No Justice, No Peace

The attorney asked if I could be a fair juror. I said yes. What a sucker I was.

David Cohoes, the public defender, was handsome in a Hawkeye Pierce-ish way: flashing blue eyes, clever, righteous, a little slouchy. The prosecutor, Judith Tilsen, was short, mousy, and wrinkled. She had a Promethean, endlessly beleaguered air about her, as though her life was a series of impossible tasks done to no applause. While Cohoes seemed to dominate in the courtroom--generating the most laughs, raising the most successful objections, creating the most artful analogies--it would turn out that Tilsen had the winning strategy, capitalizing on the peculiarly Midwestern belief that wit and style exist primarily to conceal deceit.

We saw a parade of witnesses for the prosecution, including Glen Oultman and Myrne Bunker, and a lot of cops, most of whom seemed to be there to prove that a crime had in fact been committed. There was the rookie officer, and the detective who went and picked up all the bullet casings, measured where they fell, and took pictures of the scene. He looked like something out of central casting: big polyester plaid jacket, hair that was dyed, or a toupee, or some big ratty awkward thing. The beat cop was fat and menacing and angry.

Javaris Milton wore prison clothes and had a tear-drop tattoo on his face. He had a deep, gravelly voice and the scraggly beard of a teenager. He seemed smart, and sort of impressed with himself for being in such a position of influence.

Keevin Hinton sat through the trial blithely. Sometimes he worked on a chart he had drawn up (probably about us jurors), sometimes he stared off into space or down at his lap. He seemed most engaged when he was pouring water from the carafe on the defense table. He looked like a kid stuck at the adults' table at Thanksgiving, with no choice but to politely endure the proceedings. Or he seemed cocky and arrogant, confident that he was going to get away with near-murder. Depends on who you ask.

The Jury

The thing that now strikes me as most ironic about my jury experience is how much I wanted to be picked. They called 27 of us as prospective jurors, and three from the initial group were left back in the gallery as replacements in case people were excused from the jury pool "for cause." I got picked in the first 24, at random, and I remember smiling to myself. It felt like when you get picked for kick-ball teams as a kid--yes, everyone's going to get picked, but it makes you feel special anyway. I smiled because it was so silly to feel good about being picked.

The voir dire went on for four days. That's when you first get questioned by the judge to see if you're related to anyone in the case or any police officers, and whether you have had any negative experiences with the police, with criminals, with lawyers, with the jury system, or with government generally that will interfere with your ability to be a fair and impartial juror. When the judge is done, the two attorneys question each juror individually before the group.

In voir dire you find out things you'd never have an opportunity to know otherwise. We learned that one good-looking woman in a brown tweed suit was being divorced by her husband of 30 years for a younger woman, that her family house had been sold and she was living in an aunt's apartment temporarily, that one of her sons had recently declared bankruptcy, that she was unemployed and was due in court for her second DUI in two weeks. Hierarchies began to form: who had better jobs, better houses, better kids, fewer felony convictions. The gabby and gregarious coalesced into cliques; it was like the first days of summer camp. But these cliques weren't so harmless. They would carry over into the deliberations and change a man's life forever.

The defense attorney questioned me very briefly. Would it be a hardship for me to spend a night away from home if the jury became sequestered? No. (If he had asked if it would be a hardship to be wrested from my life, deprived of all civil liberties, and locked up with strangers until such time as some of us cracked, my answer would have been different.) The prosecutor questioned whether I thought it was possible for police to act improperly. I said yes. She asked me if I thought the police always acted improperly. I said no. She asked me if I thought I could be a fair juror. I said yes. What a sucker I was.

These are the people who were there with me, divided--as we would be for the four days we spent arguing--into "guilties" and "not guilties."

The most persuasive voice on the pro-conviction side was Veronica, a fierce firecracker of a divorce attorney from the western suburbs. Veronica was incredibly funny and incredibly persistent, exactly the sort of person you'd want in your corner for an ugly divorce battle. But she was a wily, manipulative foe when it came to deliberation.

Jerry was a giant teddy bear of a retired computer programmer, an ex-radio DJ with an exquisitely soothing, reasonable, and ultrapersuasive voice and manner. Todd was a youngish, name-dropping, Deadhead-style intellectual and one of the most patronizing people I've ever encountered. Esme was a supremely logical and clear-speaking woman who led a Bible group and worked as a loan officer. Gretchen was a young woman who mainly parroted Veronica, and there were two other people who said just about nothing. I believe that without Veronica's charisma and highly trained debating skills those two would have gone either way, though it must be admitted that one of them had a wife so frightened of Minneapolis that she wouldn't drive in to deliver clean clothes for him.

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1 comments
flyingmonkeyair
flyingmonkeyair

There's nothing worse than reading interviews/accounts with jurors having a public crisis of conscience in the media *after* convicting someone.  If you were unsure that they were guilty, there was the *reasonable doubt* you were commissioned to look for that tells you not to come to a guilty verdict. 

Never mind admitting to pressuring another juror who "switched her vote because she felt the jury was about to turn into a lynch mob and attack her criminal past" or admitting that you "would have done anything to get out of there". 

Don't send someone to a dungeon for a decade because you were trapped in jury duty—missing your lattes and life as a food critic writing about restaurants most of us can't afford to eat at—then cry in the media about whether you sent an innocent person to prison. That's obscene.

 
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