Periodic Confessional: Juror #1
Warning: Though I’ve tried to remove graphic details of the case, what follows is an account of my experience as a juror on a trial that included some degree of domestic violence. It’s my understanding reading these types of things can be very stressful to people who have suffered through these situations.
I confess I may have played a part in ruining a woman’s life. Some time in January, I got a jury summons. Some time last week, I called the number to see if I had to report. I did. When I reported, I was sent up to a courtroom as a prospective juror. As we filed in, we saw a woman sitting with a lawyer, and a man sitting with a lawyer. “Thank God,” I thought. “Civil.”
Wrong. The man with the lawyer was a detective. The judge read us the indictment and revealed this was a trial for felonious assault. The woman sitting with her back to us was accused of stabbing her boyfriend. Oh crap.
After the jury questionnaires had been filled out, the judge called the first name. It was mine. All the jokes about dodging having to serve evaporated immediately. This got very real, very quickly. The judge asked whether I was married or living with a partner. Being a former math major, I instinctively answered this “or” question with a yes. She chuckled. “May I ask which it is?”
“Oh, sorry. I’m married, yes.”
She went on to ask where I worked, how long I had been there. What did my wife do? How long had she been there? Did I have any kids, and if so, how old were they? Had I brought any reading material? I explained awkwardly that I was reading a book called “Sharp Objects”.
With those questions answered, a second juror was called. In all, 18 jurors were interviewed after me. With every one of them, she found a way to take one of their answers and ask a follow-up question about how this might have biased them against either the defense or the prosecution. When I realized this contrast with my own questions, I figured I could call my wife and my boss and let them know I’d be busy for the next few days.
By the time the jury had been selected, six people had been booted. A woman who said after her co-worker at the bank had been robbed and the robber claimed innocence, she found herself thinking all accused were guilty. A retired cop who knew both the detective sitting with the prosecutor as well as some of the cop witnesses. A woman who used to live in South Central LA and no longer trusted cops after seeing how they had treated her sons. A registered sex offender who had pled down from a felony to a misdemeanor. A man whose son was in prison after a robbery he did to try to pay for drugs. Finally, a man who – as far as I could tell – might have been excused because he went to church near the crime scene.
Here was the part of all this that surprised me. Once I was in that box and had met eyes with the defendant, I didn’t want to be excused. I imagined myself as the juror who’d make sure she’d get a fair shake in our patriarchal system of law. Later, I told other jurors how after I was called, I didn’t want to be excused. They were similarly surprised to feel the same way.
Regardless of whether we wanted to be there or not, after four hours of questions and challenges for cause and peremptory challenges, we were twelve jurors and an alternate. We were admonished not to talk about the case – not even to say whether it was civil or criminal – with anybody, and we were sent home for the day.
The next morning, we were welcomed back to the proceedings with the attorneys’ opening arguments. The prosecutor basically told us his job was easy because she had admitted to stabbing her boyfriend and his witnesses would disprove her claim of self defense. Without getting into details, the defense said she had only stabbed her boyfriend to save herself. It was clear even at this point it would be all the physical evidence vs. her testimony.
The rest of the first day of the trial was the presentation of that evidence. Cops saying she had lied and said she came home to find him stabbed. Evidence disproving her original story and timeline. Testimony that there was no evidence supporting even her revised side of the story. Even when the defendant testified – she was the defense’s only witness – she didn’t seem to have her timeline right. Her testimony clashed even with her attorney’s opening argument.
In my mind, though, little of this mattered. Of course she lied to all the cops she spoke to. Her sister had come up with a story and she was going to let that story play out until called on it. The important part was her story of abuse, which I suspected cast enough doubt to allow her a self-defense claim.
I went home after that first day planning having formed a possible story where the detective didn’t believe her story and therefore didn’t inspect her for injuries and didn’t tell the jailor to inspect her either. Of course the other cops didn’t notice injuries on her. They had no real reason to look for them. This, to me, seemed like reasonable doubt. That was what was needed, right? I was both naive and ignorant.
As a rebuttal witness the next morning, the prosecutor called the head nurse at the jail. She brought with her the forms filled out when the defendant was processed. The defendant had been interviewed and asked if she had any injuries or needed any medical attention. “No” was marked for both those questions and every other question. Not only that, she had been in jail for two weeks. Whenever an inmate has a medical need while in jail, they fill out a “sick slip”. The only sick slip the defendant had filled out was to request a pregnancy test.
This was obviously very damaging to the defendant’s case. On the stand, she claimed lingering symptoms of concussion two months removed from the incident, but after having been in jail for two weeks she hadn’t so much as asked for an aspirin. With this being the final witness, we were given our instructions.
This was where my ignorance about how she could be found not guilty was laid before me. We were given a road map to our verdict. The prosecution only had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt she had met the terms of felonious assault. That meant “knowingly cause serious harm to another” and definitions to “knowingly cause” and “serious harm” were supplied. I waited for the rest of the requirements to meet this charge, but there were none. Just that single sentence fragment.
If we agreed this burden was met, we couldn’t find her guilty straight away. We were required to consider her self defense argument. To meet self defense, she had to show by a preponderance of the evidence she 1) hadn’t been the cause of the fight escalating, 2) had tried to remove herself from the situation and 3) had not responded in a way out of proportion with the threat she faced.
If we felt the defense met this burden, she was not guilty. If we didn’t, we’d move on to consider aggravated assault. If the defense didn’t prove by a preponderance of the evidence that what she had done was due to a fit of rage or passion, only then could she be found guilty of felonious assault.
I went to the jury room with a bad feeling, but determined to air every single one of what I believed were rational theories working in the defendant’s favor. I wasn’t really trying to advocate for her so much as introduce degrees of doubt. For example, it was immediately lamented that the victim had not testified. Where WAS he?
One juror said, “I bet he’s trying to protect her.” Or himself, I countered. “How could he be protecting himself by not testifying?” Well, if he was abusing her and assumed she had testified to that, he might clam up to protect himself. Maybe that was why he left the hospital against staff’s recommendations, literally risking his life.
We went through those jury instructions painstakingly. Other jurors tried to skate past arguments and a couple other jurors and I always pulled them back from their certainty. She DID try to remove herself from the situation. She had claimed she’d never seen him this drunk and nothing like this had happened before, so everything that was happening was uncharted territory. She couldn’t be faulted too deeply for not thinking to push past him to get out of the house or running into the kitchen where there was no easy exit.
A woman on the jury who had been abused by her spouse was quick to remind anybody who forgot that things happen quickly in these situations. You don’t have much time to figure out how to remove yourself from them. For five hours, I felt about four or five of us on the jury fought the good fight to make sure we explored an avenue in which she could be found not guilty.
I’m not saying the other jurors were being unfair by any means. I think they were just more willing to follow where the evidence had led us. That’s what I kept running into. The evidence. No visible injuries. No request for medical attention. I couldn’t even convince myself of a scenario in which she would’ve sat in jail for two weeks with blurred vision and headaches and not requested some relief or treatment. I was upset at the defense attorney for providing so little to grab onto and worried the reason was there WAS nothing to grab onto.
Compounding the problem of evidence was the jury instructions. Without evidence of her having been hit, what scenario could have arisen where stabbing her boyfriend in the chest hard enough to puncture a lung wasn’t “excessive”? Having agreed she did not meet the terms for self defense, we took a vote on the possibility of aggravated assault. The vote was 9-3 against, meaning we were 75% of the way there for convicting her of felonious assault.
I was not one of the holdouts because the defense had made NO argument in this vein. He had tried for the full self defense and made no mention of passion or rage. Sure, it had to be there, but we had to believe she had been sufficiently provoked to justify the response. Maybe there was an explanation if he hadn’t been hitting her, but I couldn’t think of it.
So I stated my regret. I confessed – and that’s how I felt that this should be a confession – that as soon as I heard the opening statements I had hoped to find her not guilty. I expected he had done something to make her afraid or feel threatened, but with no shred of evidence besides her testimony that was shaky on every fact, and having sworn to follow the jury instructions, I wasn’t sure how I could do it. I said that it broke my heart, but I had pitched every defense I could think of, but I couldn’t see a way around a verdict of guilty of felonious assault.
We took another vote and it was 12-0. I had gone from the night before being convinced I could sufficiently argue it was self defense to giving the back breaking argument that in the eyes of the State of Ohio, it was not. I literally felt ill and was sweating profusely.
After signing the verdict form and telling the bailiff we had come to a verdict, we filed out. Somebody asked if the defendant had to be in the court and I said, face in my hands, exasperated by five hours of deliberation and what felt like defeat, of course she did. She had the right to face her jurors and we had an obligation to face her.
To my relief, she took the verdict stoically and so did her father. I had told myself to give them a chance to make eye contact when it was read. I don’t know if it mattered, but at the time it felt like the right thing to offer them. That didn’t mean I wasn’t relieved when neither of them took the opportunity.
With the trial over, the judge instructed us to go back into our room so she could speak with us before we were excused. To my great relief, she said she didn’t expect to sentence the defendant to a state penitentiary. She said it was her belief that while we had come to a justifiable verdict, she didn’t feel that was the proper route to lead this defendant to rehabilitation. I don’t know if it should’ve, but those words gave me the relief I had sought. With that and an Old Fashioned once I got home, I slept well that night.
A little more removed from the trial, though, I wonder whether the game was rigged against her. The judge said her self defense case was so difficult because it was the home they shared. He hadn’t broken in. She explained that in Ohio, self defense is much easier as a defense if somebody is coming into your home. In that instance, the burden is on the prosecution to prove it WASN’T self defense. As I said before, this was much different situation, with the burden to prove it WAS self defense falling to the defendant’s attorney.
Something I’ve realized now that I didn’t that day was this was likely the patriarchal system protecting their own. If men are the aggressor in domestic situations, of course men would make it difficult for women to claim self defense. I’ve been confident that by the intent of the laws of Ohio, she was indeed guilty. I remain worried, though, that I should never have accepted the laws of Ohio.
What do you think, reader? Do you have any questions for this Juror #1? Verdicts?
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