Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jury Duty

I drove by the jail the other day, and as often happens, was flooded with memories...

I think Pennsylvania's judicial system likes me. I'm only 25, but I've been called for jury duty three times, not counting several deferrals when I was in college. The first time I was called I sat in the basement of the Greensburg Courthouse for half a day and was sent home. The second time my number wasn't picked the night before so I didn't have to go. The third time was this spring.

I live in Allegheny County now, so I went downtown and was filed into a large room in the courthouse that was packed with people. We had to fill out a form answering questions about our views on things like drugs and the police and if those views would impact our ability to be on a jury. We waited for a bit and then they started breaking us in to groups to be interviewed for cases. I was picked for the second group, which was very large. So, I waited there for a while until it was time to be interviewed.

As I was sitting there, two people next to me were talking about how this is a waste of their time, they hope they aren't picked, that they should have lied on their form and said that they have many biases. I was quite surprised when they then started talking about conservative politics and both claimed to be strong patriots. My political views are often labeled as liberal, and as many people now see "liberal" and "patriotic" as complete opposites, I don't usually claim to be patriotic. But in that moment, I realized that I am strongly patriotic. I wasn't happy to spend my day sitting in a room crowded with strangers. I wasn't happy to lose pay for both of my part-time jobs. But, I believe in the right to trial by jury, and that means I must be willing to serve on a jury. Sometimes I get strong feelings about what is going to happen, and in that moment, I knew I was going to be picked for a jury. And I felt proud to be able to serve my country.

Eventually I was called up to be interviewed. The prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the defendant sat at the table. The two attorneys asked me questions, mainly about my job and my husband's line of work. The defense attorney seemed to like that I had a background in social work and that my husband and I both worked at a church. It only took a few minutes, and I returned to my seat to wait some more. Eventually they called the names of those chosen for the jury. I was juror number nine.

The defendant was charged with murder and robbery. He and another man were in an altercation about drug money that lead to the defendant stabbing the victim, removing heroin from his person, and running away. (From here on out, I'll refer to the defendant as D and the victim as V). D claimed that he knew that V was violent, and D was scared. D claimed that V started a fight, and D grabbed a kitchen knife to scare V away. V continued the fight, which lead to D accidentally stabbing V. D knew that V was injured, but was afraid of being arrested, so he decided to run away. D knew that V would be searched when the police or ambulance came, so took the heroin so that V wouldn't get in trouble for it. The prosecution's claim was that there was an altercation where D stabbed V, stole the drugs, and ran away. There was no question that D stabbed V, and there was no question about premeditation.

The trail took two days. It wasn't as glamorous as you see on TV. The courtroom was old and drab and the desks were covered with papers. The jury was ushered in and out after everyone else was in place. We walked by D each time, and I tried not to make eye contact. I tried not to look at him, his family, or V's family because I didn't want my emotions to sway me. As it was a short trail, we were not allowed to take notes, so I tried to be as alert as possible and pay close attention. We heard witnesses, police officers, and medical experts. We were shown the bloody knife and bloody clothes along with photos of the scene. D did not take the stand, though an audio recording that he made was played. He had been caught the same day as the stabbing, and said that he used the heroin because he was so upset. The recording was made soon after he was caught. He was crying and said that he admitted to stabbing V, but said that he didn't mean to do it. This tape was actually played by the prosecution, which surprised me because hearing how emotional D was lead me to believe him. Though I tried not to make eye contact with D during the trail, I did glance at him, and he showed no emotion. He just sat there each day except for the short time when his girlfriend was on the stand when he did seem to be quite agitated.

We deliberated for two days. Before the trial started, the jury was asked to pick a foreperson. We sat in the small jury room and silently stared at each other for a moment before I spoke up. I was the third youngest person in the room and often doubt my leadership abilities because of my age. I said that if no one else wanted to do it, I would do it. I didn't think about it, really. It was something that needed to be done, and since no one else spoke up, I did. No one objected to my age, so I became the foreperson. I don't think I knew what I was getting myself in to.

The first day of deliberations was terrible. The group was split. Some believed he meant to do it, some did not. Some believed that anyone involved with drugs was terrible. People became worked up, and emotionally involved. There was yelling and cursing. People were not listening to each other. They were talking over each other. And I was in charge of controlling the room. I felt sheepish telling people who were more than twice my age that they needed to be quiet. Who was I, some young girl, to tell her elders what to do? I tried to keep the peace, but that was a terribly hard day.

I prayed constantly during this experience. I prayed that I would keep an open mind and truly believe that D was innocent unless the evidence could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was guilty. I tend to be opinionated and can sometimes make snap judgments, and am convinced that without God's help, I would not have been able to keep an open mind. At the end of the first day of deliberations, I believed D's testimony. I also prayed for peace for our group and for strength as a leader. I wanted to let everyone's voice be heard. I wanted everyone to feel that their opinions were respected.

The second day of deliberations got off to a better start than the first. I think a fresh day and coffee and bagels helped. I said that I knew that we all had strong opinions, but asked everyone to please try to keep their emotions and past experiences out of the conversation, and to please try to look objectively at the facts. I said that I wanted everyone's voice to be heard and so I asked for people to raise their hands and I would call on them to talk. I couldn't believe my gumption, but I felt that something had to be done. It went alright. I had to cut some people off as they went into personal ranting, but the room was more respectful than the day before.

We had to decide between Manslaughter, Murder 3, and Murder 2, and also between two kinds of Robbery. Oh, that was a process. We were allowed to ask the judge questions, though he wasn't allowed to answer all of them. When we wanted to ask a question, we had to get our tipstaff, a man who was an officer of the court and served as intermediate between us and the judge. He gave me a form on which to write the questions, he gave it to the judge, the judge wrote on it, gave it back to our tipstaff, who gave it to us. We could also write requests for evidence. We requested all of the photographs and went over them in great detail, trying to compare them to the different testimonies we had heard. We were finding holes in the stories.
We requested the knife and clothing that D and V were wearing, and were given rubber gloves to use while handling them.

I am actually thankful that I grew up with a father who loved Murder, She Wrote and Matlock and am married to a man who loves CSI and Law and Order. I think that while those shows were on in my home, parts of them must have gotten in to my brain subconsciously. Somehow I decided that to determine if D's story was true, we needed to act it out. We had been told the height of both men, so I found two people in the room who matched those heights. We had requested the medical examiner's images of the wound trajectories, so I had the two members see if the wounds could have been inflicted in the accidental manner that D claimed. It didn't seem possible.

We also wondered if D was crying on his taped confession because he was truly upset or because he was crashing after using the heroin. We had a nurse on the jury who knew the symptoms and timing of heroin withdrawal, so after figuring out when he used the heroin and when the recording was made determined that he would have been crashing hard at the point. So, maybe he wasn't as upset about it as I first thought.

During the trail and deliberation, we were only allowed to talk about the trail if all 12 jury members were in the room. If someone stepped out to go to the bathroom, I had to stop the conversation. When we went home, we weren't allowed to talk about it. This was awful for me. I work through my thoughts by talking. I get out stressful emotions by talking. At the end of every day, my husband asks how my day was because he is interested I am sure, but also because he knows that it is good for me to talk about it. For this week, I couldn't talk about it. I talked around it as much as I could, and I did tell him that it was a murder trial, though I shouldn't have. Every night I came home and cried. I cannot tell you the last time I felt so emotionally drained. One man was dead, the other had killed him. Though I tried not to look at both families, I saw them, and they were torn apart, crying. I had a room of eleven emotional strangers, among whom it was my role to keep the peace. And we were deciding the fate of D's life, we could help justice be served, for D or V. This was a terrible responsibility. I don't think I would have understood how emotionally draining the process was  if I hadn't lived it.

As we wear nearing the end of our second day of deliberation, we were getting closer to deciding on a verdict. We had requested detailed explanations of the different charges, and after reading the explanations and applying some simple logic I realized that Manslaughter could fit with the one type of Robbery and Murder 2 could fit with the other form of Robbery. Those were the only logical options. It took a little while for me to explain this to the group, but as others got it, they helped me to explain it again. This knowledge made things a bit easier because now we only had to pick between two options instead of piecing together between five different things. At this point I had changed my mind from Manslaughter (D killed V accidentally in a struggle) to Murder 2 (D knowingly stabbed V with the intent of stealing the heroin). It was a difficult decision, but I prayed about it and asked friends and family to pray for me to make the right decision (though I couldn't give them details), and when I came to the decision, I felt peace with it. I felt terribly emotional about the process, but knew that God had lead me to the correct decision. Slowly, others in the group who had been for Manslaughter changed their minds to Murder 2. We all felt stressed and worn. Many people cried. God helped me to hold myself together.

It was strange to be in such an emotional situation with people I had just met that week. It was also very strange for me to not speak about God throughout this process. There was enough tension in our discussions, I didn't want to upset anyone by bringing religion in to it. But, after we had made our decision and our tipstaff had taken my written verdict to the judge, I decided to chance mentioning God. I told the group that I didn't know what their beliefs were, but that I personally had been praying, and had friends and family praying for us, as we made this difficult decision. Several others said that they too had been praying. No one was offended.

Our tipstaff returned and took us back to the courtroom. I was shaking as I walked by the defendant, holding a copy of our written verdict. I had asked the tipstaff for direction in giving the verdict, and he said the judge would guide me. The judge didn't. He just asked the foreperson to stand and give the verdict. Again, I'm glad I had men in my life who watched courtroom shows! I stood, knees shaking, but spoke in a strong voice as I read through each charge. "On the count of Murder in the Second Degree, the jury finds the defendant guilty." I just about fell into my chair when I was done, my knees had been shaking so much. The judge polled the jury, and we all agreed with our finding. V's family cried. D's family cried. D sat staring. D waved his right to an appeal and was sentenced right there. I didn't know but Murder 2 comes with a mandatory life sentence without the chance of parole. The judge sentenced D while he was put into handcuffs and leg shackles. Then he was lead from the courtroom. Then the jury was dismissed. I didn't hear it because I was trying to hold myself together and look strait ahead, but another jury member said that V's family thanked us. As soon as I got out of the courtroom I started to cry. I didn't let myself cry for long, but I just couldn't hold it in any more. I had just sent a man to prison for the rest of his life. He was only 24 years old.

The night after the verdict, I somewhat obsessively Googled D and V and all of the news stories about the case. They both had criminal  records, mainly for drug dealing and possession. I think that if V had been standing near the kitchen knife, the role of victim and defendant would have been reversed. They both had issues with heroin. And now, V is dead, and D has lost his freedom.

I felt emotionally shaky for the next few days. I wasn't ready to talk about the case just yet. But time passed. I talked about it. I began to heal. I still think about V and D sometimes, almost every time I drive by the jail. During the trial, I referred to V and D as Mr. So-and-so, but I've found myself thinking of them by their first names now. I pray for V's soul. I pray that D is filled with the love of God and can share that with the other inmates. I pray for both of the families. And I pray for all of the people affected by drugs and violence.

In many ways jury duty was a terrible experience, and I admit that I hope I am not called again any time soon, if ever. Some members of the jury said that if they are called again, they will say something to get themselves out of it. As much as I don't want to go through an experience like this again, if I am called to serve, I will. I will even volunteer to be the foreperson again. Trial by jury is an American right, and I am proud that I was able to serve.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

These Are a Few of my Favorite Things

I thought of writing a post about my frustration with the commercialism of Christmas, how we have let Christmastime become synonymous with extra stress, and how Christ has gotten lost in what Christmas has become, but that didn’t seem like an enjoyable post. So, instead of a religious tirade, I give you four of my favorite things about Christmastime.

Family & Friends
Friends and family seem to congregate around Christmas. Those of us who are students get a break from classes (hurray!), and many get time off from work. My friends have spread out as we’ve gotten married and found jobs, but we always seem to come together at Christmastime. Hugs, laughter, and good conversation always ensue. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are spent with family, who I don’t always get to spend enough time with even though we live near each other.

Christmas Decorations
There is something cozy about a house decorated for Christmas. Decorating our tree is fun for me because all of our ornaments have a story to go with them. I have ornaments from my childhood, my husband and I have received ornaments as gifts, and we like to get an ornament whenever we travel to a new place. I also made paper ornaments when we were first married and didn’t have enough to fill the tree. I planned to use them just until we got new ones, but now they are some of my favorites.

I also love the twinkle of Christmas lights. On the way home from church on Christmas Eve, my family would always drive around town to look at all of the homes covered in lights. I admit that I can be quite critical about light displays and feel that most people haven’t figured out that “less is more.” But, this year I realized that being critical misses the holiday spirit and the message of Christ and decided to just enjoy the festive decorations. I’ve found that my neighborhood seems more magical as a result.

Christmas Cookies
I love sweets! I like to bake sweets and I like to eat sweets, so Christmas cookies are one of my favorite things. For as long as I can remember, my family made cookies every year at Christmas. We never made anything fancy – just Christmas M&M cookies and peanut blossoms, sometimes cut-out sugar cookies. Now, I usually try a new recipe each year too. Baking is a fun creative outlet for me, and it is meaningful because I know that I am going to give most of what I make to friends and family (except for the few that I eat myself!)

Giving Gifts
I like to give gifs to my loved ones to show them that I was thinking of them. It is fun for me to plan the perfect gift for someone, and I enjoy the challenge of doing so in the most economical way possible. I often make gifts, which adds extra fun to the process because I love crafting. I also like to think of gifts that give back in some way – like adopting a friend’s favorite animal from a local zoo or shopping at Ten Thousand Villages.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On Her Way

Hello blog. It's been a while. I've missed you. This fall was busy! I feel cliche saying that because aren't we all terribly busy all the time nowadays? But, alas, I was given extra hours at work this fall, and this semester of grad school was more challenging that last. These two things took up the majority of my time, so I took a break from some of the enjoyments in my life like blogging. I am continually learning how to prioritize and manage my time. Some sacrifices had to be made in the past few months, and I've missed my creative and social outlets.

I felt discouraged at times this fall. I worked at the library, I came home and did school work. I exercised and cooked easy healthy meals because I realized that I had let myself slip up to an unhealthy weight. I did make time to rest and spend time with family and friends, but not as much as I would have liked. There were times this fall when I felt like I was going nowhere. I like my job, but I'm a library assistant, not yet a librarian, so I am limited in what I can do. I also like school, but due to financial restrictions I have to go full time, and I felt that I would learn more and perform better if I didn't have to try to balance three classes and work and the rest of life. I was annoyed that I had let myself get into such unhealthy habits and wanted to loose the extra weight right now. My negative thoughts can easily spiral, leaving me feeling discouraged.

Ed Sutter gave a sermon at the Bridge (the modern worship service at my church - you should come!) this Sunday that was exactly what I had needed to hear. (Note: When I refer to someone's work, I like to link to their webpage, blog, etc., but Ed has no internet presence, so I will just provide you with this fantastic picture of him.)

Ed started his message with the music video for the band Ok Go's song "This Too Shall Pass."

Everything that happens in the video starts with one domino. Barrels, full-size cars, and a grown man are flying around all because one domino was knocked over. Ed encouraged us to remember that our small actions can lead to big ones. The small things we do today can have a great impact tomorrow. This made me think of Mother Theresa's quote, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

I was already starting to feel better before I heard Ed's message. My work hours had returned to normal, my school semester was almost done, and I was seeing results in returning to a healthy weight. This message really helped me to reflect on the fall and put everything into perspective. I may not be able to do all that I would like to at the library, but I am certainly working towards it. The extra hours I put in show my commitment and give me opportunities to learn. I may not be able to give as much time to my studies as I would ideally like, but I am still highly committed, doing well in terms of grades, and most importantly, learning. I did not drop the extra weight right now, but I have made significant changes to my eating and exercising habits that I will carry with me beyond reaching my goal weight.

I found that one little domino can send me into a spiral of negative thoughts and discouragement, but a different domino can also lead to positive changes. I may not be doing great things, but I am giving my all to the small things.

"She wasn't where she had been. 
She wasn't where she was going
...but she was on her way." 
~ Jodi Hill