Jury Duty

Not feeling very talkative today, because I spent yesterday on jury duty for the first time. In short, it was a former cold case, a 1977 assumed robbery-gone-bad that resulted in the death of a pizza place’s 25-year-old night manager. (I learned, reading that article, that the victim was assumed to have fought back and was a black belt; that wasn’t part of any testimony at the trial.) A couple of years ago, they found a DNA match for blood left at the scene, and so they brought a 61-year-old man to trial for first-degree murder based on events almost 30 years ago.

I was the jury foreperson, mainly because I spoke up when some of the other women on the jury wanted to put the only guy in charge because he was the only guy. (He didn’t seem to want it.) When I told friends and family I was put in charge, their unanimous response was “of course you were.”

It was a little strange, hearing about these things that happened when I was a kid and living in another state entirely. Most of the witnesses were either retired police officers establishing the chain of custody for the evidence or scientific experts talking about why there were no usable fingerprints or how blood spatters happen or the DNA.

Given the DNA evidence (explained very well by the expert), it didn’t take very long to agree on the verdict. The sentencing took longer. The minimum punishment was 20 years in jail, and the jury tried to balance mercy (any sentence would effectively result in life), confusion over what sentences really meant (no one knew how parole worked, exactly, or when it would be likely), and justice (what was the appropriate punishment for murder?). “Imprisonment for life” is a very scary phrase to be responsible for, and any verdict had to be unanimous.


11 Responses to “Jury Duty”

  1. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Johanna, my condolences on the jury duty. I served on a jury about five years ago. I thought I was cynical about the American justice system prior to that, but my experience on the jury really showed me how flawed the system can be. During the trial I served on, the jury was effectively not allowed to ask questions. (We had to write questions down, pass them to the foreman of the jury who would decide if they should be passed on to the judge, who would determine if the question was going to allowed.) During deliberation we had questions about some of the testimony, the judge said that no questions could be asked during the deliberation phase. I felt like a impotent spectator during all of it. We found the man guilty because he basically confessed to the crime on the witness stand. (It was a breaking and entering charge and he admitted to be in the building to steal merchandise after business hours.) He was suppose to be on parole and we couldn’t figure out how the sentencing worked and weren’t allow to ask questions when making a decision on jail time. Next time the jury questionnaire comes my way and they ask what reasons I can give not to serve, I will honestly say I think the trial system is a joke (at least in Chesterfield County).

  2. adistantsoil.com » Blog Archive » Cold Case Files Says:

    [...] Johanna Draper Carlson is serving jury duty in a 30 year old murder. That’s the sobering story for the day. [...]

  3. Michael Grabois Says:

    The guy’s lawyer said “Twenty years to a 60-year-old man is an awful, awful long time.” Well gee, how about the 30 years that the victim has been dead? How unfair a deal did he get?

    You wrote that “The jury tried to balance mercy (any sentence would effectively result in life)…” I appreciate what a hard decision this must have been, but how much did the jury consider that he got away with murder for 30 years, and if he had been convicted and served 20 years at the original time, he would have been out 10 years ago and would still have another 20 to enjoy his freedom?

  4. Johanna Says:

    Michael, that did come up. No one seemed to seriously consider the minimum.

    Ed, we had similar problems, with our question about parole during sentencing coming back “you shouldn’t think about that.” I’m glad that the case was relatively simple (there were no separate defense witnesses, for example) and that death wasn’t a consideration.

  5. Don MacPherson Says:

    Justice system factoid: In Canada, revealing jury deliberations or even jurors’ identities is a crime, even when it’s a jurors him/herself doing the talking/writing. Those TV interviews with jurors in prominent U.S. cases — never happens up here in the Great White North.

    Ultimately, I think that’s a good thing, as it eliminates the possibility of people seeking to turn their jury experiences in high-profile cases into some kind of personal windfall.

  6. Johanna Says:

    Don, I thought briefly about whether I should talk about it, but then I realized that they’d been so careful to tell us everything we needed to know that if we shouldn’t talk, they would have instructed us about that. But you scared me for a minute!

  7. James Schee Says:

    It sounds like a very… startling experience. To think of having to decide someone’s fate like this is just a bit mind bending.

    I’ve never had jury duty, my parents and I shared the same mailing address (a PO Box) even when I got on my own. My dad’s name was James Schee as well, though we had different middle names.

    So when the summons would come in, it would just say James Schee and we’d call to see which they meant and they’d just go “never mind” instead of dealing with it.

    Since his passing, I’ve only got one summons and when I called the night before I didn’t have to go because there were no pending court cases.

  8. Michael Grabois Says:

    I’m glad you didn’t consider a minimum sentence just because of his age. It seems to me to be a worse crime to have killed someone and gotten away with it for 30 years, than if he had been captured at the time.

    In Texas, at least, you are not allowed to consider parole or anything else like that when determining the length of the sentence. For example, in one of my cases about 10 years ago, due to prison overcrowding a prisoner was serving only about one month per year of his sentence. So when we sentenced a guy to 25 years, he was out in less than two (counting time served while waiting for trial).

    The only part of jury deliberations and discussion that’s illegal to reveal is the Grand Jury, which is why the prosecutors are going harder after the San Francisco reporters who revealed Grand Jury testimony leaked to them about Barry Bonds and illegal steroids, than they are after the guys who provided the illegal steroids in the first place.

  9. Paul O'Brien Says:

    In the UK, we leave sentencing to the judge. The problem with letting juries do it is that they simply don’t have a sense of the going rate (because only exceptional cases get reported by the mainstream media), which means that they’ll produce wildly erratic decisions. Judges are better placed to ensure that sentencing is broadly consistent, by virtue of their greater experience. The value of experience, to my mind, is much greater in these issues than in straightforward yes/no questions such as “is he guilty?” (Of course, there can be awkward situations when the jury convicts and the judge can’t work out how the hell they came to that conclusion.)

  10. Johanna Says:

    I agree, Paul. We would have liked to have had more information for comparison than we were allowed.

  11. Retailer Michael George Found Guilty of Murder » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] which strikes me as a remarkably short time to make a decision about murder charges. When I was on jury duty, our deliberations were short because we had no question that the defendant was guilty. [...]

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