I just spent a month serving as Juror No. 3 in a murder trial. I don’t care to give you the details, though some New Yorkers might be able to suss them out when I tell you we reached our verdict this past Monday morning.
What I want to talk about instead was the jury-room dynamic, that tension which Reginald Rose so searingly dramatized in 12 ANGRY MEN. While we never descended into Rose’s near-feral warring factions, there was definitely an added burden which we all felt — for although some of us had done jury duty before, this was the first homicide case for everyone.
Years ago I served on a narcotics grand jury, where our job was mainly to rubber-stamp crack purchases by undercover cops. In a month of half-days, covering about a hundred cases, we only refused to indict three or four times. All we had to answer was, is there enough evidence to justify going to trial? The resolution in court would be somebody else’s problem.
I was also on the jury for another criminal trial, in which the defendant used a knife but nobody died. It was my introduction to an uncomfortable position: the law can be black and white on such matters, and whether or not you agree with a statute or think it’s fair in any individual case is beside the point. After some discussion and even some tears, we found the defendant guilty because we had to. We empathized with him but we couldn’t get around the fact that the law clearly says if you do this, you’re guilty of a crime. And we were only condemning the defendant to a minor jail term: it’s a great relief that the actual sentencing is done by the judge later.
This case in June and July was different. There were four counts in descending order of gravity, the most serious being second degree murder. It was similar to my previous criminal case in that this defendant also freely admitted his actions. The nuances surrounding the death he caused formed the core of the trial. The one legal aspect each of the four charges shared was “justification,” more commonly known as “self-defense.” The prosecution was required to prove that he had not been justified, had not acted to protect himself under the law. Those black-and-white statutes couldn’t help us, no matter how many times they were re-read to us by the judge. This was about the finer points of the law, which couldn’t be applied in this case without a collective judgment call.
The testimony took three weeks. We listened to about thirty witnesses, including the defendant, heard opening statements and summations, then handed in our cell phones and sat in a small conference room. For the next four days we hashed it out, pausing only for deli lunches brought in by the court. Four counts, guilty or not guilty, each verdict had to be unanimous.
Since all four counts included justification, we took our first vote on that issue. If we all agreed that the defendant was justified — or, more precisely, that the prosecution had failed to prove he was not — then case closed, not guilty on all counts. Our first vote as a jury was split. We were going to have to talk it over.
I know that there’s a science to jury selection, some lawyers are better at it than others, and on a big case like Cosby or O.J. they even hire consultants to help them. (Read John Grisham’s THE RUNAWAY JURY for an almost satirical look at this process.) But it’s utterly beyond me. The twelve of us — there were also four alternates and one of them had to join the jury proper after a family death — were racially, ethnically and psychologically diverse: I couldn’t discern any rhyme or reason. But I will say this. Every single one of them was trying their best to do the right thing. I heard cogent arguments from a couple of people who I’d thought hadn’t been paying attention in court. I was mistaken. One juror was a university professor whose default mode was to treat us like students, so frequently came off as patronizing. Another one liked to draw diagrams, and changed my own mind with one. One tended to talk in platitudes that seemed irrelevant, then something important would dart in.
The thing 12 ANGRY MEN got right was that a jury is a hive mind. Nobody remembers everything, but twelve people together can come damn close. Little bits of evidence were bandied back and forth until we had competing views on a series of events and were able to say, it could have happened this way, but this other way is more probable. By definition the process isn’t simple. If this had been an easily decided open-and-shut case it would never have gone all the way to trial: the defendant would have copped a plea or they’d have let him go. It was relentlessly tough to slice, dice, and true up slightly divergent testimony from various witnesses.
In fact, sometimes I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility over a man’s life, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. How could I possibly get to a place where I could mete out justice fairly? We were missing critical first-hand documentation, as juries so often are, and had to fill in blanks ourselves. At one point eleven of us were of one view, against one lone holdout; I thought immediately of Henry Fonda in 12 ANGRY MEN. The pressure was so great on the twelfth juror at that major impasse, the doubt so profound, that we all had to step back and consciously let the person breathe. This wasn’t a Reginald Rose drama. This was real life.
Then, one night as I was trying to drift off to sleep, I came to my senses. I wasn’t lacking any information. I had all the evidence I needed. It wasn’t my job to reconstruct the incident like a detective. All I was being asked to do was to judge whether the prosecution had proven its case in open court. This I could get my head around. After some more ups and downs, more backs and forths, and more soggy deli sandwiches, we made up our collective mind.
Many people think jury duty is a drag, but I’m glad I spent that month in court. Because of the nature of the case, I learned a lot about how certain New York City institutions really work (and if you’re paranoid, you should probably remain blissfully ignorant). For me the experience was grueling, yes, but ultimately positive. It has frankly made me feel a lot better about human beings, and boy, do I need that right about now.