Back in August I received a jury summons from Schenectady County. That in itself was not an unusual occurrence; since I have turned 18 I have received a total of six jury summons but I have never once had to show up. My reasons have always been valid, everything from being a student in class (and out of state) to being out of the country for an entire year. This time however, I had no good reason why I should not show up and so it was with great resignation that I phoned in one Friday evening to find out what time I was supposed to show up in court.
I showed up the next Tuesday morning after having blocked off my work calendar for that day. The entire jury pool met in a holding area and we were asked if anyone had any issues why they could not serve on the jury, this knocked out about 20 of the 114 present potential jurors. After a couple of hours, we were given nearly a two-hour lunch. After coming back from lunch the commissioner of jurors told us that the judge said we would be sitting on a murder trial and he expected the case would likely take about 2.5 weeks from the start of jury selection all the way through deliberations, we were then asked if anyone had any health reasons or prior scheduled vacation plans that would interfere with jury service for the next 2.5 weeks. Upon hearing this I was more than a little dismayed, I could not even imagine the impact to my workload if I took off 2.5 weeks. That said, I took comfort in the fact that I am a pretty guy with pretty black and white views and that it would be highly unlikely that any defense attorney would feel comfortable with me sitting on the jury for a murder trial. This particular announcement cleared out approximately another 40 prospective jurors leaving the pool about half the size it had started at.
By 3pm we had been called in to the courtroom and official jury selection began. No sooner than they selected 20 names from a lottery style hopper I found myself sitting on the front row preparing to answer questions from a sheet of paper I had been given while walking to the jury box. “Just breath Derrik, there’s no way they will select you, you’re a gun owner for crying out loud.” As my turn came up I answered all ten of the very generic questions as honestly as I could. I found it interesting that out of the 40 jurors I heard questioned I was the only one who thought it worth mentioning that I was actively involved with my church when asked what organizations we were affiliated with. As jury selection wore on I was very surprised that the attorneys never really addressed specific questions to individual jurors, outside of the initial, generic questions we all answered off of a sheet of paper at the start, the questions the attorneys asked were all directed towards the group and mostly ended up being rhetorical in nature.
We took a break at 5pm and were called back in around 5:30. During the break I began to get agitated as my certainty that I would be selected grew. It’s not that I did not want to serve on the jury, I was actually very interested to see how the process worked, I simply could not afford to spend that much time away from my projects. So it was that with a knot in my stomach I heard my name called as juror number six, the final juror selection for that day.
The selected jurors and the remaining jury pool all returned the following day and by the end of the day we had a full jury of twelve members and three alternates identified. We were a relatively diverse jury but what astounded me is that there were two lawyers on the jury! It is still incredible to me that Schenectady County allows attorneys to serve on juries. I spent the rest of that afternoon notifying my boss and my customers and making arrangements for various coworkers to take over my projects for the next two weeks.
Other than the fact that I was serving on a murder trial, the next week and a half was uneventful. I would go in to the office around 0630 and work until 0930 when I had to be in court. The trial would usually last until 1700 when I would go home and spend a few hours with the kids before putting them to bed; I would then break out my laptop and work for a couple more hours before falling asleep around 2200; it was a lot of very long days.
Eight days after first showing up for jury selection the prosecution rested and the defense took the stage. We broke for lunch and I went to Subway with a couple other jurors. Shortly after we returned from lunch the defense attorney made a surprising move, he called his own client to testify. It was surprising because both the judge and the prosecutor seemed to indicate they did not expect the defendant to testify. The entire jury shifted in their seats anxious to hear the defendant’s account of what had happened. If was about halfway through his testimony that I began to feel very uncomfortable. I began alternating from intense sweats to cold chills and my stomach began to quietly let me know it was in distress. Much to my relief the judge called a recess and I fled to the bathroom where my body promptly purged itself of everything I had eaten for lunch.
Truthfully, if it had been earlier in the trial, I would have probably just given up and called it quits at this point, I would have notified the bailiff of my distress and asked to be excused; but there was no way that I was going to sit through eight days of testimony and not see this through to the end. It was almost 1500, if I could just last a couple hours or so I could get home and sleep off my misery. Gritting my teeth, I exited the bathroom and followed my fellow jurors back into the courtroom. I sat down and the defendant resumed his testimony. Not twenty minutes later my stomach began to make it known that I had better find a bathroom and fast, pushing down my discomfort I turned my attention back to the testimony. Finally, I could take it no longer, I waved my hand and caught the judge’s eye, “Judge, I need a minute please.” As the judge dismissed the jury I once again fled to the bathroom where my body voided itself of whatever else had not been purged in my prior visit. I gathered my nerve and left the restroom where I was greeted by the bailiff and told that the judge wanted to see me. It was then that I entered the courtroom and in front of the judge, both attorneys, the court reporter, and the entire gallery, proceeded to be questioned about the nature of my distress. The judge was kind enough and did not ask me to go in too much detail but made it very clear that he had noticed my discomfort. It was then that my moment of truth came, he asked me if I felt able to continue… here was my out. But as I mentioned before, there was no way that I was going to have sat through eight days of trial and not see this thing through to the end. Shakily, I told him, “judge, I feel okay now but I don’t know what the next 20 minutes will hold. Perhaps if you would be willing to let me sit in Alternate #3’s seat (closest one to the door) and grant me permission to vacate the court in an emergency we can at least finish out the day.” After conferring with both attorneys he granted my request. I cannot imagine that all too many people have had their intestinal distress become a matter of public record in a murder trial but I can place a check mark next to that box. Having children raises the bar for what things are embarrassing to you as a person, having something like this happen to you takes that bar to a whole new level. I’m not certain that being stripped naked and dropped off in the middle of a city would even affect me.
Without extending this story too much longer, we went in to jury deliberations the following Monday. Our initial vote was 10-2, guilty. Myself and one of the lawyers on the jury still held that the prosecution had not crossed the threshold of beyond a reasonable doubt. My stance on the whole thing kind of surprised me as I did not really hold any doubt that the guy did it; it was just that the prosecution did not really prove it. I felt as if they had ample opportunity to do so, they just never went the entire distance. After two days of deliberations we finally achieved a unanimous verdict, not guilty; not of all charges mind you, there were lessor charges we all agreed he was guilty of, but of the primary count we all voted not guilty.
The whole process was very interesting. The human dynamic was incredible and I finally understand the wisdom behind our founding father’s creation of a justice system that said if twelve completely different people from different walks of life can come to an agreement on a verdict then the right decision has probably been made. Don’t get me wrong, I’m frustrated that the prosecution did not present a stronger case, but I am so much more sympathetic now to the plight of a jury whose trial is run in the courtroom of media opinion. I think back to the major trials where juries have delivered surprising verdicts (OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman) and I get it now, things are rarely as cut and dried as we would like them to be.