Murder trial puts even veteran juror through wringer

December 22, 2004|By Malissa Ruffner

I'M AN OLD HAND at jury duty. I've done the fender-benders and the armed robbery. At times, I've been respectfully challenged.

I remember when you could smoke upstairs in the jury waiting room and when there were no movies. I even served for two weeks years ago, when the one-day, one-trial system was just a gleam in the jury commissioner's eye.

When I filed into the courtroom last month, I had a feeling - my number was in the target range. Not a single voir dire question brought me to my feet. I didn't seek to serve, and I didn't try to avoid it. And besides, I believe strongly in jury duty.

I was ready for a murder - or so I thought.

For six days, I was immersed in a murder trial stemming from an event that occurred more than a year ago. It was part Law & Order, part CSI and part Boomtown. It was fascinating on every level, and I wanted very much to share my reactions as the days unfolded.

But I followed the rules and issued only terse bulletins - "The prosecution rested" and "We will hear closing arguments." Between courtroom sessions, a unique set of people, who otherwise would have never met, melded into an amazingly cohesive unit.

We spent the week discussing NBA violence, mayoral-police antics, gender politics and horror stories of modern life - at various times quietly and at other times quite raucously. And we took care of one another. I couldn't decide which was more fascinating, the courtroom or the jury room.

Then it was time to issue this bulletin: "We began deliberations." We, the detached, curious observers, had become the main event.

We took our solemn oath seriously, but the charges just didn't seem to fit. We made charts and checklists and worked very hard. Maybe we were wrong, but we were on our own.

We listened to the judge's instructions over and over again; at least while we were listening to that soothing, sure voice, we were not flailing around the facts.

The defendant was unlikable; the victim, even with her flaws, was the heroine of the story. We stared at pictures of her - mostly of her body - at the scene and in the morgue. I had seen her father in the courtroom wearing her picture pinned to his chest.

We the jury wanted very much to do the right thing, but we will never know if we did.

It was hard to hear the many "not guilty" pronouncements aloud when we knew the victim's family was sitting there, as they had been all week. In fact, we practiced in the jury room a few times after the first reading of the verdicts left me in tears. My heart was pounding out of my chest, but I think I would have been fine. Then other jurors broke down. And they weren't all middle-aged women like me.

Too suddenly it was over. We left the courtroom to see the defendant's attorney in the hall, with a smile I couldn't share. Further on, we encountered the victim's father. He was more gracious than I could ever be in his shoes.

And, ironically, now that I was permitted to talk, I couldn't - at least not without a level of emotion that prevented me from completing sentences. Still, weeks later, it's hard to dwell upon the experience.

Like all modern, psychologically well-adjusted folks, I want some closure. But the only way I can get it is by reliving it, by conducting legal and medical research, by interviewing the lawyers, by trying to find my fellow jurors - in short, by making it an obsession. And even if I do all that, there is no guarantee.

Instead, I am left with this: I now know a lot more than I did about asphyxia, bruising, pulmonary edema, "bug activity," stains and lethal levels of drugs and alcohol. I now know more about what goes on in Baltimore after I am asleep. But on some nights, I don't sleep as well anymore.

Malissa Ruffner lives in Baltimore.

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