Most Americans have seen episodes of Law & Order or old re-runs of Perry Mason television shows and think they know what it’s like to be a juror. However, unlike most fictionalized accounts, nothing seems so cut and dried in a real courtroom. In my experience, at least, there was no crying admission from the guilty party being questioned on the stand. (In fact, the defendant didn’t testify at all in his defense.) No one rushed in toward the end of the trial with information that proved what actually happened. There was not even any plea deal in the works. No, in the second degree burglary case in Albany a few weeks ago, there were many unanswered questions in the mind of the jurors when we were asked to deliberate. Here you have twelve people of differing ages, from all walks of life, who don’t know each other being ushered into a deliberation room after the closing arguments. The foreperson, who will eventually read the verdict, is not actually in charge; no one is. There is necessarily, I suppose, that awkward moment at first and the question: “Where do we begin?”
Before the trial started, we jurors had been instructed by the judge to try to assess the accuracy and credibility of the witnesses. We weren’t allowed to take notes at any time, mainly so that we could concentrate on the words and demeanor of the witnesses to see if they appeared to be believable. During deliberations, we were permitted, even encouraged, to have testimony from any or all witnesses re-read in the courtroom by the court reporter. We were reminded, especially by the defense attorney, that police officers are human and may make mistakes. Their testimony was not to be considered more trustworthy than other witnesses simply by the fact that they came from people wearing uniforms. Two of the main witnesses in the case—one for the prosecution and the other for the defense—are felons serving time for the burglary in question. These two individuals, each led into court in their prison clothing and in shackles, had conflicting versions of who was present and what occurred on the night of the crime. I believe the jury was unanimous in believing that neither was telling the whole truth. One juror had the idea of using a white board to list the statements by each of these witnesses so that we could try to determine which one was more credible.
Another charge from the judge was to examine the evidence presented during the trial. Two types of evidence exist in criminal trials: direct and circumstantial. From what I understand, direct evidence is based solely on fact; examples include reliable witness testimony, audio or surveillance tapes. With circumstantial evidence, on the other hand the jury is left to infer the defendant’s guilt or lack thereof. Unfortunately, in this particular case, much of the evidence was circumstantial. For instance, police had collected a pair of latex gloves found at and near the scene of the crime which contained the defendant's DNA, but also that of others. Not being experts in genetic material, our group decided to have the long and somewhat complicated report by the DNA expert re-read to us in court. Some jurors were convinced of the defendant’s participation in the crime by this evidence while others were not. Verdict: a hung jury resulting in a mistrial. I suppose this conclusion was unsatisfactory for all involved, but I believe that we all sincerely tried to come to a decision and that this was the best we could do given the facts of the case.
Serving on a jury was a very valuable experience for me. I think everyone should want and have the opportunity to be a juror at least once in their lives. Don’t get me wrong; nothing about it is easy. Deliberating someone’s fate, challenging and at the same time respecting fellow jurors’ opinions, hearing the judge’s nearly continual admonitions not to discuss the case outside of the deliberation room, seemingly interminable waiting…all are most taxing. But you do feel a certain satisfaction in having performed your civic duty. You also feel respected by the judge and attorneys for your role in the justice system. And just maybe, you might not ever second-guess the final verdict of a jury again.