A jury of his peers

SUSAN L. HARTT

February 20, 1992|By Susan L. Hartt

IT WAS THE WEEK that juries had to determine if Mike Tyson was guilty of rape and Jeffrey Dahmer was sane. Our jury, in Baltimore, sat to determine the guilt or innocence of a man charged with murder.

The 14 of us -- 12 jurors and two alternates -- talked about Tyson and Dahmer during breaks as we waited in the dry heat of the jury room.

We talked about many things those three days. And we laughed. A lot. We laughed about Oprah Winfrey's weight, Phil Donahue's arrogance, politicians' dishonesty and soap operas' plots. In the course of those hours before we would have to decide our case, conversation ranged from Magic Johnson to the collapse of the banking system. Occasionally we talked about Baltimore, where all of us live.

We liked each other, even remarked about what a pleasant group we were. We never introduced ourselves, however. We had no names or addresses.

Of the 14 of us who heard the case, 11 were black, eight were women. We ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-60s. Most of us worked, two were retired, one apparently baby-sat for her nieces and nephews, another stayed home with her children. Our incomes probably ranged from minimal to substantial.

Did the attorneys accept us because we represented a cross section of the city? Did they think that a jury composed of more women than men would be more sympathetic or more critical? Were they pleased that there were so few whites or did it matter? Was some cagey system used for determining our psychological profiles?

With one exception, every one of my friends and colleagues was surprised when they heard I had been selected. Most said some variation of "I never thought white women were selected for juries in the city" -- even though they did not know the race of the accused. The one exception said, "Well, if I were accused of a crime, I'd want someone like you in the jury box." I chose to believe she meant that I would try to be fair.

From what I saw and heard and felt, every one of us tried to be fair.

The case was complicated by testimony from some witnesses who, as the prosecutor said, "have lifestyles you may not admire." Some evidence was contradictory, some information sketchy or mysteriously not present.

The defendant fascinated us. He seemed interested, but neither worried nor complacent. He made notes on yellow pads, occasionally pushing his glasses back on his nose. He whispered to his attorney. He showed no anger at the testimony of his accusers, nor any emotion as he occasionally scanned the few people in the audience and us. Each day he wore a gray wool suit, blue shirt and a small bow tie. Two jurors noticed him being led away one evening in ankle chains.

He was black, as were all the witnesses except the coroner. The female prosecutor was black, and the defendant's male attorney was white -- as were the judge, his clerk and bailiff. Ten of the 12 jurors were black. Everyone notices race in a murder trial and everywhere else, but race was not an issue in this case. Or perhaps the importance of our responsibility slashed across race and income.

The defense's entire case rested on the contradictions of some of the testimony. The defendant never testified, nor were there any other witnesses for the defense.

With the two alternates now dismissed, we filed back up into that small room, decorated with such an odd and unappealing assortment of pictures that we wondered why anyone bothered.

Less than three hours later, to the amazement of several of us, on the fifth or sixth ballot we voted the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree. We were a rowdy bunch, speaking with as much passion (and even occasional anger) as we had roared with laughter about Elizabeth Taylor's wedding the afternoon before. Arguments for and against this witness or that raged several at a time. A proponent of one view would switch and argue another, as though testing his or her own conviction. Assumptions about the motives and the lives of the witnesses and defendant were made and rejected. There was intense discussion about what premeditation really means. Having torn notepaper into long strips, as we may have seen in a movie or television show, we voted in secret.

Then it happened. We had all voted guilty. The case against the defendant was just too strong. "God help us," someone said as we looked at each other for confirmation or even guidance. "I feel ill," someone else said. Then one of the women said, "I know I may be way out of line, but I'd like us all to join hands and raise a prayer."

And we did. Holding tight, even staying bound together while one of us visited the rest room. "Help us, Lord, not feel guilty tonight or ever for the decision we have reached here," she said at the end, "and help guide this young man whom we believe to have done this terrible thing."

Several of us embraced. Then we went silently back down the stairs into the courtroom. When the verdict was read, the defendant became angry, slamming papers down, apparently shaking. One of the jurors, a young woman who, I'm quite sure, had been the last to vote guilt, started to shake as well. Then the judge thanked us and the attorneys and we left.

The Tyson and Dahmer trials were covered by hundreds of reporters from around the world. Their stories led the news for days. The case we decided, in which a young man was shot once at close range in front of a bar in Baltimore, received four short paragraphs in The Sun.

Susan L. Hartt is a Baltimore writer.

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