Judith Sutherland: Anonymity favored but not always possible

Like a light shining so intensely that it hides all but the questioned, we are often blinded by our insatiable need to know more. Must the jury in a murder trial be exposed to public scrutiny, each individual named and questioned by the media? Until one has stood in the shoes of a juror, it seems harsh to demand that spotlight be shined on each of them.

I have watched and listened to clips of the Anthony pre-trial and trial, the Florida woman who did not report her daughter missing for 31 days. A skull and skeleton found in a swamp near the home months later could not reveal cause of death.

Three years passed. I was not drawn to this case in the same way that many were, but what I often found myself thinking is, “I am so glad I am not on that jury.”

I watched with interest as the judge heard arguments in the days following acquittal for reasons to release jurors names and contact information to the media. Angry mobs protest the acquittal.

My experience

I was once seated on a murder trial jury. I was Juror Number 4. I initially felt certain I would be sent home, having covered that court as a reporter just a few years prior. My heart sank when I realized both the defense and the prosecution agreed to put me on that jury.

It was 20 years ago, my children both toddlers. It is a civic duty; I paid much more to a babysitter than I made in that grueling time as a juror. We were granted permission to take notes, and mine were extensive.

Day one: We were driven to the crime scene, the home where a young woman was found murdered, her husband the accused. As we entered the home, several of his brothers glared at us as intruders. The tension was unlike anything I have experienced. To say it was intimidating falls far short.

“Note this bathroom,” the bailiff said. “Note this closet. Note this bedroom.” And as we were leaving, we saw a small shed a considerable distance from the house, its interior cluttered.

In a nutshell, many testified that the husband and wife had fought earlier in the night. She went home alone. He commented to several others that he was finished putting up with her. Two days went by in which friends could not reach her.

One friend forced her way in to the home and saw what she thought was the woman in her bed, completely covered by a comforter, though screams did not awaken her. The couple’s toddler daughter lay sleeping on top of the comforter. She left in fear, eventually calling authorities.

Upon her return, the bed was empty, the comforter and the child gone. The husband, appearing as though he had just awakened, confronted this woman and they fought, he ordered her out.

Discovery

Sheriff deputies arrived, searched the house and found the woman’s body stuffed in a small closet, wrapped in the comforter, a ligature formed by a thin plastic strap pulled tight around her neck. Once pulled, this type of strap could not be released without cutting it free. Straps which matched this one were later found in the cluttered shed.

During deliberation, we reviewed everything. Photographs, unbearable to see, were part of this. After a time, all 12 jurors agreed that this man was guilty. Several questioned pre-meditation. Deadlocked, we returned to the judge, asking for clarification of “reasonable doubt” and aggravated versus first-degree murder.

Notes helped to remind us that the shed was a considerable distance from the house, and based upon the judge’s response, pre-meditation can be moments, hours, days, weeks, months, any time away from the heat of passion, operating with intent to kill.

Decision

We later returned with a guilty verdict of murder with pre-meditation. The difference in the amount of time this man would serve in prison was a few years, for aggravated murder, to a lifetime behind bars for murder with pre-meditation. Appeals have been denied in recent years.

We were polled in open court, our full names given, our response required. It was an eerie feeling as the accused and his large family of brothers, obviously angry, sat nearby.

I understand the need for full disclosure to be certain of a unanimous vote. But in the weeks after the sentencing, threatening phone calls to our homes made me question why we had been forced to put our families at risk

I know I would do it over again. Doing the right thing isn’t always the easy thing. But, I don’t mind admitting I would have preferred to have been known only as Juror Number Four who cast a guilty vote along with eleven others.

About the Author

Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college. More Stories by Judith Sutherland

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