Notes from the Jury Room

Jury Duty is something few actively want to do but is something everyone should experience once. I have been called repeatedly but actually served once, four years ago. I was called once again and went in today.

After sitting around reading for a few hours, a group of us were called to one court room. We were told about the case, a criminal one, and then the state’s attorney and public defender each read off a list of names of people affiliated with their offices or the case on the off chance we knew someone. We were told the probable dates of the trial and then sent into the jury room.

One by one, we were called in for the voire dire, the questioning by both attorneys as they try and fill out a jury who can be objective. The process seemed to be dragging on so we were kicked for lunch about 12:50 and told to report back by 2.

Around 2:40, I got my turn in the witness chair and got grilled for a good twenty minutes. The fact that I served just four years previous, also on a criminal case (in the very next courtroom as it turns out), probably led one or both attorneys to dismiss me. (In the same world department, the state attorney started studying at SUNY-Binghamton the year after I graduated.)

That previous case was on my mind so I dug out the essay behind the cut. The case ended, I went home emotionally drained but Deb and the kids were out. I didn’t like being alone so wrote this and shared it with some friends. I present it once again, for a larger audience, for those interested.


Just a few hours ago, I pronounced a man guilty of murder.

With Kate and Deb in the city and Robbie at play rehearsal, I don’t really have anyone to talk with so I turn to the group mind.

Today was the eleventh and final day of a trial scheduled for seven days.

It’s been scattered over the last three weeks and a part of me is having trouble dealing with it being over and what we did.

The long and short of it is 19-year-old Charlie Santiago was washing his car at Bridgeport’s PT Barnum project around noon, March 12, 1993. Four or more youths approached him, brandished guns and robbed him. They also stole his car. We were asked to judge whether or not Charlie was the man who fired the shots that killed the driver, John Barnes.

We were dealing with every strata of society from the prosecutor’s police officers, detectives and medical examiner. She also had expert ballistics people speak, including one who was one of the three who re-examined the shooting of Martin Luther King. She had a reverend and social worker and a parent from the project.

The defense attorney had people who lived at the project, two of whom were convicts brought in to talk to us from prison. He had one man suffering from dementia, asserting he can recall events from 10 years ago, but couldn’t tell us what he had for breakfast. He had a Cable installer who should be a linebacker for the Giants. He had the defendant, now 29, and a product of a low socio-economic upbringing.

We waded through the grueling testimony complicated by the fact that this was the third time the case was being tried. Charlie, we learned after the case ended, was convicted of the crime in 1995 and served 5 years. The appeal affirmed the decision. His attorney came up with new witnesses and convinced a judge Charlie deserved a new trial. The 2002 trial ended with a hung jury so here we were again.

Sitting in the jury box, it was a fascinating experience as bits and pieces of the puzzle emerged through careful questioning. Only through testimony did it become clear there were previous trials. We began to understand the importance of the location of concrete islands in the street that bisected the project.

Sitting in the jury box, we learned about the rough life in the projects, the code of silence so you do not receive retribution. We became mini-experts in bullets with six lands and grooves with a right hand twist, only found in a mini-Ruger semi-automatic rifle, built here in Southport, CT.

Sitting in the jury room, we bonded for hours on end. We had no idea what was going on in the court room, but we got to know one another from the grandmother working fulltime at the supermarket to the UConn freshman who plays on their soccer team. After a few days, the food began rolling in. We baked, we shared, and we laughed a lot. Our 12 jurors and 4 alternates dwindled as one was excused when his wife went into labor early and another had a child care issue.

It’s nothing like The Practice or any legal movie you’ve ever seen. Our good- natured judge had a raspy voice and periodically interjected limiting instructions based on testimony we were about to hear. The defense attorney was an animated man in his late fifties who has been involved in the case since the first day when Charlie called him before he called the police to report the car robbery. Our prosecutor was an intense woman in her late thirties with bags under her eyes and hesitated between almost every question.

We were endlessly taken through a map of the project as each person had to identify the project, then where in the project they were, what they saw and what they heard. Prior testimony was brought out during cross examinations, seeking inconsistencies, and then pounded again and again. There were endless objections and more sidebars than you could possibly imagine.

Finally, Thursday morning we heard the closing remarks and both did superb jobs. Our instructions were read to us, taking an hour and quarter, as we got into the legal definitions of murder, manslaughter I, manslaughter II, self defense, intent, etc.

And at 3:15 yesterday, we finally got the case. For the first time since June 9, the 12 jurors were allowed to discuss the case. Almost immediately, I was elected foreman and then we all had our say. The exhibits–dozens of photos, various maps, bullet casings, bullet fragments, a handgun, and written statements were given to us. As foreman, I was letting everyone have their say, maintaining some order. Anything we needed had to be in writing, signed and dated by me and then we knocked on the door and a Marshall came and collected it.

Finally, we could sit and sift through it all and ask ourselves: were there two rifles or one? Were there five attackers or four? Did they all wear masks, did they all have guns? If the defendant fought for a rifle by building five, then why were the only bullet shells found at building six.

Did the reverend really see someone hand a rifle to a light skinned man, who was not the defendant? And on and on.

Our first request was to begin deliberating at 9 Friday morning rather than the usual 10 a.m. start of court. We hashed through everything for an hour and then called it a day since two people had commitments.

Today we started at 9 and spent an hour and a half or so rehearing the defendant’s testimony. Another hour or so of debate and then we filed out to have the judge reread the definitions. By lunch time, 7 of us were ready to vote guilty of murder.

After lunch, we really got into a grind. Those who felt manslaughter was the more appropriate verdict seemed as intransigent as the other 7. We then reviewed the definitions among ourselves and began limiting things. We decided to reject most of the conflicting testimony since no one eyewitness was 100 percent flawless. We limited ourselves to physical evidence. We also used the judge’s instructions as our guide.

We had to first deal with murder before even thinking about manslaughter. We kept arguing did his actions show intent, required in murder, or extreme indifference to human life, which was manslaughter. As we reheard the statement the defendant gave the day of the incident, we dissected it word for word, matching it against the testimony we heard this week. We matched his words against the physical evidence of where the 19 shots struck the retreating car.

One woman couldn’t get past the emotional issue, and needed us to persuade her. And we ground away at her as one doubter after another finally fell into place. We asked the judge to extend past 5, till 5:30, and we were given permission.

She needed us to push her and one woman who works at a VA Hospital talked about psychological reasonings behind his actions while a woman from an insurance firm discussed how she needs to get past the emotions regarding sick people and seeing if they did or did not qualify for an insurance payment.

Both wore away at our final doubter.

At 5:20, I took a final vote and she ducked her head and raised her hand. We had a verdict.

Our UConn student said that at 21, this was the hardest decision of her life.

As we got used to the notion that we were united, we all felt horrible for Charlie, a poorly educated man who just wanted to wash his car. I hadn’t been that emotionally involved in something in a long, long time.

Minutes later, we were brought out to the courtroom and it was filled. Extra attorneys, the defendant’s wife, our two remaining alternates and so on. We were called out by name, and we rose and said “here”. I had to identify myself as foreman. The clerk read the charge and asked how we found the defendant.

Staring at the clerks, fighting a tremble in my stomach and my legs, I said, “guilty”. The judge asked if we were unanimous in the decision and twelve voices said, “Yes”. And it was done.

We were excused back into the jury room and people cried. A few minutes later, the judge and clerk entered. The judge had his robe off and he said he wanted to speak to us if we had a few minutes. He then gave us the background that I mentioned above. He covered some of the legal issues and challenges that caused us to cool our heels in the jury room. He took questions and we found out that some of the key players we never heard from, had vanished including one into federal witness protection. He was calm and pleasant and took every question we had.

Charlie Santiago will be sentenced in a few weeks but will start with 20 years and possibly get more. He will be credited for the five years already served and will be eligible for parole after some 85% of the sentence has been served. As he goes back to jail, he leaves behind his wife and three children.

Justice was served. A very difficult job is over.

I’m just not feeling terribly happy about it.

3 comments

  • I just had my first jury duty experience a month ago or so. The voire doire process only lasted about forty minutes for a group of about fifty of us jurors, and I wasn’t picked for the jury (guy stole a car from an Acura dealership). County law forbids citizens to be called for jury duty more frequently than once every three years: I’ve lived here for eight, so I think it’ll be a bit longer than three before I’m called again.

    Read a huge chunk of Stephen King’s “Needful Things” while waiting to be called up.

  • Susan O

    My father once served as lead juror in a rape/murder case that took about 2 weeks. It was a rather grisly one, and he learned a lot of microscience and forensics he wouldn’t have otherwise known. I don’t know if I could have listened to the testimony. The man didn’t act alone, and had a long prior history. My father was convinced the man had done it, and had little trouble sending him back to prison.
    For a while my mother was getting called at least once a year, despite the 3-year rule, but now her health exempts her from service.
    Last time my husband was called, the courthouse was evacuated for a bomb threat and they all had to waste time standing around outside – only to be let go after.
    It’s far from a perfect system, but it’s better than most.

  • Paul1963

    The one and only time I’ve been called for jury duty was in 1992. I was late to the courthouse because of a flat tire, but didn’t get any grief because I walked a quarter-mile to the nearest phone and called ahead.

    I got picked for a trial. I forget the exact wording of the charge, but it boiled down to the defendant walking into a bar one day and opening fire on the victim with an automatic weapon, wounding him several times but not killing him. The victim appeared in court, showed us his scars, pointed to the defendant and said, essentially, “That’s the guy who shot me.” The defense was “I didn’t do it. I was with my girlfriend. She wrote it in her diary (which the defense couldn’t produce).”
    We had one juror who said she didn’t think the defendant meant to kill the victim, which is a hard argument to make when the victim has multiple bullet wounds in his torso and there are shell casings all over the scene. We eventually persuaded her and convicted the defendant.
    I also got to serve as jury foreman, apparently because my name was at the top of the alphabetical list of jurors. Fun. I had similar tremors when reading off the verdict and when repeating it after the defense opted to poll the jury.
    Four or five days and out. The defense wanted to discuss the case afterwards, but I decided I didn’t want to have that conversation on the courthouse steps and passed.