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'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...