Last year, after stalling for several months I finally fulfilled my jury summons and ended up being selected for jury duty in a week long case that changed the way I look at the jury process forever.
As word spread that the jury in the Walter Scott case was hung up on a verdict, many began expressing their confusion and disbelief. What could be so difficult about this decision? There’s video evidence showing a police officer shooting Scott in the back as he ran away from the officer. It is indisputable. That is murder.
To the average Facebook poster it might seem that simple, but I now know that it is in fact never that simple. If you’ll allow me the space, I can explain but first we need to go back to the case I was assigned to last year.
While it wasn’t a murder trial, the jury process is the same as it is with every court case in America. In our case, a young homeless man – I’ll call him Billy for today – had broken into a woman’s first floor apartment by hopping the back fence and breaking in through the sliding glass door. Noticing that he was quite intoxicated the woman rushed her children to their room and tried to guide him out the front door, but as he reached the door he grabbed her purse and then ran out the front door with it. The purse contained her wallet and $900 in cash. The purse was later discovered discarded in an alley on the same block as the apartment complex, cash missing, contents strewn about. Police picked up Billy in a park down the street frequented by the homeless and the addicted.
Please understand I don’t have the word space to get into the nuances of the evidence, but that’s it in a nutshell.
There were three counts against Billy.
Petty theft -stealing with intent to permanently deprive the owner of said property and applies to stolen property valued under $950.
Robbery -theft with intent to permanently deprive a person of their property using force.
Trespassing – unlawfully entering another’s property.
As we heard all the evidence I thought it sounded quite simple. Trespassing for sure, robbery or petty theft or both…handily. He wasn’t denying the incident and had been in and out of jail for years. Even his family testified to say his addictions had made him a criminal and someone they feared.
It wasn’t that simple at all. Before deliberations began the judge gave us very specific instructions. Use your common sense, but pay attention to the letter of the law. And treat this case with the utmost of sobriety and respect – after all, a man’s future is in the balance.
When we first hit the jury room we started with a vote. To my utter shock we were not all in agreement on any charge. One man (I call him Grumpy Juror) began with “I don’t think we can convict this man if we don’t know what was in his mind at the time.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin. He broke into a woman’s house, terrified her children and stole her rent money. What do you mean we don’t know what was in his mind??? I snapped at him, and then we picked a jury foreman who was not me – probably the first good decision we made.
We went around the room to explain ourselves and it quickly became clear this wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Trespassing? Well, Billy’s sister lived in a similar apartment complex. He claimed in his drunken haze he thought he was at her place and when she didn’t answer the front door he ran to the back, hopped the fence and busted in. He was so drunk he thought the woman in the apartment was a stranger who didn’t belong there. His “intent” wasn’t to break in to a house, it was to visit his sister. You can say “But he busted the door down” but we as the jury had to obey the letter of the law. Was it in his mind that he was breaking into someone’s home? Or did he just think he was locked out and chose to use force to solve that problem?
Yeah. Not so easy.
We set it aside and moved on to petty theft and robbery. We did all agree that while he did push the woman as she tried to guide him to the door, even according to the victim’s own testimony he didn’t seem like he was being deliberately violent. We knocked off the robbery charge.
Next was petty theft and that seemed the easiest of all. No matter what he thought he was doing or where he thought he was originally, the end result was that he saw a purse, stole it and ran. He later dumped the contents and kept the money.
But…sure he took the purse, but did he really intend to deprive her of it permanently (as the law states)? Billy’s lawyer argued he didn’t get far with it and left it close by. Also, how can we know for sure that there was really $900 in the purse? We only had the victim’s word for it. Grumpy was very hung up on this idea of intent, and he couldn’t get past it. Billy’s lawyer had hammered “intent” and state of mind for four days. Things start to get murky when legalese is involved.
Grumpy Juror said we couldn’t really know for sure if he had intended to keep the purse away from the victim forever. Maybe he was going to go pick it up and give it back later but got arrested first.
I know it sounds crazy, but when you’ve been trapped in a tiny box on hard wooden chairs for a week listening to lawyers and judges sternly remind you about the letter of the law and importance of fulfilling the charges things do start to bleed into a gray area. Grumpy said he didn’t think he could convict on any of the charges as we just couldn’t know for sure what was going through this man’s muddled mind at the time.
We were actually looking at letting this man – who had broken into a woman’s house, scared her children and stolen her money – walk away without any penalty. I was shocked. Grumpy had some allies on our jury. We were not getting out in one day. We debated for hours about the meaning of “intent” and whether or not intoxication was a valid argument for trespassing.
We couldn’t reach a verdict on the first day.
After reviewing all the evidence once again on the second day, Grumpy was budging but barely. Others had questions but seemed to be moving towards convicting on at least one charge. Frustrated, I finally stood up and reminded everyone that while the judge implored us to serve the letter of the law, he also asked us to use our common sense guided by human experience. We couldn’t forget about that part of the instruction.
That seemed to release a lot of people from the confusion. In the end, we were able to agree on a petty theft charge, and Grumpy begrudgingly consented to the trespassing charge only because even Billy’s sister said had he actually been at her house she wouldn’t have let him in anyway. Billy knew that.
A case I thought would have been decided in an hour took 12 instead.
If you’ve read all this and are still wondering how the Walter Scott jury could be having so much trouble deciding a no-brainer, let me lay it out more succinctly. If you were not in the courtroom you have no idea what type of evidence they are hearing, what terminology and language Slager’s lawyers are throwing around, and how the mundane task of a trial can lead to fatigue for the jurors. After a while, it gets hard to pay attention to tests and experts and theories and science. We had four experts on the stand in four days. I can’t imagine how many “experts” the Scott jury has been forced to sit through.
It adds up. All the questioning, all the legalese, all the instructions to pay attention to the fine print. Not to mention there is always more evidence than what the public sees, and with that evidence comes more questions, not fewer. We see what happened to Scott when he ran, but we don’t know what happened before that, what police procedures are and how lawyers can gum up common sense with legalities that are complicated and often confusing, especially for an average citizen.
The jury process is not nearly as simple as one may think. It shouldn’t be. When a person’s life is at stake, there should never be such a thing as an easy verdict. As annoying as Grumpy Juror was, he forced us to review the evidence and review it again. And then again. In the end, we weren’t all happy but felt justice had been satisfied.
The Scott jury is dealing with a lot of factors that the average person can’t imagine. In this case (like mine) “intent” is central for that is the requirement to fulfill a murder charge in the state of South Carolina. The prosecutors must prove what was in Slager’s mind when he fired his weapon. How do you prove what a person is thinking?
As I said, it’s just not that simple.They have to take a lot into consideration. Not just the law, but what the lawyers and judge have been telling them for weeks now. It can be overwhelming and daunting.
Do not be angry with these people because you think the verdict should be obvious. I assure you, it is not. I can also assure you that Americans may joke about escaping jury service, but those who are eventually chosen do take their duty extremely seriously. I spoke to many other jurors (of all races and social statuses) on other cases during my week there and they all said the same thing – they didn’t want to be picked but now that they were on a jury they wanted to deliver the absolute best and fairest form of justice they could.
UPDATE: As this article was published the judge in the Scott case declared a mistrial. I have no doubt the Scott jury was quite serious about their duty, and must have felt tremendous pressure to get this right. Try not to judge them too harshly. Until you’ve been in a jury room, you can’t truly understand just how complicated justice truly is and how difficult rendering that justice can become.