I was cocky. On the morning of June 15, I breezed into the waiting room of Manhattan's criminal court, supremely confident that I was untouchable. What lawyer, I thought, would be crazy enough to pick a former lawyer turned snarky journalist as a juror?
Ah, hubris. I ended up being one of first to be picked: juror number 4. Quickly, I fell into the five stages of juror denial: Shock (why me?), Anger (damn the system for wasting my time), Depression (panic about being locked in a juror room), Magical Thinking (maybe the defendant will get run over on his way to court) and, finally, Acceptance (there is no escape).
But what seemed like a dreaded chore ultimately turned out to be a revelation not only about our justice system but what it mean to be a member of a larger community. I’m no Pollyanna, but this was a meaningful experience.
As one who covers the rarefied world of Big Law, this case took me to unfamiliar turf: the alleged rape of a 12 year-old girl by a 47-year old man, both Hispanics. (Yes, Donald Trump’s words about Mexico sending us rapists popped to mind; thankfully, the defendant was Ecuadorian and legal.) They shared an apartment close to the Bronx, an area I know mainly from Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. (The defendant lived in one room with his three kids, while the girl lived in another room with her mother and two siblings.) After he was charged with rape, the defendant was incarcerated on Riker’s Island for two years—a fate that would never befall a nice middle-class man accused of the same crime.
Strange that I would sit in judgment of this man, I thought. Stranger was the notion that 12 perfect strangers of various ethnic, educational and socio-economic backgrounds —including two other lawyers, a custodian, a language therapist, a stockroom worker, recent college grad—would come together and reach a unanimous decision.
We did come together—mostly. Because physical evidence was scant—no DNA, no bruises, no blood—the case hinged on circumstantial evidence and the credibility of the girl and man. Jurors’ emotions ran high. Interestingly, there was no class or racial divide, but a gender gap emerged. Early on, all six of the female jurors were convinced that there was at least sexual abuse, while some of the men were slower to reach that conclusion. One of the women asked the men in frustration, “Do guys have difficulty believing women are raped?”
Despite the tensions, we were respectful of each other, and we took our task seriously. We hashed out details from the testimony, donned rubber glove to re-examined the physical evidence and challenged each other’s theory. (Unintentionally comedic moment: Three jurors tried to demonstrate the sexual position alleged in the rape charge.)
People changed their minds, but no one hurried the process. “I felt the responsibility keenly,” says Debra Cohen, one of the lawyers on the jury, “knowing that both the accused and the accuser’s lives will be changed forever.” Another juror Keith Bracey, who works in the stockroom of Macy’s, puts it more bluntly: “Maybe I’m loud and obnoxious but I have a conscience, and I want to make sure I make the right decision.”
We were model jurors. But here’s the hitch: We couldn’t reach consensus. So after nearly a week of intense, draining deliberations, the judge declared a mistrial. At the end, we were split on the rape charge, and one lone juror refused to convict on the sexual abuse charge. This juror explained that he simply could not convict without physical evidence. So that was that.
It’s hard not to feel crestfallen after so much effort. “It was a huge waste of resources and time,” says the former Am Law 100 partner. (The prosecution says there will likely be a retrial.)
I too am disappointed with the outcome. But also proud. Even for a cynic like me, there’s something affirming about 12 strangers coming together to do the right thing. That’s got to be worth something.
Photo: Twelve Angry Men