If you’ve ever served on a jury in a murder trial, you know it is a unique and fascinating experience. You are the judge in the case. You hear the facts, you listen to witnesses, you watch the person on trial and you decide… did they really do it?
But it’s also scary. You don’t get to take back the decision you make. You worry about making the wrong one.
I’ve talked to some jurors after a murder trial who worried about retaliation from a defendant. One once said to me, “They said my name in court and we knew the guy on trial was in a gang. I’m terrified for my family because we convicted him.”
I can’t give a first-hand account of what it’s like to be a juror. I’ve never done it. But I do have a very unique vantage point from the gallery of a courtroom. I get to watch an entire trial from beginning to end. It’s not my job to decide innocence or guilt, but rather to take in everything that happens and break it down into a 1 or 2 minute live report each day. A simple story to inform the public about what happened in court.
Day 1 is jury selection. And a million excuses.
‘I don’t think I can be on this jury because my best friend’s cousin’s neighbor’s daughter was murdered when I was 11 and 40 years later, it’s still too much.’
‘I’m diabetic and forgot to eat this morning, which will probably make me unable to focus for the next week.’
‘I’m a stay at home mom and my daughter won’t be able to nap if I’m not there.’
And the excuses go on. And on.
Eventually (usually anywhere from a few hours, to a whole day or sometimes 2 days) the judge seats a jury. In a murder trial it’s often 12 jurors and 2 alternates. The alternates have NO IDEA they are alternates until the second the jury gets the case, and unless something crazy happens and another juror is excused between the beginning and end of a trial, they will probably have no say in the outcome. That has to be frustrating.
After that is opening statements from lawyers. Then the evidence.
This is where it all comes out. The witnesses. The alibis. The science & forensics. The autopsy.
Pictures of dead bodies are one of the worst portions of the trial. Prosecutors often show those so a jury can see… yes, this person was shot this many times and here are the bullet holes to prove it. This is one of the parts of every murder trial I’ve covered that always sticks with me. Once you see something like that, you can’t un-see it.
I will forever have the image of 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis engrained in my brain. His lifeless body… bruised, beaten and with an imprint of a clothing iron on his chest. A jury convicted his father, Terry Sturgis, of murder.
Purvi Patel’s premature baby boy was another tough one. That baby had fingers, toes, a mouth, a nose and a full head of hair. Police pulled him from a dumpster and unwrapped him from a plastic bag. A jury convicted Patel of feticide and neglect.
The pictures of Theresa Burns, who was 16 when she was brutally shot inside her home were just as horrific. There was so much blood. And her family had never seen those awful, awful pictures of the bullet holes in her head and face. They’d never heard a pathologist testify the barrel of the gun was touching her forehead when at least one of the shots was fired.
Then closing arguments, instructions and the jury gets the case. The courthouse security guards try to guess how long the jury will be out. They see lots of trials and often times, they’re close.
But then you hear it, “verdict’s in.”
As everyone solemnly files back into the courtroom one last time, the mood changes. It’s tough to describe. When a jury has a verdict in a murder trial and everyone files back into the courtroom one last time, the air is thick with nervous, nauseous energy. The mix of tension and adrenaline almost make it hard to breathe.
Lawyers come back. Police escort the defendant in. The judge calls for the jury and warns everyone in the courtroom to keep their emotions in check. Anyone who has an outburst will be escorted out... potentially held in contempt.
All eyes are on those 12 people. Will they look at the defendant? Are they crying? Do they look relieved?
Then their decision. And all the built up agony is released. Weeks, months and sometimes even years of anticipation come down to those simple words, “guilty” or “not guilty.”
Someone sitting in on Geans’ trial last week asked me what enjoyment I could possibly get out of covering a murder trial and watching a family in so much pain. At first, I was taken aback. No one has ever asked me that.
Enjoyment? You mean working 10 hour days for a week straight, working through my lunch breaks, only seeing my kids for an hour or 2 before they go to bed and then not being able to sleep well at night during the trial or for days after because my mind won’t shut off after I leave the courtroom?
Or what about watching a family go through so much heartache? Re-living the nightmare of having to bury someone they loved?
I don’t enjoy any of it. It sucks. It’s hard. But it’s an important part of my job.
I offer the Sturgis, Patel and Burns cases as examples. These are cases the community knew about and latched onto. In Theresa Burns’ case, it was 27 years of unanswered questions. That’s a long time. It’s my job to tell people what happened in the courtroom so they can be informed. So they can know what evidence is out there, the facts in the case.
People who went to high school with Theresa or who lived in the neighborhood where she was killed want to know those things and many of them can’t get the time off work to sit through an entire trial.
When it’s all done, the verdict is read and I’m heading home at the end of a murder trial, I never know how to feel. I wonder if the jury made the right decision. I reflect on everything I heard and saw. Even though the justice system’s once again worked the way it’s supposed to… I still get overwhelmed when I think about how it all plays out.
As one family member told me during the Geans trial... even though one side might feel a sense justice and some closure with the verdict, there are no real winners when it's all over.
I remember the first time I saw those giant blue eyes. It was January 2009. And we knew the second we met that adorable, clumsy Chocolate Labrador retriever… we’d found the one.
So began the potty, crate and leash training. We taught her to give high fives, speak on command and bark at strange noises outside or a knock on the door. She became our friend and a sense of security. We quickly fell in love with that cuddly brown fur ball named Rammy.
She was soon house broken enough to get full run of all 800 square feet of the first floor of our first home. Of course, I came home to the occasional potty accident, leg half chewed off the kitchen table or the bathroom trash spread throughout the house. Growing pains. She’d get in a little trouble but then would look at me with those adorable (now deep brown) eyes and all would be forgiven.
When Rammy was about 6 months old, we noticed her begin to limp and her left paw start to turn out a bit. A trip to the vet and some x-rays revealed an issue with her growth plate and a veterinarian at Purdue University told us (GULP) $2,500 could repair it. The surgery would improve her quality of life, we were told. So we did it. She was our BABY and we had to do whatever it took to protect her.
For the next two years it was just the three of us. She loved car rides, trips to Illinois to see my parents, the beach and visits to my work and my husband’s work. She was friendly, good with kids and had so much energy. Such a good girl!
Then in November 2011, the first tiny human arrived.
voices or the wind and wake up the baby.
"Rammy! Shhhh! Stop it!" I would hiss at her.
She would cower and lay down, then I’d feel guilty and call her over and pet her.
“Good girl,” I would say. “You’re a good lady.”
At that point she could still fit in our car for road trips and beach trips. It was a little extra work but we liked taking her. The baby liked looking at her. Our cute family of 4.
In the blink of an eye we moved into a bigger house, had another baby and then another (3 babies in 3 ½ years, to be exact.... that's another blog post for another day). Somewhere in the blur of diapers, late night feedings and busy work schedules, the walks slowed down. She put on a little extra weight. The beach trips stopped. We didn’t take her on car trips as often because, quite frankly, we just didn’t have the energy or the room.
And if I got annoyed when her ferocious guard dog bark woke up ONE kid, multiply that by THREE.
I now put a note on the front door during nap time that says something to the effect of, If you knock on my door, ring my doorbell or do any other stupid crap that makes my dog bark, I will rip your face off.
Not that exactly, but you get the point.
I AM IN SURVIVAL MODE. Naptime is everything.
When the kids are awake, I have this crazy circus of two toddlers and an infant needing my full attention. The LAST thing I want is click clacking nails on my hard wood floors and a whine (then a bark) from a dog who wants to go outside even though she was just out 5 minutes ago.
Or she and the boys love chasing each other through our kitchen and family room. They giggle, bark and run laps. Literally, laps.
Just when I feel like I have the kids under control, the dog acts like an idiot. I’m yelling at her to stop barking or to calm down. I can’t even leave my front door open because she BARKS AT EVERY FLIPPING PERSON OR CAR THAT PASSES BY OUR HOUSE.
Or I realize I forgot to feed her and I have to climb out of bed at the end of a super long day to take care of that.
Then there are the bike rides and walks.
Picture that for a second. My husband at work. Me wearing baby in a carrier, using a broom stick to push the 2-year-old’s tricycle (because he refuses to pedal), constantly reminding the 3-year-old on training wheels to stay on the side of the road, yelling at the dog to get out of the road and then stopping everyone so I can pick up her poop.
I just keep reminding myself I’m burning calories. Releasing endorphins. Or something. Right?
But I’ve cut back on taking her with us because I just don’t have enough hands or sanity to keep everyone under control.
At 6 years old, Rammy is still so much work. A fourth child.
Two weeks ago, I woke up to feed the baby and opened my bedroom door to that horrible, horrible smell. I couldn’t even search for it right away because I had to make a bottle and get the baby back to sleep. But I knew what had happened.
The dog pooped. Diarrhea on my white rug. Four days before we were scheduled to rent out our house for the Notre Dame/Texas game. I was MAD.
And then in a sleep-deprived, angry stupor I said the meanest thing ever to her.
“I don’t even like you anymore, Rammy.”
I immediately felt horrible.
How could I do that? I would never say that to one of my children. I would never even think something like that about them. But I said it to her.
The dog had an accident. She might have even whined at my bedroom door but I didn’t hear her or wake up to help her. We’ve yelled at her so many times NOT to bark that she probably didn’t want to then either, for fear of being yelled at more.
It’s always “Rammy stop!” or “Rammy don’t do that!” or “Damn it, Rammy!”
I occasionally hear my boys yell at her too (they don't say damn it or any other bad words, for the record).
Monkey see, monkey do, right?
Then it hit me. Somewhere in the craziness of kids and life, I forgot to tell my dog how important she is.
How amazing she is when she lets the kids poke her, chase her and tease her with their dinner. How secure I feel when I look in the back yard and she’s lying next to them as they play in their sandbox or trampoline. How I love the way she greets me (just as excited as the kids) when I walk in the door from work. How she does what we taught her to do when she barks at something outside the house that she’s not used to. How I love the fact that she sleeps between our bedroom and our kids’ bedrooms… and she would tell me if an intruder ever got in.
She’s one of my biggest fans. And I said those awful words to her.
So a couple days ago I apologized. I told her I take out my stress and anger by yelling at her because she’s there and it’s easy. I take her eagerness and protective instinct for granted because she’s never failed me (or anyone else in our family).
I also told her I’ll try harder to be more patient with her and the kids. I’ll try to take her on more walks, pet her more and scold her less (even when she vomits grass inside my house, gets her fur on EVERYTHING and destroys every damn ball my kids try to play with).
Yes, I know there will be more times when I simply don’t like my dog and the things she does. But I need to make a point of showing her I still love her. Because I do. And who am I to teach my kids about respecting and loving others if I can’t even show them how to love and respect to our dog?
I'm a mom to 3 beautiful, spirited, elementary school-aged humans, I'm addicted to running + strength training, I have no filter & I work full time in the corporate world. But behind the scenes of all that is where it really gets interesting...