A juror sent me the following note today with permission to publish it. The note describes her reaction upon learning the sentence the court imposed on a young man convicted of murder, a conviction for which she voted.
I have been interested in the criminal justice system all of my life. Unfortunately, most of my exposure to this Land of Law has been through pop culture: Books, film, and far too many “Law & Order: CI” reruns for any healthy individual. So when I received my jury summons this past spring, I was one of the few people eager to serve. I embraced the opportunity to learn more about The System.
I was selected to serve on a criminal case involving a young man accused of shooting and killing another young man in Bristol, Connecticut. I assumed that this would be a “garden variety case” of a shooting in a housing project that may or many not have involved drugs, and may or may not have been gang related. Piece of cake, I thought – the system is designed to lead me through, justice will shine with its bright light in the darkness, and we will all go home feeling like we’ve well served our country and society.
How I wish I knew now what I didn’t know then.
Our jury was sworn in, given detailed instruction from the judge throughout the case, and sat listening to both sides argue a strong case for and against the defendant. I became apprehensive, and at times, unable to see one strong side emerge…and noticed the facial expressions of the other jurors during the process. We, of course, did not speak until deliberations, but during the trial, I saw every reaction represented on our faces: Contempt, confusion, anger, and sympathy -- for both the accused and the victim. I consoled myself with the thought that we would undoubtedly receive additional information that would help us to ascertain to the best of our abilities What Really Happened. And then – make an informed decision.
The information never came.
No gang history information. No arrest record history. No personal information about the victim or the defendant. And above all: No instruction as to what a guilty verdict would mean regarding the sentencing. The jury returned the verdict quickly: Guilty. I was comfortable (and still am comfortable) in my decision.
However, when I learned that the defendant received a 45-year sentence, my heart, my soul, my “better self” sank. Was this the only option for a young man from a compromised background - forty-five years of lock up? Did this punishment fit the crime? Is there a curtain number two??
Many in the jury agreed that, had their been an alternative charge or if the jury had the right to suggest a sentence, the punishment may have better suited the crime. In my opinion, both men in this case – the victim and the defendant - actually died; one physically; and the other, emotionally. He will be a prisoner until he is about seventy years old, should be live that long in such a hostile and violent environment.
Was this the best possible outcome to which we could arrive as a society? Have we constructed our legal system in such a fashion that there is no room for hope, for rehabilitation – and for a juror to feel as though they have served fairly? If we handle a criminal in a more rehabilitative way, but still imposing punishment, why is this considered to diminish the importance of the victim’s life?
I walked away from my juror experience feeling as I did in mid-trial: in the dark, as though I’m still trying to understand an entire course from only a brief syllabus. I feel somewhat used by a system that seemingly got what it had wanted from me, dismissed me, and moved on.
This young man will haunt me forever. I am sure he thinks the jury has moved on with their lives, and dismissed him as “just another criminal.” Not me. Not that it helps him one iota. I think of his family, and most of all, his young child. How many “deaths” were involved in this? What is “enough” for us?
Criminal justice and jury reform are much needed for as many reasons as there are people. The next time I receive a summons to serve on a jury, I will not feel enthusiasm for my country’s criminal justice system…only the dread that most of those I know feel on such an occasion.
And yet I still hope that, someday, we can do better than this.