My First Jury Duty Experience
I am not ashamed to say that I am one of the few people who actually wanted to be selected for Jury Duty. Maybe it’s because in High School my dreams of future me would shuffle between me as a Journalist and as a Lawyer.
My desire of helping bring justice to those in need (oh, the innocence and naivety of believing it truly was that simple) led me straight to John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Two semesters in, I realized that it wouldn’t always work that way. The Law isn’t this beautiful thing I had always envisioned. It’s not always easy to obtain Justice and many times, the opposite is achieved all while using the Law to do just that. Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t do good, so much good, with the Law but I just knew it wasn’t my path to follow. There had to be another way for me to pursue my passion and do good. So Journalism/Communications it was! The world works in mysterious ways and I still managed to dive into the legal world as a Paralegal for the last two years but I’ll leave that story for another day.
Back to the original story. It was January 16, 2019, and I was already running late to Kings County Supreme Court for what I hoped would only be my first day of Jury Duty. After about 45 minutes of just waiting around, names started to be called in to the Courtroom and right when I thought the Clerk might run out of cards before I was called, she said my name.
Reminding me of Elementary school days, the Courtroom doors opened, the Court Officer announced we were entering and in two lines we walked in and took a seat. My eyes instantly gravitated toward the Defendant. Innocent until proven guilty. Yet, I knew that in the eyes of at least a couple of people in that room he was already Guilty. As Judge Hecht requested, we lifted our right hands and took an oath to be honest.
A couple hours later, the first three Juror’s had been selected and we were dismissed until the next morning when I would get my chance to partake in voir dire (French for “to speak the truth”) where as prospective jurors we would be questioned about our background and potential biases before choosing who would sit on the jury.
It was simple. My name, degree, profession, and basic questions regarding any possible criminal past or experience as a victim. Once we all had a go, the Attorney’s introduced their own questions. Mostly basic scenarios and questions to confirm which of us would be most fair and prejudice-free to the specific case. After being dismissed for a 20-minute recess, the wait was over. Ana Jacqueline Frias, Juror #7.
9:30 a.m., the next morning, all the Jurors met in the Deliberation room which was actually a lot like I thought it would be. Plain room, windows overlooking the city, long conference room style table, comfy office chairs and two restrooms in the back because it is no joke when they say we are not allowed to have any contact outside of the courtroom with the attorneys, witnesses or Defendant. That includes not being allowed to use the same restroom.
Finally meeting the complete Jury, I was so happy to see how diverse we were. Ranging from mid 20’s to late 60’s. Three Latino’s, two Caucasians, two Asians and five African-American’s. Teachers, Sales Associate, Journalist, Interior Designer, Navy Seal. So many different lifestyles and just as many diverse perspectives as to how we would be interpreting the facts presented to us.
Day 1 of Trial was pretty much like working on a puzzle. We got bits and pieces on the case. Surveillance video, a couple of witnesses and a few pieces of evidence. By the end of the day, I walked out with more questions then I had stepped in with. The fact that we weren’t allowed to discuss the case until deliberations, even among ourselves, was tough but at least it forced us to relax and actually enjoy our almost 2-hour lunch break every day.
This continued on for a total of 5 days. All witnesses had taken the stand, all evidence had been put on the table and closing statements had been delivered. It was time for the Judge to instruct us on the charges being brought by the District Attorney against the Defendant.
Attempted murder in second degree.
Attempted assault in first degree.
Criminal possession of a firearm in the 2nd degree.
Two charges for possession of firearms.
During this experience, I truly realized just how powerful the DA is. They are in control of the evidence, as well as having the police who work with them to collect and produce the evidence. Over the years evidence-based reforms have been advocated for in the attempt to decrease incarceration and promote a more fair justice system and despite crime survivors’ desires for a more rehabilitative system, DAs have opposed these reforms in favor of harsher sentences and policies that increase their power.
I will never understand this. Instead of sending so many people to jail, why not find an option that will help them become better people? This obviously wouldn’t make sense for all criminals but I think we can agree that in regard to many who are currently sitting in a cell, this would be the better and smarter path.
Once in the deliberation room, we took a quick poll just to see where our heads were at and we were split down the middle on the Attempted Murder charge in 2nd degree. Six people who considered the Defendant Guilty. We all knew it was the Defendant in the videos who fired the four shots. That wasn’t a question in our minds as we walked into the deliberation room. My question was his objective as he fired those shots, and that was where I knew I couldn’t find him Guilty on Attempted Murder or Attempted Assault because by what I saw there was reasonable doubt as to whether or not he actually wanted to hurt this person as opposed to it being a stupid way of showing his friends he was down for whatever or trying to intimidate the guy. No victim ever came forward and although four shots were fired, there were no injuries. That wouldn’t matter if his intention was to kill or hurt somebody but from what I saw, his intention was unclear.
On Day 2 of deliberations, after watching the shooting scene a couple of times and going back and forth between our arguments, we finally all came to the conclusion that there was no way, beyond reasonable doubt, that we could find the Defendant Guilty on those two main charges. For criminal possession of a firearm in 2nd degree and the two charges for possession of firearms, we were all on the same page and found him Guilty.
Walking back in to the Courtroom to read our verdict, I was slapped by reality in a way I wasn’t expecting. This Defendant is somebody’s son. His mother, sitting in the Courtroom every single day. Now crying. Rocking back and forth. Praying. While the Defendant, obviously scared and with tears in his eyes, watched as each of us took a seat. Lined up right behind him stood 5 Police Officer’s. It was awful. As a mother I couldn’t help but, God forbid, imagine my own child’s life resting on the decision of 12 strangers. Yes, he made a mistake that led him there but it also reminded me of the tremendous responsibility that is put in your hands when you are selected as a Juror. To think that some people are so quick to just say “Guilty” in an attempt to get it over with, is terrifying.
The relief in the Defendant’s eyes as “Not Guilty” was read for the main charges and the mom mouthing “Thank You” to me, was a little piece of comfort after a week that ended up being much more emotionally draining than I had originally envisioned.
February 14, 2019, Valentine’s Day, the Defendant will be sentenced. I don’t know if I’m right or wrong but I will be there. Maybe as a silent supporter to him because although he made a mistake he deserves to know people care. Maybe in solidarity to his mom because I can only imagine what she must be going through. Maybe as a selfish move to feel that I did my part through the whole process and obtain a little more closure to my experience as Juror #7.