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- “Should any of us have to carry the burden of deciding someone’s life should end?”
I figured I would be released immediately, as I’m part of the media, and wrote as much on my questionnaire. Perhaps even more surprising than landing in this jury pool: It took six weeks before I was released. I was never scheduled to come in for questioning by the defense and prosecution, but I wasn’t released or able to talk about or read about the case.
It wasn’t until April 26 that I finally found out I was let go, as the next stage of jury selection, group questioning, continued with about 140 left in the pool. But on March 15, as my head spun at the prospect of spending two months on the jury of a death penalty case, I wrote the following column:
Once, when I was trying to find a way to make sense of my career, I landed on the idea that I’m a storyteller. I write stories in this column. When I teach, I prefer to think of what I do as a form of storytelling. Even when I take pictures, there are stories.
When strange shit happens, I shrug it off and figure it all just makes a better story. Today, I was called for jury duty and I was told I cannot tell the story, yet.
My earlier brushes with performing my civic duty did not prepare me for today. About 150 of us lined the courthouse hallway as we filed into the juror staging room. Maybe I should have known something was up — since when does jury duty start in the afternoon?
As we took our seats, I saw the name of only one judge on the dry erase board. In the past, I recall waiting during morning hours while a board filled with many judges’ names slowly got erased as trials were postponed or pleas reached. I guessed that we were there for a specific trial. Turns out I was right, but I couldn’t have guessed the enormity of the case.
I sat down next to a 20-year-old. This was her first jury summons. She got it in the mail the day after her birthday, she told me. An older woman on my other side said she was no stranger to being summonsed.
The 4th Judicial District judge, Gregory Werner, was introduced and court was in session. He took a seat at a podium and started his introduction. After giving a bit of a civics lesson — “I think you should know that the United States conducts 90 percent of the world’s jury trials” — he told us to open our juror packets. Inside the packet was a 20-page copy of the instructions he would spend the next 30 minutes reading to us.
He began by explaining the case. It sounded familiar. I’ve often said, I love living in Colorado Springs (or in this case, El Paso County) because murders are still front-page news. I consume local media, on TV, via Twitter, in print, so the case was immediately familiar.
What I didn’t know about it though: Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. The judge urged us to remember that just because charges are being brought against this person, he was not guilty. He said if he asked us at that very moment, we would have to say that the defendant was not guilty because there was no evidence provided yet to prove otherwise.
After being read an oath, we raised our right hands and said, “I do.” And then we had to fill out an 18-page questionnaire about the case, our media habits and our feelings about the death penalty.
If the conversations I overheard among potential jurors while we waited in the hallway were any indication, some people might have filled out that long form with the sole intent of being released from duty. I answered as honestly as possible. The judge directed us not to talk to the media about the case or about anything at all. I AM the media. I teach media. I write this column. And my professional and personal connections are littered with media professionals. Not talking about anything with the media would leave me sequestered, even though the jurors for this case will not be.
I didn’t expect being called for jury duty on a Thursday afternoon to make me think in detail about capital punishment. But there I was sitting with a clipboard in hand, juror number 1910, trying to find the answer that most closely reflected my attitude on the death penalty. They ranged from “all first degree murder should be punished by the death penalty” to “the death penalty is just plain wrong.”
I had to craft my own variation on the answer. In some cases the death penalty is the right answer, but I don’t know if I should decide that. So yeah, I believe in the death penalty. I just don’t want to have to make that decision. Much like I love to eat a good steak, but don’t ask me to slaughter a cow.
Am I a hypocrite? Probably. And that’s something I will wrestle with for awhile. Suddenly the burden our country puts on citizens to make these decisions felt very heavy.
The questionnaire asked for our reasoning and I scrawled something to the effect that “being a human being means I don’t know that I have the right to decide this.” I don’t know if I could live the rest of my life knowing I was part of a group of 12 who decided someone else’s life should end. Even though this defendant allegedly made that decision about two others himself.
Beside the 20-year-old next to me, I saw one of my older daughter’s former classmates, another 20-year-old. Can we ask these young girls to make that sort of decision? Can we trust the two retired military gentlemen who were in line behind me discussing their disdain for school district taxes to decide? Should any of us whose names were randomly selected have to carry the burden of deciding someone’s life should end?
As a storyteller, I process by speaking and sharing. Before going into jury duty I probably told everyone I came across that I was heading to do my civic duty. Walking out this afternoon, I felt restrained. I mean, come on, what a story. I get called for jury duty and instead of sitting on a small, one-day jury, I land in a room where I’m being considered to serve on a death-penalty case. (I would write here about how unusual a death-penalty case is in El Paso County, but I’m also forced to repress my other instinct, to Google this.)
Instead, I will bookmark the website where they will post who needs to report for interviews and who will be released. Since it seems like a long shot that I will be selected, I will follow the trial, and I will do so with much greater empathy for the 12 members of that jury.