It is no secret that I have been an absolute mess this week. My emotions would rival that of a roller coaster. I can generally hide how I feel in certain situations by using my poker face or my humor, but due to the lack of sleep and my over active brain, I had forgotten, this past week, which face was my poker face. I have always been lucky. Luck isn't always a good thing though. This past Monday I hit the lucky lottery and got the rare and terrifying experience of being picked as one of 38 out of a room of over 100 to sit on a panel of prospective jurors for a criminal case. Luck made me #37 out of #38. Out of those 38, 14 jurors (12 jurors and 2 alternates) were picked. After answering a panel of personal questions presented to us by the defendant as well as the plaintiff, luck made me juror #14. Panic hit me when my name was called and I was asked to take my seat to the left of the judge in the jury box. I broke out into a terrible sweat and my mind instantly started to race. "How in the world did this happen?", "I can't be on this jury, what if I make a mistake?", "What if I find him guilty and he is innocent?", "What if I find him innocent and he is guilty?". I looked around the room to see if anyone else could hear the screams that were coming from my head but everyone else seemed calm and collected.
No time was wasted and we jumped right into the case that we would be undertaking. A horrible case. The defendant, representing himself in court, was being tried by the State of Idaho on sexual assault charges against a minor, in this case a 5 year old boy. At this point I wish that I were blind and that I would only have been able to hear the case instead of see it because first impressions can be tricky and I have to admit, from the second I walked into the courtroom and saw the defendant....not even knowing at the time that he was the defendant...I knew that there was something different about him and immediately I suspected he was not okay. It is true what they say that good people, even people who are striving hard to be good, carry with them a light, a light that shines through their faces and brings warmth and comfort to those around them. This man had no light, I couldn't even detect a spark. For the next 10 minutes I tried to figure out what possible things had happened to him over the course of his life to extinguish his flame. He looked like a man who had suffered but at the same time, he spoke as if he had no remorse. I watched his body language. I watched how he interacted and who he made eye contact with. I tried to hold his stare to see how comfortable he was knowing I was watching him. As we got deeper into the assault accusations, the subject matter became harder and harder to listen to. We had several breaks that day and finally, by the end of it, we heard testimony from the first witness, the child's mother. It was absolutely clear that she wished she could be anywhere else at that moment. It was also clear that as she was giving her account of how the alleged abuse happened, she blamed herself for not being there a minute or two earlier to stop it from happening all together.
This wasn't the first time she had been to court to testify, in fact, we found out the abuse happened in 2007 and there had already been two appeals and this was the third time that she was asked to testify. 8 years had taken its toll on her emotions. She broke down several times and you couldn't help but feel sorry for her especially when she was being drilled with questions by the very man that allegedly caused her and her son so much grief and misery.
5:00 rolled around and court was let out to reconvene the next morning. I left the court room sick to my stomach thinking maybe I should tell someone that I didn't think that I could continue to sit there and listen to such horrible things! I knew that I wasn't cut out to make that kind of decisions. Needless to say, I didn't sleep at all that night.
The next morning started again where we had left off. Questioning, dismissing the jury for private matters, entering the courtroom again and listening and taking careful notes of the facts. There were many delays and hours spent in the juror quarters, I must say that I was very thankful for this time! Being put in a room full of people from all walks of life that all have their own stories and experiences is one of my favorite things! I love to meet new people and these people were all wonderful in their own ways! Thank heavens for their stories and their humor, it made a horrible situation a lot easier.
After one of our breaks, to my horror, the next witness to be called to the stand was the victim, now 12 years old. It was almost unbearable to watch as the defendant/alleged abuser, drilled him with questions for hours, being descriptive and applying pressure to this poor child. I am not a mother but I have nieces and nephews and I would never ever have them go through what this poor boy was being put through. I was so thankful that we were able to break again that night and go home to work over in our minds who, under oath, was telling the truth. I went home again to another sleepless night.
The next day in court we were beginning to wonder how many more days we were going to have on this case. The witnesses that we had seen didn't seem credible by any means and any one of them could have a motive to lie against the defendant, but what would they be gaining? It was a criminal case and there is no money involved so really the only thing on the line would be reputation and your good name. Wednesday was the hardest day of all, after both sides resting their cases and giving their final closing arguments, the jury was sent back to work with about 20% of the information given to us in court in order to make a decision that could potentially put a man away for life. I panicked. The sweat that had filled my brows and the sicking feeling I had managed to kept at bay, both snuck back over me. What if I made the wrong decision? I can't be a judge for another mans life! I prayed. I prayed quick and I prayed sincere. I prayed hard.
My fellow jurors and I were extremely fair in looking at every fact that we had and drawing out a time line and keeping an open mind. Even if opinions had been formed already, we all still hashed over every single detail. A little over two hours later we came up with a guilty verdict. The next part of the trial was to hand down our decision to the judge. It was around 8:00 p.m. or so that night and we were all feeling a bit relieved to know that we had done our duty to the best of our ability and that we had been fair and impartial. Our decision was handed to the judge and then read out loud by the court clerk. The defendant, to my surprise did not break down or show emotion, in fact he did something that pricked the nerves on the back of my spine. He turned and smiled and winked at a woman who had been in court every day since the trial had started, I later found out it was his sister. It took me totally off guard. The defendant then requested that we stand and verbally announce, audibly, our verdict of guilty. It was horrifying. It was bad enough to write it down, now we had to look at him and tell him that we each, individually found him guilty. I was the last to do it and I was so relieved when we were walking out of the court room and the ordeal was over....or so we all thought.
Time went by and we thought the last step of the trial was to listen to his sentencing, we were all totally wrong. We were ushered back into the court room to find out that due to the guilty verdict we had just made, we were going to proceed with the second phase of the trial. The SECOND phase?! What?? Because of there being a chance of prejudice, several things were hidden from us in this case, the main point being that the defendant had already been charged and found guilty on two other accounts of sexual assault and sexual crimes on two other boys that were 5 years old in Illinois. My heart sunk. I was sick again and was wondering if this was ever going to end. Our job now as a jury, was to find him guilty on those two charges and he would be put away for life. What little remorse that I had for him had totally dissipated. We were heading into the 9:00 p.m. hour and we had spent 12 hours of our day there, we were assured that this phase should only take an hour or less but as we headed into it, the defense objected to practically everything that was being said. Frustration was on everyone's faces in the room. What in the world is he objecting to? This went on and on and I must say, I was totally lost. After an hour we were again released just after 10 to go home and be back the next morning. I shuffled out again, upset and confused.
Thursday was the day, the day it would all end. I took my seat in my usual spot in the jurors chambers, bags under my eyes from another sleepless night and tried to make light of the situation with my fellow jurors, it was clear that we were all worn out and emotionally weighed down. It is amazing how close I had become with all of them in a short amount of time. It was a comfort for me to know that by now we were all on the same page and that we respected each other and that we weren't having to go through this alone. We were all hoping for a half a day in court at the most and then we would watch him being hauled off and we would go back to our lives knowing that the justice system had won and a repeat offender was behind bars and that young boys could start or continue to heal without having to face the nightmares of appearing in other trials.
None of this was to be. The State called their witness, the detective that worked on the case and both sides rested and then closed their cases. we were released to the juror room, this time NOT to hand down a verdict. When we were ushered back into the court room we had explained to us that the second phase was being thrown out due to an oversight. The defense found a loop hole. We were free to go. The defendant was hauled back off to jail to serve out his 25 year sentence of which he has already served 7. We were all shocked. What happened? How could this be? What is wrong with this picture? I was beginning to think that our court system had failed us, but it wasn't that. The trial was fair and it was handled in a fair manner and yes, their was a loop hole, and yes, he found it, but no one, in finding it did anything illegal, all proceeded as it should have. Don't think that that made things easier on any of us jurors though! I was steaming mad! I went home to think about what had happened since Monday.
On Monday, I was dreading being the one who had to pass a judgement on another human being. By Thursday I was livid that he was able to get off so easy and wanted to see him wiped off the planet all together. What had changed? Obviously the knowledge that I had against the defendant played a big part in how I now felt but as I have spent the last few days thinking even deeper on it, my verdict of guilty means nothing at all in the big scheme of things. God is the ultimate judge. He doesn't look on the outside of us, he looks on the inside, on the heart. He knows our minds and he knows our intentions. I am comfortable in knowing that He is a just God which means that in the end, justice will be served. It is truly unfortunate that there are those out there that have become victims to other peoples trials or that their trials were thrust upon them unwillingly. They may struggle their whole lives to understand why things happened the way they did. They may choose to break the chain of abuse or they may choose to become another link. Who are we to judge. I wish that I could feel the way I felt the first day I walked into the trial, questioning myself and wondering who I was to be a judge, every time the desire to judge someone presents itself in front of me. This week has taught me a lot about myself and has prompted me to try harder, to do better, to judge less. It is a daily struggle, but given this experience and the time to come to this realization, maybe luck isn't so bad after all.