This is my experience as I remember it. For the privacy of those involved, I do not want to share names, dates or locations. In this accounting, the victim will be called “the Victim” and the defendant, “the Defendant”. All other legal players will be called by their titles. As for my fellow jurors, I did not learn their names. We were simply jurors.
On Friday, July 20, 2007, at 8:00A.M., I drove down the longest stretch of continuous street in the city of Chicago, Western Avenue, to arrive at the courthouse. I went through security and was instructed to take the elevator to the third floor where the jury assembly room was located. I waited there until around 11:00 A.M. I heard my number, packed up my things, and was led to another elevator to head up to the courtroom on the 7th floor. Approximately 20 of us walked into the courtroom and filed into raised seats in the enclosed area serving as the Juror’s box. The courtroom was not the stately, mahogany-paneled courtroom that you might be used to seeing on TV. In fact, I was a little disappointed by the lack of grandeur. There was a lot of faux-wood paneling, and a worn, institutional-brown carpet. There were windows behind the jury box that let in sunlight.
The Judge explained that he would be asking us questions, and to just answer them honestly. He also mentioned that he appreciated our attendance and our service. He began by asking if we recognized the individual sitting at the defense table in the middle of the courtroom. I don’t remember if anyone on the panel did. As he finished questioning an individual, either the prosecution or defense would walk up to the judge with a note.
When he began asking me questions, I, of course, said I didn’t recognize the names or the person sitting at the defense table. He asked me what I did for a living; I said I was in-between jobs and writing a little blog about design. He asked what my skills were, and I said that as far as office administration goes, I’m a wizard. I mentioned that I can find and fix any paper jam in any copier. I remember people laughed at that. He asked what I was doing with my time; I mentioned my blog again and said that I was currently rereading all the Harry Potter books for the release of the final one, tomorrow. He then asked why I liked Harry Potter, which I thought was interesting. I paused, and then said something along the lines that I like the idea of a world of magic, I like stories of great friendships, and I like reading about people who are fighting for peace and love. After I was finished, the prosecutors passed a note to the judge.
He continued to ask the panel questions, then he and all of the attorneys left the courtroom. When they came back in, they called out some of the panelists’ names and thanked them for their service. Those people left. My number wasn’t called, so I stayed. The judge then informed us that we have been selected as jurors. In my blog, I wrote this about being selected, “Actually, I don’t mind; it’s my first time & I feel like I’m contributing to society. When they announced that I was on the Jury, I felt a strange rush of All-American pride.” I think this is still accurate. I was nervous but proud. I definitely felt that this was serious and that I would do my absolute best to serve my duty.
The judge told us that the thirteen of us (one alternate) were to weigh all of the evidence and testimonies presented to us during the trial and to decide the outcome of the case based on the law and the evidence. He mentioned that during the trial, any details about the case were not to be discussed outside the courtroom. We were not to discuss this case amongst the other jurors until our deliberation began. We were not to discuss the case until it was over. If we needed to go to the bathroom, we could get the attention of the bailiff, and he would inform the judge. However, the judge usually would ask during the trial if we needed a break. He said that phones and laptops were allowed in the jury room, but not the courtroom. He also said that we were allowed to bring materials to take notes during the trial, but they were to be left in the jury room when we left the courthouse. The judge was a no-nonsense sort and wanted to get started right away.
Opening arguments for the trial began immediately with the prosecution, and we learned about the case that we would be hearing. Here are the basic facts. On a date five years prior, the defendant, a 21-year-old African-American male, checked in to the security desk in the lobby of the low-income high-rise where the victim, a twenty-year-old African-American female, resided. He went to her apartment located on the 16th floor. He knocked on the door, loudly, and was eventually let into the apartment. Neighbors heard shouting. During the course of an argument, the defendant forced the victim to disrobe then climb out of the open window to her 16th-floor apartment. The victim hung out the window, holding onto the window sill for a moment. The defendant then pushed her so the victim fell 15 stories to land on the portico covering the entrance of the building. The victim was killed instantly upon impact. The prosecutor informed us that with forensic evidence and witness testimony, they would prove that the defendant was guilty and should be convicted of first-degree murder. The Defense Attorney told a different story. He would use the evidence and testimony to prove that while the defendant was in the apartment, the death of the victim was a suicide. The Defense Attorney told us that after hearing their case, we would come to the conclusion that because it was a suicide, we would have no choice but to decide the defendant was not guilty of first-degree murder.
I could give you an account of each of the twenty-or-so witnesses that were called to the stand, but I think it’s best if I just give the highlights I remember. One thing that sticks in my memory is all the photos. The prosecutors warned us that the photos were graphic and disturbing. They weren’t lying. The crime scene photos were very terrible. The victim died a horrible death. There was blood pooled out from behind her head, which was misshapen from the impact, and there was blood that had come from her mouth. The victim was nude, and I learned that in death there is no privacy. There were photos of her body from every angle. The autopsy photos focused on the impact to her head, contusions to her chest, bruising on her arm and the damage that occurred to her fingernails. The victim’s acrylic nails had been torn off when she fell, and most of them ended up in the windowsill of her 16th-floor apartment. Those pieces of her nails were presented as evidence in a labeled plastic bag, another item in the case that I will never forget.
At one point, the defense attorney tried to show that the victim committed suicide by using a balsa wood frame he’d constructed and a naked Barbie doll. This did not go over well with the judge. He called for a recess and we could hear shouting from his chambers while we were in the jury room. He then came into our room and apologized for that unprofessional and ridiculous stunt from the defense. We heard from the victim’s family members and learned that the defendant and victim shared a daughter. Thankfully, the daughter was with her grandmother the day of the incident. We learned that the defendant and victim shared a passionate, tumultuous relationship and that there had been allegations from the victim of abuse by the defendant throughout their time together.
During the course of the trial, I would try and focus only on the individual speaking. I kept my mind focused on what was being said and any details that stuck out to me. Occasionally, I would peek at the defendant. He was tall and skinny, wore glasses and kept his head down, looking at the table in front of him. I never made eye contact with him. The only people I made direct eye contact with were the prosecutors or defense attorney, and usually only when they were addressing the jury directly. I rarely spoke in the jury room on recesses or lunch breaks. I am usually a bubbly, socially-fearless, individual. My Dad likes to joke that “we never meet a stranger”. But, I could sense that this experience needed a different approach. For one thing, several of the jurors were downright unfriendly. Other jurors were personable, one, in particular, was way too chatty, but there was a sense among all of us that these were people we wouldn’t associate with again. We were strangers with a shared experience and that was all we were.
Once we heard all the evidence and listened to the closing arguments, the judge gave us our final instructions. We could take as much time as we needed, but that we should do our best to come to a unanimous decision. Then, we were escorted into the jury room for our deliberation.
At that point, our job had officially begun. The alternate juror packed up his stuff and gave his name and email address to the chatterbox juror to let him know the outcome of the case. The rest of us got down to work. I remember saying, “Where should we begin?” Others began sifting through the evidence, and the baggie of fingernails slid directly in front of me. That is another memory I can’t shake. They were a bright hot pink, and on one of them, I could clearly see blood and what looked like skin. I pushed them away and one of the jurors asked about the judge’s last statement to us, “that by entering the victim’s apartment, the defendant caused the death of the victim.” We discussed this for a while and eventually decided to have the bailiff let the judge know that we needed clarification on one point. The judge came in, and we asked him that if we believe there’s enough evidence to prove that by the action of the defendant entering into the victim’s apartment, that he caused the circumstances of her death and is therefore guilty. The judge said yes. If we believe there is enough evidence that can prove that the defendant entered the apartment which caused the circumstances leading to the victim’s death, then he is guilty. He asked if we had any more questions, which we didn’t. After that, we all were in agreement that there was more than enough evidence that the defendant entered her apartment. We had heard testimony from multiple neighbors about a fight, and testimony from the victim’s friends and family that the victim wasn’t suicidal. To us, the defendant became guilty the moment he entered her apartment. We had reached a verdict. To me it seemed that we were in the jury room for hours, in actuality, it was little over an hour. We filed out into the courtroom one last time.
When the foreman stood up and announced the verdict, I kept my eyes forward. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the defendant put his face into his hands, and the defense attorney put his arm around him. The judge asked the defense attorney if he would like to poll the jury, and he said yes. Then, we individually had to stand up and the judge asked us our decision. I stood up and kept my eyes forward as I said “Guilty”. Once we were polled, the judge said that the defendant would be remanded to police custody to await the sentencing hearing. He then thanked the jury for our service and dismissed the court.
While in the jury room, the judge came into thank us again. One of the jurors asked how we did, and the judge said that we did the right thing. He apologized again for some of the unprofessional tactics the defense attorney used. I asked about the daughter, what would happen to her? He sighed and said, “That’s the hard thing about cases like this. It sounds like she has family that stepped in to care for her, and we’ll hope for the best.” He then asked if any of us lived on the north side and would like a ride home. Interestingly enough, he didn’t live to far from me, and a couple of the other jurors took him up on the offer. He asked them to wait for him, and the rest of us would be escorted by a bailiff down where security officers were there to walk us to our cars.
Those of us not getting a ride from the judge gathered up our stuff and left the jury room, where an assistant was packing up the evidence into a box. We entered the elevator, and then the defendant’s family got in as well. The bailiff stood between us jurors and the family. As when I announced the verdict, I kept my eyes forward as they gently sobbed next to us. Once they exited the elevator, I felt like I could breathe again. A few security officers met us and escorted us to the parking garage across the street. They began escorting individual jurors to their vehicles. When the officer assigned to me followed me to my car, I asked if there was any danger to us. He said that it’s just a precaution, but if I felt like I needed it, he could arrange for a vehicle to follow me home. At this point, I was beyond terrified, but assured him I’d be fine. I was shaking the whole way back down Western Avenue. When I crossed Irving Park road, I pulled over and sobbed for a few minutes, until I stopped shaking. I was certain of my decision, I was really crying for the whole experience; the victim, the photos, the daughter, the defendant’s family, and the release that it was over.
I never question our verdict. We did the right thing in this case. I do wonder if the defendant could afford a better attorney, and wasn’t stuck with a court-appointed defense attorney that probably has an overwhelming case load and just does the best he can if there would have been more to deliberate. In the end, I’m not sure the outcome would be different. I also find myself wondering if the victim had a better life; if she wasn’t forced to live in a government subsidized low-income high-rise, and hadn’t had a child with an abusive boyfriend; if she still would have died. Those are bigger questions, though.
I think about my time as a juror often. Usually, while watching police procedurals or watching trial footage on real crime documentaries. Sometimes, those photos will haunt my dreams and wake me up, disturbed and afraid. Whenever I reread Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, I think about the trial and how every moment in the jury room I was deep in that world of magic, before we were called back into the courtroom in the world of muggles. I think about the victim’s daughter a lot. I hope she had a better life than her mother, and I hope that she was able to forgive her father. I’m proud of my contribution to the justice for the victim. I also hope I never have to do it again.