A week of jury duty and the unsatisfying absence of justice

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I reacted to my jury duty summons much like, I assume, my peers did — with a mix of curiosity and resentment.

As an education reporter, I’ve had few opportunities to sit in on trials. During the instances I did, I never perceived what I now see as an invisible barricade between the audience and the participants. A safety fence between those who are interested, for whatever reason, in the outcome, and those involved in the outcome.

It was not what I thought it would be.

If you’ve served on a jury before and find the idea of reading about the process tedious, please skip the next two paragraphs.

At the start, I and roughly 100 potential jurors were placed in a large jury assembly room where some of us were randomly selected to gather in courtrooms for smaller jury pools. There, attorneys — and often the defendants and plaintiffs — sat while a judge culled the pool into an even smaller number based on questions intended to root out bias. Do you have a personal or professional relationship with the plaintiff or defendant? Do you have a bias against Spanish-speaking legal residents?

Attorneys then struck out a limited number of jurors they saw as unlikely to side with their case — based on appearance, age, careers, the careers of their spouses, etc. — and the lucky 13 (12 jurors and one alternate) were ushered into the jury stand. The trials often immediately started from there.

In the span of two days, I was not selected for three trials. I occasionally made it in the smaller pool of potential jurors but escaped the final cut.

They don’t tell you they don’t serve you lunch unless you’re actually selected, and so I wept the first two days.

At the end of the second day, I arose. It was the last trial of the week, and although I had nearly escaped without a single civic duty to add to my resume, I was finally among the chosen (Can you add “jury duty” to your resume? No? On second thought, don’t answer that).

It was a first-degree criminal domestic violence case — a woman accusing her ex-boyfriend of punching her and impeding her ability to call the police.

The solicitor’s office showed us pictures of her distorted, black eye and tear-streaked face. We heard testimony from the urgent-care doctor who saw her two days after the incident, as well as from the deputy who took her statement after she left the urgent-care office.

But nobody, including the defense, disputes any of that.

In the jury training videos the courthouse employees showed us, the primary responsibility we were given was to determine if the evidence made us certain, beyond a reasonable doubt, of a party’s guilt. That idea was reinforced several times over — beyond a reasonable doubt.

In the case we were given, the evidence wasn’t clearly convicting — there was no simplicity that caused us to feel as though we knew what happened on the night in question, but there was the possibility of another culprit.

Without getting into the arduous weeds of the case, which is complex and involves numerous details and scenarios, we knew, beyond a reasonable doubt, the victim had been assaulted, but we did not know with certainty it was the defendant.

In the course of the investigation, deputies did not interview any witnesses. They did not interview the second suspect who could have also been the culprit. They took a statement from the victim and made an arrest.

Either the defendant or the victim was lying about the assault, and both arguably had motivations to do so.

After hearing all of the testimonies and arguments, I was pleasantly surprised to go back to the deliberation room and find that all of the jurors felt what I did — doubt and uncertainty.

While we were inclined to believe the victim, could we put a person in prison based on an inclination, without sufficient evidence? I can’t speak to what the other jurors felt, but after we reached our verdict of not guilty, I didn’t feel relieved.

Someone was lying. Someone hurt the victim. Someone deserved to pay.

But who?

“This comes down to shoddy police work,” one of the jurors said in frustration, after hours of deliberating.

While I understand law enforcement, attorneys, and judges often have enormous caseloads in Greenville County, without sufficient evidence and testimonies, we couldn’t deliver a concrete verdict.

We deliberated for hours, weighing the evidence and our doubt to determine if it was beyond reasonableness — it just wasn’t.

I don’t feel satisfied with the outcome. I also don’t feel qualified to have reached a verdict. Maybe if the incident had been thoroughly investigated, the outcome would have been different. Maybe the case would have been closed quicker. Maybe it never would have reached a jury trial. Maybe not.

I do feel more needed to be done on the case before leaving it up to 12 jurors to make the toughest decision in the courtroom.

However, I also feel as though this was a case of the judicial system working. We didn’t convict based on our emotions or prejudices. We didn’t go with our modest inclinations. We tried to be as objective as possible, and settled on the realization we would never, and could never, know what happened that night based on the evidence presented to us.

Sometimes, maybe a diverse jury of our peers is exactly what we need to settle disputes. I hope, when dozens of our peers file in deliberation rooms across the country, they can recognize when they’re unable to know someone’s innocence or guilt.

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