A week ago I had the "opportunity" to serve on a criminal jury trial. The charge was first degree murder.
The defendant was 18 years old at the time of the murder in 2009. The victim was 17.
If you're interested, the following is how the trial went. I'm including some links to news stories about the murder. I did not know about these until after the trial was over because I made no attempt to learn anything other than what was presented in court. Wasn't that good of me?
I was called for jury duty at the criminal court building at 26th and California. When you say "26th and California" to a Chicagoan, it sends a chill down their spine. I’ve been called for jury duty about five times before, though always at the civil court downtown. There's definitely a different group of people hanging around the streets and halls at 26th and California.
When I entered the jury waiting room I was given a slip of paper that said Group 4, then sat down with about 300 other prospective jurors. We sat for two hours, waiting and watching a video by the chief judge telling us how cool and patriotic we were to be on jury duty. I had just texted my significant other that nothing was happening, and that I hoped I hadn’t jinxed anything, when Groups 4 and 32 were called.
We were escorted from the waiting room to courtroom 604. There the judge, William Lacy, advised us that we were there for a murder trial, and called 28 of us (of about 50) by name to sit in the jury box and in chairs lined up in front of the jury box. Each of the attorneys and the defendant identified themselves to the jury, then the judge reviewed the forms we had filled out in preparation for jury duty, and basically asked us each question on the form, but in greater detail. Had you ever "been indicted" apparently meant “have you ever had a traffic ticket?”
After the judge’s questions, the State’s Attorney and defense attorney asked us questions. The States Attorney asked two questions. I can’t remember the first, but the second was: “What did you bring with you to read today?” Some people brought puzzle books, some brought newspapers, some brought novels. I had a history of World War I.
I believe it was the defense attorney who asked something about whether, if the defendant did not testify, we would take this as evidence of guilt. Nobody said they would, but two individuals said they would take the police’s word over anyone else’s, regardless of what other evidence showed. Two Hispanic women could not understand the questions that were being asked, because they barely spoke English.
The judge, States Attorney, and defense attorney then retired to the judge’s chambers, and we were all told to wait in the hall. After a while, a sheriff’s deputy came out and called my name. She took me back to the judge’s chambers, where the judge said I had a very common name, and asked if I had ever lived in New York. I said I had lived there in 1971 for a few months. He asked if I had ever been in trouble with the law there, and I said no. I was then sent back out to the hall.
After a while we were called back into the courtroom, and 12 names were read out, including mine. We took places in the jury box, were told we were the lucky ones, then sent back to the jury deliberation room. Out in the courtroom, they were selecting another two jurors as alternates, and they ultimately joined us.
We were 6 women, 8 men, two black, ten white, and zero Hispanics.
The trial began. We heard opening statements from the prosecution and the defense. The defendant chased down the victim on the street, the prosecution said, firing repeatedly. Then, when the victim fell, the defendant stood over him and fired a bullet into his head. A news story about the case is here. This was a typical gang-type shooting that we read about in the Chicago papers every day.
The prosecution presented several witnesses who had seen the murder, which occurred in front of a corner store. The man who was closest claimed he had seen nothing because he pressed himself up against a delivery truck. A second man had apparently identified the shooter to police from a photo the evening of the shooting, but during the trial claimed he had indicated only that the person in the picture “looked familiar.”
The trial continued.
The prosecution presented two young women (in their 20’s) who told a story about how, at a time shortly after the shooting, they observed the defendant and a second person going first to the second person’s house, a few houses down the street, then the defendant came over and asked for a ride out of the area, saying someone had tried to shoot him. One woman testified that she had seen the defendant bent over beside the house, like he was throwing up, and that the crotch of his pants was wet. They gave him a ride out of the area, during which he borrowed one woman's phone and made several calls. They could not hear what was said. One woman testified that the defendant called her several days later and warned her not to use his name if the police talked to her.
You can find a video that includes the defendant here.
After the women’s testimony, the prosecution presented witnesses from the crime lab and police department. There were no fingerprints on any of the shell casings. All shell casings were fired by the same gun, and all bullets were fired by the same gun, but since the gun was not recovered, there was no way to tell whether the bullets and shell casings were fired by the same gun. (Duh?)
An officer presented a videotape of the crime scene that was taken by a security camera across the street. He described the video as “poor,” and it was, but it was possible to make out the two men walking a dog, then splitting up. Two other men came across the street from the gas station, and someone started running after them. The pursued men split up, and the man in pursuit chased one of them behind two delivery trucks in front of the grocery store.
Another officer testified that the defendant was apprehended in Champaign.
The prosecution then rested.
The defense attorney stood up and said he had no witnesses to call, but wanted to introduce a stipulation that one of the prosecution’s witnesses had given an incorrect date of birth to the police. After which the defense rested.
The judge announced that we would hear closing arguments on Friday morning.
We were told to be at court at 11 a.m. for closing arguments, but weren’t called in to the courtroom until about 11:30. The female State’s Attorney, who appeared to be the junior member of the team, used the large television screen to show a Powerpoint presentation that listed the charges (there were three) and evidence for each charge.
The defense attorney’s argument was that the witnesses were unreliable. Two had previous convictions for drug offenses. One said he could not identify the shooter. Another gave an incorrect date of birth to the police when he was being questioned. None of the witnesses went to the police; the police came to them. What was the defendant doing in Champaign if the murder was committed in Chicago?
The senior State’s Attorney then gave his rebuttal, which was that the witnesses saw what they saw. They all told the same story, but from different positions. There was no inconsistency between their testimonies, or with video or other evidence, and for that to be the case they had to either be in a conspiracy together, or telling the truth.
At about 12:30 the judge sent us to the jury room to deliberate.
Deliberations were painstaking. We had to draw out a map of the area so we could all visualize where all the witnesses were. We watched the video several times, looking for something that contradicted any of the testimony. We found only corroboration of the witnesses’ testimony. We went over the two young women’s phone records of that day, and the records corroborated – or at least did not contradict – their story. Several calls were made from one woman’s phone to the defendant’s mother. We discussed whether the fact that none of the witnesses went directly to the police lessened the probity of their testimony.
There were two jury members who were reluctant to vote guilty, and the jury foreman was careful to let them fully explore the uncertainties they had.
At about 5:15, the deputy sheriff brought in our dinner (white bread sandwiches) in styrofoam containers. “I think the judge is sending us a message,” I said to the deputy. She smiled and said, “That’s right!”
Before we sat down to dinner, the foreman polled the jury again, and everyone was ready to vote guilty. We took care of signing the forms, then pressed the button that advised the deputy sheriff that we had reached a verdict. She came quickly and said she would advise the judge, but that it would be a while before all the parties involved could be called back together. Then we sat down to our "dinners" – sandwiches, chips, and soda.
At about 6:00 we were called into the courtroom and the decision for each count was read aloud. The defense attorney asked to have the jury polled, and each member of the jury confirmed that he/she had found the defendant guilty.
The judge then dismissed us, and we returned to the jury room. From there, the (armed) deputy sheriff escorted us outside and across 26th Street to the jury’s parking garage.
I'm glad to have done it. I was impressed with the whole process. The trial was fair. I still marvel at the courage of the people who stepped forward to testify. That's a dangerous neighborhood, and their names are known.
Everybody took this whole thing very seriously, as they should. In it's deliberations, every member of the jury was careful not to get ahead of the facts, and looked for reasons to question the evidence presented. In the end, we agreed there was no "reasonable" reading of the evidence except that the defendant was the person who killed the 17-year-old. I was at peace with myself.
Wouldn't want to do it again, though.