A Shocker In New Haven: Juror Asks What's This Murder Case About, Anyhow?
At the rate things are going in the case of State v. Hayes, the case could end as early as next week. But the ending will be a mistrial, not a verdict. That's because in two short days of evidence, four jurors have already decided to bow out of service. It takes twelve men and women to make a verdict. If there are fewer than 12, it's back to square one, unless the parties agree to permit the case to be decided by a rump jury. I don't expect the defense to permit that. When the state seeks to kill your client, a mistrial is champagne-popping time.
In fairness, the 12 jurors, six alternates and two back ups were picked during a marathon jury selection process that spanned a period of a couple of months. It's been a while since the entire group was selected. Returning to the courthouse after a hiatus in some cases of more than half a year was bound to produce a couple of surprises. Three jurors opted out before the gavel fell opening the proceedings. Apparently, one other panelist fell by attrition without notice. So as today began, there were twelve jurors and four alternates. In most cases, that would be more than enough to bring the proceedings to a tidy conclusion a couple of months from now.
But then the unprecedented occurred. Before the lunch break today, a juror sent a note out to the judge. He had concerns he wanted to discuss. The note was tendered apparently during the gripping testimony of Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of the Cheshire home invasion. Judge John C. Blue decided to wait until after Dr. Petit finished testifying before addressing the juror's concerns.
When the juror was questioned, he offered the following: He did not think he'd be able to render a verdict in the case given the evidence. Is the case too gruesome, you might wonder? No. That was not the issue. The state's case was disorganized and made no sense, the juror said. It appeared as though the case was poorly prepared, he opined. During the most dramatic and sympathetic testimony of the case, that of Dr. Petit, a juror all but raised his hand and asked: "What the Hell is this all about?" The sucking sound you heard early this afternoon was that of the prosecution's gonads retreating to a safe, dark place.
I've spent a lot of time in courtrooms and this ranks as one of the most amazing things I've ever heard. Mind you, the case was all of one and one-half days long. The state had only yesterday given an opening statement laying out its claims: A family was slaughtered and terrorized in the dead of night. Then the defense stood up and admitted that Mr. Hayes had murdered the mother of the family and participated in the mayhem. This isn't exactly a case turning on an obscure point of law or difficult to conceive facts. A juror vetted after lengthy voir dire by both parties simply declared "no mas."
I have never seen a prosecution so effectively neutered and so quickly. It is as though the juror listened to the state, considered its star witness, and then decided the case wasn't worth the time it would take to decide it. How can the prosecution rebound from this unsubtle humiliation?
Judge Blue questioned the jurors outside the presence of other panelists. The juror was questioned by counsel as well. Did he understand that evidence is admitted piecemeal, that trial is akin to assembling a vast puzzle? Oh, yes; he understood that. He just didn't think he could make a decision given the manner in which the case was being presented. The state moved to have the juror it had rendered senseless with its opening statement and presentation of evidence removed from service. The defense, sensing hope perhaps for the first time in this seemingly hopeless case, wanted the man kept on the jury. Judge Blue discharged the juror and worried aloud about a mistrial.
Cold records rarely reflect the underlying symbolism of a trial. Could it be that in this case all the public rage, fuss and furor of the past three years has desensitized this jury? Perhaps a governor who vetoed lawmakers' efforts to repeal the death penalty by talking about this very case offended the juror, as well it should have. How is it that as the state's star witness testifies, the man who should be rallying jurors' sympathy to move in for a quick kill, all one juror can do is beg to get off the case because the case makes no sense? Something is happening in that courtroom; what it is is not exactly clear.
The defense sensibly chose not to cross examine Dr. Petit. He told his story. He told about escaping his own home of terrors. No doubt there were tears aplenty and sympathetic gasps in the courtroom. But could it be that this was all a bit too theatrical for an ordinary juror? Has the state striven to strike a tragic note but failed even to inspire gravitas? I find that hard to believe.
But the jurors were there and saw something. Once the Doctor's testimony ended, one juror sent a note for the judge. How, he wondered, did the doctor manage to escape from the basement after he had been tied to a pipe and while his hands were bound. What went wrong for the state today? How does Dr. Petit weep the tears of the bereft and inspire something other than sympathy? How?
All trials are about a struggle of good versus evil. To win a trial, you must keep evil on the other side of the aisle, and capture, if you can, goodness. But what of this dynamic in a case where the evil is so obvious and apparent that it is not contested? What does the state do when the defendant admits the very crimes of which he is accused? In that case, a juror could well wonder what motivates a state to play at justice in such a farcical and public manner. Is all this just so that a man who admits his guilt can be killed? Is the state seeking to manipulate the jury to become the very sort of evil the state condemns. Yes, we should kill the killer, the state proclaims. Killing makes us good. No wonder the juror wanted off the panel. This is madness, not justice.
The case resumed with twelve jurors and three alternates. The evidence moves briskly. One senses that the defense is on target and moving according to plan. Of the state, all that one can say is "ouch." Just how you try a man for murdering a loving wife and mother, put her husband on the stand to testify about the last moments his family lived, and then have a juror beg off because the case makes no sense is, frankly, one of the most astounding things I have ever heard of in a courtroom.
Day three cannot rival today for surprise. Or can it?