A Jury of One

After sharing this with some friends, my dear friend A suggested I share this story on my blog. I don’t see the point, but I take her advice most of the time so I will do so again now and share with whoever may stumble across this entry.

On Tuesday, January 8, 2012, I arrived at the 24th Judicial Court for the Parish of Jefferson just before 8:30 AM, the appointed time that everyone has to arrive for jury duty.  People call it jury duty at this point, but it’s merely that you are called to be a potential juror. Here in Jefferson Parish, we have it very good. The policy for us is one day/one trial; meaning you either go to the jury assembly room for one day (and never get picked) or you are picked to serve only one trial. And the trials are typically of the duration that mine was. The next parish over, Orleans Parish, where the city of New Orleans is actually situated, I believe it is an entire month you have to commit to and not every day, at that.

So I went to the courthouse, laptop in tow, prepared to spend a few boring hours in the jury assembly room and be released. I signed in, had my parking ticket stamped and set up at one of the computer areas near the front door. I managed to get maybe 15 minutes of stuff done before they began calling the first group to select jurors from in the courtroom. I was, unfortunately, part of that group. There were 39 of us in all. We were lined up out in the hallway, like children in school. When we rode the elevator, they allowed no one else on. That was the beginning of the “isolation”.

We were sat in the actual court room where things would take place. They didn’t tell anyone at first what the case was about, but it soon became clear when they pulled the first 13 individuals from our group and started questioning them. The judge did the bulk of the questioning, asking if we were employed, married, had kids, etc. Then the assistant district attorney began. “Have you or anyone close to you been sexually abused?” I knew right then that this was not a trial I wanted to be a part of, by any means. After the voir dire ended, though, I knew there was a better than 50% chance I’d have to be on this jury. Only 4 people from the first panel were kept. More people were kept from the second panel, but still not enough to make a full jury plus the one alternate.

They finished by lunch time, around 12:30. After we were sworn in and given our lecture not to talk to anyone, we were all taken together to a nearby restaurant conveniently called Courthouse Cafe. We did not eat in the restaurant itself, but we were taken down a side alley to a tiny building behind the restaurant. Just big enough for four long tables for the jurors and one small square one for the police officers who escorted us. They had a menu, but I guess for the sake of saving time, the waiter (owner?) told us what other jurors “typically order”. The options were: fried shrimp and fries; fried catfish and fries or a combination of the two. Whichever you ordered also came with a small salad. I found it amusing that everyone was all chatty until the salads appeared, then we all fell silent. The meal was surprisingly good, considering the last time I’d eaten catfish, the restaurant I’d gone to used just cornmeal for the batter. Bleh.

After lunch we were escorted back to the courtroom and listened to opening arguments and the State’s first two witnesses. That took us to about 6 PM. The case, as it turns out, was against a 58 year old man accused of sexually molesting one little girl back in the early 90s (the goddaughter of his second wife) and repeating the act sometime starting in 2006 with at least one of his granddaughters and moving up to last year. In one case, the molesting happened every Sunday after the family got home from church for three years.

We trooped back to the jury room and gathered our possessions and were escorted to the parking garage. As we were leaving, one of the police officers asked that we all park on the 5th floor the following morning so that escorting us out in the evening would be easier.

Day 1 was done.

Wednesday dawned and it was a day I was not looking forward to. I knew that Wednesday would be the day that three little girls would sit before us, complete strangers, and recount everything that had been done to them by a man they trusted.  After a courthouse provided breakfast, we started the day watching video interviews with these three little girls with the Child Advocacy Center. As it turns out, though, my fears about the little girls’ feelings about testifying were unfounded.  None of them seemed to have any issue with being there. I tried not to look at them directly for too long as they spoke, feeling that having an adult stranger staring at them would make them uncomfortable. The youngest went first. She could barely see over the top of the witness box. I thought they might be able to adjust the chair for her, but they didn’t make any effort to do so. The female district attorney did the questioning and she was very good at bringing the questioning along very simply for the little girl, but when the little girl was asked to state exactly what her grandfather had done, the wall went up. “I forgot,” was the immediate answer. So the ADA backed off and went in a different direction, but every time she tried in a different way to get the little girl to state what had happened, the answer was always, “I forgot.” I can’t say I blamed the little girl for forgetting what was done to her.  However, we all knew that she was quite aware of what had happened to her after watching the videos prior to her testimony. The other two quickly followed and were less “forgetful” about what had happened to each of them. I found out later, though, that the eldest had tears rolling down her cheeks as she left the stand and apparently let out a wail of despair when she was back out in the hallway. I don’t know how I missed that.

Day 2 ended around 6 PM again.

Thursday was even more subdued than Wednesday and breakfast was quieter than usual. We learned then that one of our fellow jurors had suffered a panic attack; whether it was due to the nature of the trial or just something she frequently suffered from, none of us knew, but we had only one alternate. The State had settled at the end of the day on Wednesday, so when we filed into the courtroom, it was to hear the defense. There were five character witnesses that took perhaps 5 minutes each. They were all members of the church he had been attending and knew him only in his capacity as a deacon of the church. The one woman who testified and knew him outside of church wasn’t even a friend of his. She was a friend of his mother’s and didn’t have consistent interaction with him. Then the defendant got up on the stand. Not once did he EVER actually deny what he was being accused of. He simply explained away everything with a story – more often than not getting each of the girls mixed up in his story telling. Later in the deliberations we all thought it unusual that he never stated “I did not do this!” It was all a misunderstanding.

I guess it was perhaps 4 o’clock by the time we went into the jury room to start deliberating. That was when I learned the worst part about being a juror in the state of Louisiana: you don’t get to take anything into the jury room to deliberate with. Each of the charges had different options of what we could find him guilty of and we had to remember all of it on our own. Seriously? Yes, seriously. It’s ****ed up. If we had wanted to review the evidence, we would have had to go back out to the courtroom with both sides present to view it again. As it was, we had to go back to hear again the explanations of the parts of the charges, but we got smart and each took a portion to remember specifically then after the judge re-read everything, we returned to the jury room to write down our portion. We deliberated til sometime after 7, only because there was a sticking point for one of the charges and the level of guilt we’d find for the defendant. In the end, 12/12 was the vote for 6 of the charges and 10/12 for the one. We needed 10 of 12 for the vote to be considered unanimous so that was all right.

So we were done. Foreman chosen. Form filled out (by yours truly), we went back out to the courtroom. While everything was read by one of the judge’s assistants, I was sitting in the jury area staring straight ahead, but then glanced toward the exit where I saw 8-10 police officers fanned out in the main aisle of the seating area. Oh boy! That was not something I was prepared for in any way. I didn’t want drama to be part of the equation now. Thankfully there was nothing and we later learned the officers were there as a precaution and that they were always there no matter what.

And that is my time as a juror for Jefferson Parish.