breaking everything down – until this point, we had been debating guilt as an “all or nothing” proposition, however we were looking at six charges on two separate days. I then had us throw out anything to do with 1/5 and only consider 11/24 to begin with – could we agree on his guilt or innocence on specific charges for 11/24?
We immediately ran into a sticking point – was the unlawful entry in regards to the entire building or to Unit #4? We weren’t sure and the paperwork wasn’t clear, so I had to write a note to the judge and send it in. A few minutes later we received a single sheet of paper with a typewritten response which simply read “The unlawful entry charge is in regards to Unit #4 only.” What a strangely impersonal way to deliver a response… We proceeded with this in mind.
In the middle of discussion around 11/24, one of the jurors made an excellent point – “stop focusing on all the little details and instead step back and look at the entire narrative.” It was then that I realized I wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees – at every single detail I could come up with doubts and reasons as to why the defendant may be innocent, but if you looked at the entire narrative it didn’t make sense. Ignore the stupid mistakes made by the cops, throw out the testimony I flat out didn’t believe, throw out the details I didn’t think made sense, then look again at the narrative… What do I see now?
On 11/24, a bunch of police drive past a building and respond to a suspicious character. They don’t catch or identify him as other than male, but they are able to gain access to the building and wait for him. Finally he comes out and they collar him then search the unit they think he came from and find a large quantity of crack. There’s no reason for him to be there, all the units are vacant except two rented by females, and none of them identify themselves to the officers and say this man is their guest (in spite of there being tens of officers, doors being kicked down, police cars all over, etc. to draw them out and see what’s going on). It appears to me this gentleman is guilty in the overall space of this narrative, and that my doubts are not necessarily reasonable upon inspection.
In fact at one point I made the comment “Am I being unreasonable here? Are these doubts unreasonable?” and Ken looked at me and simply said “Yes.” Enough said. We then moved on to the 1/5 event and applied the same process to it, with the narrative being simplified to:
On 1/5, an undercover officer buys crack from a dealer. He observes the dealer enter Unit 4 through the security window without seeing any specific details but it’s clear the dealer doesn’t go up the stairs to the next landing. When backup comes they search the apartment and eventually find a suspicious person matching the description in back. Again there appears to be no reason for him to be there, he fits the description, and no one comes out to take responsibility for him being there. What are the chances of two trespassers in the same building wearing the same clothes when it’s a six unit building? He’s also been caught with drugs there before and is apparently an idiot who has already proven he’s not smart enough to hide drugs when suspicious. With there being no reason for him to be there the fact that he fits the description and was caught before becomes nearly overwhelming. Guilty.
And with that, we were effectively done with deliberation. Once I caved there was a palpable relief in the room, a clear feeling that even if everyone was not happy about making this choice, the decision was now made and we would proceed. To be absolutely clear, I listed out each charge one by one and asked each person by name their verdict – five minutes of “guilty guilty guilty guilty” later I had written down guilty on all six counts and notified the court that we had come to a verdict.
Around twenty minutes later they asked us to file back into the courtroom, where the judge asked me to stand while everyone else sat. Thereby followed the standard question response that you see on the movies or tv shows… “On the matter of blah vs blah, has the jury come to a unanimous verdict?” “Yes ma’am we have” etc.
She then asked me each charge, and one by one I had to reply with the single word “Guilty.” I am rarely a coward, but I admit at this moment I was – I refused to look at the defendant as I read each charge, but instead stared only at the judge. I didn’t want to see the rage I imagined would be there, directed at me as the instrument of his punishment… I didn’t want to be haunted by whatever I saw.
In response to the general verdicts, the defense asked for a poll – the judge then asked each individual juror whether or not they agreed with all six verdicts as stated by me. All other jurors indicated in the affirmative and that was the end. As the judge thanked me and the jury and told us we could leave, I snuck one quick peak at the defendant because I had to know for sure what was there.
When I first entered the courtroom I made a snap judgment about the defendant – I felt that he was embarrassed. At the time I thought it was because he had been caught and was in court, but later I wondered if maybe it was because he was innocent and didn’t think he should be there.
At the end as I left the courtroom I saw an entirely different expression on the defendant’s face, but it was not at all what I expected to see. It wasn’t rage, anger, bitterness, or hate. His look was focused off into nothing, as if the jury didn’t exist – we weren’t the instrument of his punishment, but rather the clarification of a foregone confusion.
As I left, I imagine my own face and body mirrored his, with the emotion of resignation clearly written all over the both of us. I had found him guilty.