Photo credit: Bill Oxford

Chicago, early March, so typically cold and gray. I was flat-out pissed off that I got called. Frustrated and oh so cranky about a ludicrous 50-minute drive to jury duty on a Tuesday morning. Why couldn’t I have been summoned to the courthouse in Skokie? 26th and California? Really? People told me “That’s the bad part of town,” as if I didn’t know. Why the hell is Cook County so big? Why can’t selection location be determined by residence?


With summons in purse, I cranked up my car seat warmer to high, set my GPS to the least-stressful route – no thank you, Eisenhower Expressway at 10 minutes faster – and anxiously made my way south along side streets. The route made it easier to pop into a gas station to pee, always a serious consideration to a long morning drive after two cups of wake-up coffee. Cutting through unknown neighborhoods, my blind faith in my GPS holding strong, I wound my way south, through Maywood and Berwyn and the bright, festive colors of Little Village, that slice of Mexico dropped curiously into Chicago’s south side. Feeling utterly foreign as I navigated south through this voluminous city, I pulled up my big-girl boot straps and headed to court.


That day’s Cook County cattle call sat on edge in the juror waiting room, a space the size of a hotel ballroom; maybe I’m exaggerating but not by much. As I walked in, surveying the room, I spotted a quiet, empty area near the back wall and, I hoped, near outlets. Simultaneously charging both cellphone and laptop, I prepared for a long day of remote work. I’d turn this into an adventure, a bit of a retreat day. I’d get through some projects, I figured; maybe this would even turn out to be a super productive day.


It was hard to tune out the news on the TVs, set to entertain us while we waited. There were rounds of juror numbers called, so we had to listen from time to time to make sure we didn’t hear ours. At the end of each round of announcements, people cheered as they had been passed over. Thirty minutes into the adventure, I wasn’t so lucky.


The sheriff’s deputy escorted 50 of us out of the waiting room, down escalators and through long hallways, eventually squeezing us into the gallery of the courtroom, outside the round glass enclosure of the interior of the courtroom. Those in the bubble appeared ensconced in a snow globe, sans fake snow. With an efficient air, the judge read numbers, piped to us through a sound system. She sounded bored, possibly in need of coffee. She was in no way keyed into the palpable nerves of those at her mercy. Just another Tuesday at work on a dreary winter day. When a number was read, that juror was brought into the courtroom, while the rest of us remained squashed together in the gallery. Anticipation grew. Once again, my number was called. The first wave of panic hit. I didn’t want to go into the bubble. For all the times I’d received summons to serve – and they had been plentiful – never had I been asked to sit in a jury box.


The courtroom was much smaller than the images from TV and movies. The room was very functional. No gorgeous oak railing between us and the gallery, we were sealed inside glass. It felt claustrophobic. The room lacked windows, removing any connection to the outside world. We were our own universe. I sat in the top row of the jury box, in a swivel office chair bolted to the floor.


There’s a distinct weight one feels sitting in that box. The lawyers on both sides were all on full display at their respective tables, adjacent to the jury box and directly across from the judge. There also sat the accused. A black man in his fifties. He had a classy movie star feel about him: sharp suit and low ponytail. Was I staring at a criminal? Accused of what? I didn’t yet know. Sitting in the hot seat, as he was, he was “them” and not “us.”


The judge sat perched in her lofty position. The court reporter typed diligently, her eyes drifting off as though she was running through her list for the groceries she would purchase at Jewel on her way home. The deputy sheriffs flanked the courtroom, our uniformed babysitters. I was one of 28 who were being vetted for this pending criminal trial. From 28, 14 would be culled. Half could go home soon. I swiveled to eye the wall-mounted clock behind me.


The judge explained that the trial was anticipated to wrap before the end of the week, possibly even by Thursday. It was a cold-case murder from 1997. A woman had most likely been sexually assaulted, probably raped, and then she’d been strangled to death.


I listened as my fellow jurors cited tough work schedules, the need to care for elderly parents, business owners who had clients and deadlines. Another juror broke down, referencing a recent attack she had suffered, perhaps a mugging. She was an intelligent psychologist but fragile like the rest of us. So many had legitimate reasons for not serving. Were my issues worth mentioning?


When they got to me I chose not to bring up the hardship that the selection would cost me, that I’d have to move clients to the following week, that I was self-employed and would not be compensated by an employer for my time. I didn’t mention that my husband had a business trip later in the week and that I’d have to scramble to find child and pet coverage. None of that felt more important than my civic duty. This was inconvenient for everyone, right? Jury duty is something we’re supposed to do and my time had come. I did mention that it would conflict with my already-rescheduled root canal. The judge laughed and asked if I wouldn’t rather be in the courtroom than having a root canal. I chuckled, too. I really didn’t know the answer.


We were asked if we watched and/or read and/or listened to crime stories. I didn’t. I actively hate them. I didn’t mention that. One woman said she watched the show “How to Get Away with Murder.” We all laughed. The defense lawyer laughed, too, in a nervous, immature way, like a twelve-year-old boy who’d been told an off-color joke. I wish I’d been able to mark his laugh as evidence.


It was after 1:00 p.m. and we were getting restless. All of us had answered the judge’s questions and now the judge, the state’s attorneys and the defense lawyers were meeting to decide who would stay and who would go.


It was close to 1:30 p.m. by the time they returned. We were hungry and tired of sitting all morning. The judge began reading the juror numbers of those free to leave. My number wasn’t read. The time had come to sit on my first jury. We were escorted to the jury room and served lunch.


*            *            *


Our instructions were clear: no social media, no Googling the case, everything we heard was to stay in the courtroom until the trial was over. We were given pads of paper and pens. Our notes would be destroyed after the trial.


We learned that in the early 2010s, the State of Illinois received a grant from the federal government to review cold cases, cases that had been closed, lacking any leads or evidence. With the grant, detectives could use DNA testing to see if any such cases could be solved. For the days that followed, we heard from an endless number of experts on how DNA is handled and tested. We also heard from the victim’s daughters and the detective on the case, but we never heard from the victim’s boyfriend, whose name kept getting dropped around like that of a mutual friend. Neither side brought the victim’s neighbor to the stand nor anyone who lived in her building. The accused remained stoic in his seat, next to his lawyers. He never took the stand in his own defense.


For two and half days, we heard from witnesses and viewed evidence as the prosecution and the defense tried to push us 100 percent in one direction and then 100 percent in the other. With each witness’s testimony, I studied the faces of the lawyers and the accused, watching for any reactions. They were consistently poker faced, save for the odd smiles and nervous giggling of the defense lawyer. I was perplexed and completely overwhelmed at the weight of what I was being asked to do. Why was it up to the 14 of us to decide this man’s fate? And what did we know, really, of this life of crime and drug abuse in the poverty stricken neighborhoods of Chicago’s west side? Our hours in the jury box took on an out-of-body feeling, almost as if everything I was witnessing was happening on a television show.


At the beginning of the trial, the judge told us that she intended to keep bankers’ hours and that we were not expected to be held late, unless on the day of deliberation but that, of course, would be up to us. She kept her word, releasing us at 4:00 p.m. the first day and then 3:00 p.m. the second. True to bankers’ hour form, we weren’t required to be at court until 10 a.m. each day.


Each night during the trial, I took my daughter to her normal after-school activities and would sit in the waiting area with the other moms as if I hadn’t spent my day looking at photos of a strangled woman, half-naked on her apartment floor. Being sequestered would have been hard, no doubt, but it felt almost necessary given the otherworldliness of floating between lives. A “How was your day?” took on a whole new meaning. I was making my way through my to-do list in a fog state. Occasionally, I’d remind myself that I was a juror on a murder trial. Me, who didn’t watch murder-themed shows or read murder-themed mysteries. This wasn’t my genre.


As Days Two and Three happened, we were given time to pick our meals, the sheriff’s deputies switching into flight-attendant mode, taking our orders, bringing our food, asking if we needed more coffee. On the first day, when they asked us to fill out a dinner order, we had bristled, wondering what awaited us.


And then it was over. At 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Day Three, both sides made their closing statements. The quick pace of the trial caught us off guard. This was murder, after all, not petty theft. Shouldn’t the trial have taken longer? Didn’t we need to hear from more witnesses? The judge told us that we now had all the evidence and it was our turn to go into the jury room and deliberate. As we entered the room, one of the Sherriff’s deputies held out a basket to collect our cellphones. It’s an act of surrender to hand over your communication device and agree to remain in a room with 11 strangers and no way to communicate with the outside world. The deputy left the room with the basket and closed the door. A sense of imprisonment set in. We had a buzzer we were to press when we had reached our unanimous decision. If we had questions, we could write them on a slip of paper and have the deputy take them to the judge.


When I entered that jury room, I had absolutely no idea which way I would decide. I could make arguments for both “Guilty” and “Not guilty.” I needed to talk it through with the other jurors, to compare notes and clarify facts.


First, though, we needed a jury foreman (“foreperson”, let’s not bring gender into it). I had already decided that I wanted this role. If I were going to sit on a jury, I wanted the entire experience. I didn’t care to ever to do this again and I was going to experience it for all it was. Also, I’m a self-acknowledged control freak. Something in me, though, knew I had the chops to wrangle this crew through the weighty conversation to come. I craved the experience. People were passing the title around like a hot potato. It was clear that no one else wanted the role. I surveyed the room. They would let me have it. When I announced that I’d like to take it on, everyone was visibly relieved. I was ready to project manage this experience and get us home.


We started by going one by one around the table, sharing our thoughts and observations. We were missing so much information. Why had we not heard from the boyfriend? Did the accused have a prior record? The audio tapes from his arrest show that he had offered to take a lie-detector test. Had he done so? What were the results?


After much discussion and too many side conversations, I arrived at a “Not guilty” verdict for myself, agreeing with the deft logic of my fellow jurors. Only three jurors had reached a “Guilty” verdict. All of us agreed there was a high probability the man was guilty. The state’s attorneys brought DNA experts in to convince us that there was no other possible way that that man’s DNA would be under the deceased’s fingernails: he had to have attacked her. There was no reason why his DNA would be on the condom wrapper if he had not used it on her. But to us, the DNA only proved that they knew each other. The attorneys for the state couldn’t put him at the scene of the crime at the identified time. No one could. Being a writer, I knew we were making up stories if we jumped to the conclusions the prosecutors asked us to reach. We could just as easily write a story about how the man and woman had had sex at 6:00 p.m. and then the man had left her apartment, leaving someone else to come into her home and kill her. Was it likely? No. Were we certain it wasn’t possible for there to have been another intruder? Unfortunately, no. We were not certain and certainty trumps assumption. The new evidence only confirmed that the deceased and the accused knew each other. It did not prove that his hands, around her neck, ended her life.


There was the supposed admission of guilt we were told to consider. The detective had overheard the accused say on a call to his wife, “I figured it out. They got me on an old murder.” Yet there was no recording of that conversation. And who’s to say the detective wasn’t racist? Who’s to say he wasn’t jaded and making up stories? Are cops financially incentivized to solve cold-case murders? There were so many things we didn’t know.


The state’s attorneys were asking us to send a man to jail for the rest of his life. How much evidence is enough to convict? We read our rules over and over, teasing the words apart to truly understand what was being asked of us. We could only convict “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” But there were so many shadows. How does a jury ever get beyond the doubts? Are other trials more certain? Does the evidence clearly tell only one story? Were we being overly analytical?


We watched the tape of the accused’s arrest interrogation again. We listened to audio clips over and over. We stared at the crime scene investigation photos. In small groups of two or three, we slipped into side conversations. Around 4:00 p.m., we reconvened for a new vote. Two of the jurors had changed their verdict to “Not guilty.” There was one “Guilty” verdict holdout. I read her body language and knew she was digging in; her decision became a point of pride against our stares. The DNA evidence was enough for her. A new level of panic took hold.


It was hard not to stereotype the situation. The juror was a black woman, like the victim, and about the same age the victim would have been had she lived. Was she reflecting where she was that summer night in the late nineties? I recalled during jury selection how this juror referenced a domestic violence situation of a friend or loved one. When asked if she could be impartial, she shrugged her shoulders and offered a “Maybe.” I cursed those who allowed her to sit with us. She wasn’t impartial enough to try this case.


At some point I got philosophical, as I am wont to do. I shared my philosophy that the universe is run on a cosmic intelligence that balances negative and positive actions, and that it’s not my job to serve as anyone’s God and deliver their karma. Beyond that, I kept coming back to the fact of who am I, an upper-middle-class suburban mom, to pass judgment on a black man steeped in poverty and drug abuse? This isn’t my community. Yes, it’s my county but the county is vast and contains many communities. Why was it my responsibility to judge a black man and what he may have done 22 years ago? Who was I to judge him?


The other jurors kept asking me to write the judge and explain that we had a hung jury. I knew that the judge would not accept that answer and would instruct us to keep deliberating. While three hours felt long to us, that wasn’t a lifetime in deliberation hours. She would make us stay. We knew that it was nothing to be kept until 9:00 p.m. or midnight or later. The sheriff’s deputies had told us as much. Would they eventually put us up in hotel rooms? One juror repeatedly asked for her phone to call her husband, who’d been in the parking lot waiting for her for more than an hour.


To appease my fellow jurors, I sent a note, explaining that we were split, that all but one shared the same verdict. After 30 minutes, the judge summoned us back into the jury box. Both parties were there, the states attorney’s and the defense, as if they’d been sitting there in the courtroom waiting for us the whole time. Maybe they had. Essentially, the judge yelled at us. It was our job to deliberate and come to a unanimous decision. We shouldn’t hurt each other physically but “go back and fight” was her order. We weren’t allowed to leave until we thoroughly hashed this out.


Back in the juror’s room, the claustrophobia took hold. I looked out the window, at the county jail adjacent to our building and began to feel jailed myself. We’re all a part of this system and even when we’re free, sometimes we’re not. Closed again in that sterile room, after a scolding from our “warden,” I began to feel a constriction in my throat and a sense of desperation take over my body. The knots in my stomach grew tighter. My daughter was now home from school and, I’d hoped, picked up by my friend. Had my friend walked my dog and fed the animals? Was she comforting my daughter, who I feared was freaking out because her mom wasn’t home for dinner and hadn’t even texted? The Momma Tiger in me was roaring. I was done with this experiment and I wanted to go home. Hadn’t I done my civic duty this whole week? I hadn’t done anything wrong. Why was I confined to this room?


It was getting darker outside. Eight of the nine fluorescent lights in the room were burnt out. We couldn’t open the windows. There was a conspicuous lack of air.


We were running out of ideas on how to change the mind of the sole holdout juror. She said we could keep talking if it made us feel better, but her mind was made up.


Then there was a knock on the door. Dinner was delivered, our pre-order from Day One.


I couldn’t eat, I was nauseous. The stress tears I had been holding back released and I turned my back to the group. There was no private place except the bathroom. I was the foreperson and the foreperson was officially having a meltdown. Were my fellow jurors worried? I didn’t care. Next to me, a mom of small children said she felt the same way. She just wanted to go home.


We were going to be there all night. Why couldn’t this woman see that we didn’t have the evidence to convict? Dear Lord, why wouldn’t this just end already? Could my daughter sleep at my friend’s house? Who would take care of my dog overnight? Why the hell had I not gotten myself out of this? I shouldn’t have even been there.


The worn, dated lounge chairs were growing more and more uncomfortable. The sticky spill of soda that had been near the wall all week grew untenable, a reminder that nothing was getting the attention it deserved. As daylight waned, the room grew darker and I sunk deeper into my despair. At 6:15 p.m., the holdout juror went to the bathroom. Had my breakdown broke her? It was my first glimmer of hope. The bathroom was the only private place. She was going to think, I could tell. I might get home before bedtime after all.


When the juror returned, she didn’t make eye contact and I knew that my gut instinct had been correct. We were going to be able to leave soon. When she took her seat, she explained that she wanted to go home as much as the rest of us and that we should pass around the “Not guilty” verdict sheet. Each juror signed their name, including our holdout. As we returned to the courtroom, the judge asked who the foreman was. I raised my hand and was told to take a specific seat in the jury box. Then, with all eyes on me, including the accused killer, I read the verdict clear and strong. Not guilty. The accused broke into his first wide smile. I had proclaimed him not guilty. He would be free.


We the jurors requested and received a police escort to the parking garage. It was now 7:00 p.m. and it was dark. Out into the cold Chicago winter night we went. I still had a long drive home, slightly less than an hour now that it was past rush hour. I’d be home to kiss my daughter goodnight. I could sleep in my own bed.


The next morning, curiosity got the best of me. I Googled names from the case, wondering if we’d made it into the newspaper, uncertain how high profile our case was. What I didn’t prepare myself for was discovering old articles referencing the accused and, in fact, sharing details of his excessive rap sheet. I learned how he’d been previously jailed for killing his mother and her boyfriend decades earlier. He’d been jailed again for attempted murder via strangulation and rape of another woman. He’d been out on parole for three months when the murder we had learned of that week happened. That sealed it for me, now there was no longer any doubt. The DNA evidence was right. He was the killer. I had just set a killer free.


I felt played, used. I was pissed and sick and mad, so mad. Why was none of this brought into evidence? We all would have quickly agreed guilty had we been informed of any of the details. All of this was so easily available via a quick Google search. Had the one holdout juror Googled the killer during the trial? That would certainly explain her unflinching resolve – and likely disgust at our ignorance. Why was he even free to begin with? Shouldn’t he have been jailed for life for his previous crimes?


We have a broken system. Because the state’s attorneys didn’t bring us the evidence we really needed (prior record, lie detector test, other witnesses), we couldn’t convict. We had the DNA evidence but it wasn’t enough to connect every dot. We couldn’t escape the “shadow of a doubt.” I wish I had the magical fix of how to make all of this work better. I recognize why the rules are the way they are, but it just doesn’t seem right, or fair, or just.


And why for heaven’s sake do all 12 jurors have to agree on a verdict? Why doesn’t a majority suffice? How does anyone ever get convicted of any crime under these rules? I now understand that jurors say what they need to so they can go home. The movie “Twelve Angry Men” kept flashing through my mind. There’s always someone who has proverbial baseball tickets that they don’t want to give up.


I’ve heard all the explanations of how we would have been biased had we heard about the accused’s prior record, but come on. Give me a fucking break. He did the exact same thing to another woman three months earlier and he killed his own mother. The prior record seems pretty pertinent.


The experience left me in a mild state of shock for a week afterward. I kept having to process this experience with everyone I spoke with. Even though I knew I had made the best decision I could with the evidence I was given, it didn’t shake the fact that I had screwed up massively. The victim and her daughters were not served the justice they should have received that day in the courtroom. Now they’re left wondering what was wrong with us, the jurors.


I firmly believe that everyone should be required to sit on a jury to see our justice system in action. And I pray that I never have to do so again.