Sunday, January 29, 2012

We the Jury....

I don't have many guilty pleasures.
Starbucks is more of an addiction and my small fascination of being on "Man V. Food" at some point in my life borders on a sickness.
But I've always had this infatuation with television court dramas. I was hooked on "The Practice", passed on "Boston Legal" and grew up with "L.A. Law".
But because it was just TV, the guilty pleasure remained just that.
As a journalist, I am intrigued by real life dealings as it relates to those who choose to break the law and the consequences that accompany the actions of the accused. The concept of "innocent until proven guilty" had always been one I held to be true more out of Constitutional correctness than out of real life experience.
That changed last week when, for the first time, my courtroom drama guilty pleasure shifted to a front row seat.
For three days last week, I became known as Juror No. 8. Two months after receiving a summons to appear at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in downtown Detroit, I arrived at 7:45 a.m. Monday morning and waited.
Crammed into a standing room only waiting area with countless other Wayne County residents, I waited for my name to be called, secretly hoping my stay would be short and I could return to my normally-scheduled life.
Eight groups were called. My name was never mentioned. Oh, there were close calls - there were Jeffs and Jeffreys - but never a Jeffrey Paul Arnold. That is, until 9:45 a.m. when my name was grouped with 17 others.
"Damn," I muddled to the same people I had just mentioned to that we had to be getting close to being released.
With a red "Juror" sticker pressed to my shirt, I made my way to the elevator, traveled to the fourth floor and waited.
We were ushered into the courtroom where Judge Annette Berry welcomed us and told us we were potential jurors in a homicide case involving the 19-year-old kid sitting only feet away wearing a blue argyle sweater.
Having covered courts and cops during my first newspaper stop, the courtroom was not foreign to me. But I had always been there as an objective witness - not a willing participant charged with hearing the facts of the case and making up my mind whether the defendant was not guilty or guilty.
One by one, potential jurors made their way to the jury box and answered questions from the judge, determining whether they were suitable to serve.
Fifteen minutes passed. Some potential jurors were excused because of their difficulty understanding English. Others were let go because of religious objections while others had been victims of crimes themselves and weren't sure whether they could get past that when it came to determining innocence or guilt to the young man facing felony murder charges.
Two more jurors were released.
The court clerk reached into the bowl and pulled out another slip of paper.
Jeffrey Paul Arnold.
"Damn," I said to myself.
I took my seat in the jury box.
"Good morning, Mr. Arnold," the judge said. "How are you?"
Fine," I responded. "And yourself?"
"Fine," the judge said. "Thanks for asking."
The questions started. Where do you live? Are you married? How long? What does your wife do? What do you do?
Here was my chance.
"I'm a journalist," I answered.
The judge looked back with one of those, "Oh, that's nice," glances.
Minutes later, the attorneys made no objections to the 14 jurors now seated. Judge Berry released the rest and looked at us.
Our duties, she told us, were to be taken seriously. They were one of the highest honors bestowed on an American citizen - to hear the facts of the case and determine beyond a shadow of a doubt if the fellow American seating half a room away was innocent or guilty of those charges levied against him by the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.
As many cases as I had watched on television, no longer could I walk away without leaving part of myself in that room. Over the next two days, I took careful notes as one witness after another testified on the behalf of the prosecution.
I took note of evidence, timelines, cell phone records. I listened intently, not wanting to miss anything that could, in essence, change the way I thought about the young man fighting for his life after allegedly taking the life of another.
We were instructed early on not to allow the emotions of the case to factor into our thinking. I did all I could to avoid looking at the defendant. But I had to. I had to see how he responded to charges levied against him.
I glanced at him as his brother, an accessory in the crime, testified against him after accepting a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony. I wondered if I could ever do that to my brother. I watched him as his best friend also testified against him - also accepting a lesser charge to testify to what he knew.
In my free moments - over lunch at nearby Greektown restaurants - I wondered what it would be like to deem a young man guilty of felony murder. I also thought what would happen if the prosecutor didn't prove her case and whether 12 of us could deliberate, return to the courtroom and issue a Not Guilty verdict.
By the end of closing arguments, my mind was made up. I have a feeling so were 13 other minds. We heard final instructions and prepared to go into deliberations.
The court clerk would pull two names out of the bowl and send those two jurors home without deliberating with the fellow jurors that we had spent the better part of 2 1/2 days with.
He reached into the bowl and pulled the first slip out.
"Juror No. 8 - Jeffrey Paul Arnold."
"Thank you for your service, Mr. Arnold," Judge Berry said.
Part of me was relieved. But another part of me was disappointed, wanting to finish the job we were charged to see to its completion.
As I walked out of the courtroom with Juror No. 13, part of me wanted to take one final glance at the defendant.
Did he care I was gone? Did he even look at me? Did he know that most of the people left in the jury box had likely already made up their minds?
I walked out and continued down St. Antoine Street, turned left by a large parking garage and shook the hand of Juror No. 13.
Part of me wanted to know how he would have voted. Part of me already knew.
Part of me wants to call Judge Berry's courtroom and find out what my fellow jurors decided. Part of me wants to know how long it took them to reach a decision.
I wonder if court dramas can be a guilty pleasure for me anymore. I will still be fascinated by The First 48, which follows the first 48 hours of a homicide investigation. I will still watch as jurors determine the fate of the defendant seated half a room away from them.
Part of me will consider what they are thinking before they issue their verdict.
Part of me thinks I already know.

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