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Once a Juror


As instructed by phone the previous day, I arrive at the county courthouse just before 8:00 on Tuesday morning. I join a line of people at the screening entrance, lower my pandemic mask to compare my face to my driver's license image, spill my belt, wallet, keys, glasses, and watch into a deep tray, then pass through the x-ray, retrieve my belongings, and descend to the basement rooms where prospective jurors are gathering. We watch county officials explain the jury system in a video, and then potential members of four separate juries are called by name, summoned according to the rows in the courtroom where they will initially sit. When we line up, we are given numbered stickers to wear—I am Juror 28—and then escorted up to a first-floor courtroom.


The first 24 prospective jurors are seated in the two rows of the jury box and two temporary rows before it. The rest of us sit in the gallery. Our jury will serve in a criminal trial of an accused sexual abuser. The judge introduces both the prosecutor and the defense attorney and questions the primary jury prospects to determine who might be allowed to hear the case or might need to be dismissed. When prospects in the jury box are excused, jurors in the gallery, including Juror 28, are called up to replace them. The prosecutor and the defense attorney consult with the judge and thirteen of us—the thirteenth a potential replacement for someone who becomes unable to serve—are selected to serve on the official jury,


That afternoon, prosecution and defense present opening statements, and each juror receives a notebook to record observations and information. The first prosecution witness, a social psychologist who hasn't interviewed the alleged victim in the case, explains the nature of sexual abuse and its effects on children. The second witness, a young female police officer, testifies to recording the victim's accusations and his confirmation of her accuracy. The third witness, the victim, a man in his twenties, testifies in emotional detail to having been sexually exploited as a child by his stepfather, the defendant. Each testimony is subject to prosecution and defense questioning, then lengthened by prosecutor and defense attorney re-direct and rebuttal.


On Wednesday a sheriff's department detective reports on questioning the defendant and shows a video of their interview, the defendant terse and non-communicative on camera, mostly expressionless in the courtroom. The prosecution rests and the defense first calls the defendant's father-in-law, who is also the victim's grandfather, appearing under subpoena, and then the defendant's wife, who is also the victim's mother. Defense witnesses discredit the victim's testimony, the mother claiming the stepfather never had time alone with her son. The defense rests.


On Thursday we hear closing arguments by prosecutor, defender, and then prosecutor again, and go into our deliberation room to seek a unanimous verdict deciding the stepfather either guilty or not guilty, judging on a basis of reasonable doubt. A juror we all respect is randomly chosen to be Juror 13 and released. Juror 29, who has served on other past juries, becomes our foreperson. We discuss our reactions to the trial at length, most of us willing to be temporarily undecided, although two women on one side of the table are strongly pro-guilty and two women opposite them are adamantly pro-not guilty. We all suspect the stepfather is guilty but aren't confident that the evidence presented is sufficient to reasonably convict. Given the way the law works, we wrestle with the reasonableness of our doubts until ten of us cave in to the not-guilty duo and agree to a not-guilty verdict.


The judge is informed. We walk in, our foreperson hands our decision to someone who hands it to the judge who reads it aloud, makes us all say "Yes" to whether we all agree, thanks us, and dismisses us.


Later, the judge comes to the deliberation room to answer questions and we learn that the stepfather is a previously convicted sex offender in a different case. Some of us gasp or sigh or groan. The last woman to leave the room ahead of me mutters her distress. I say that, given what we've learned of that disturbingly dysfunctional family, it may be that he actually didn't abuse his stepson and that his stepson lied under oath. That might be uncertain consolation for having declared a convicted sex offender not guilty of sexual abuse in this case.


A guilty verdict depends on convincing, corroborating evidence. A verdict of not guilty is not equivalent to a verdict of innocence. You needn't prove innocence to be declared legally not guilty—they aren't the same thing. I wonder if, like me, my fellow jurors will long be haunted by their time dispensing justice.


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