Serving on a jury

Natalie Price

Travis County Citizen and Juror

Ever wondered what goes through a juror’s mind during voir dire? During trial? During deliberations? Here’s your chance to find out:  We asked a woman who recently served on a Travis County jury to write about her experience.

I was surprised by all the (unsolicited) advice I got after I received a summons in the mail to appear at the Travis County courthouse for jury duty. Bosses, supervisors, and friends all chimed in on how to avoid it.
    “I just said I was a student and they let me go.”
    “I told them I was a foster parent.”
    “I said I believe in the death penalty.” And on and on.
    I wondered why was everyone assumed that I, like them, wanted to get out of serving—no one dreamed that I could possibly want to be on a jury. But I’m 28 and had never served before, and I was curious. My only supportive friends were the ones who wished they could serve but were unable to, including my roommate (she works for lawyers) and a friend (now an attorney) from college. Their curiosity is what encouraged me most, so I trekked bravely to the courthouse on a Monday morning.
    That day, a major source of stress was finding parking in downtown Austin. Most meters max out at only three hours, and there’s no telling how long the impaneling process would take (it turns out, longer than any of us expected). A half day at a garage was $15 to $30, and that wouldn’t have even been enough time. But my roommate let me park at her downtown office, just a short jaunt to the courthouse, so crisis averted!
    We were supposed to show up by 9:00 a.m., but it took awhile before we were actually brought into the courtroom—close to an hour and a half. I’m not sure why we were delayed, and it would have been helpful to know as we sat there. But finally the bailiff came out, took roll, and handed out numbers on sticky notes.

Voir dire
I wasn’t sure what to expect during voir dire. I was No. 56—did that mean anything? The room was very cold, and I was shivering most of the time, even while bundled in my jacket. Once we were seated in numerical order, the prosecution, defense attorneys, and the defendant were introduced to us, and we were sworn in.
    As the prosecution began introducing the generalities of the case, my heart sank. I could immediately tell that the crime was very serious (involving a felony charge), and I wished I didn’t have to hear about it. Within a few minutes the prosecutors were legally defining “sexual assault,” along with “penetration” and the differences between “sexual assault” and “aggravated sexual assault.” It was all very alarming, and I felt like I had had the wind knocked out of me.
    The prosecution asked if anyone had experienced sexual assault as a minor or knew someone who had, and between a quarter and a third of the jurors raised their paddles. I have some close friends who just discovered ongoing sexual assault on two of their children, so their faces came to mind as the prosecutors discussed these things in the courtroom. To be honest, I did not want to hear any more about the case because it was alarming, heartbreaking, disgusting, and overwhelming. At the same time, I realized that I was willing to be an advocate for a child out there who’s been victimized.
    The prosecution asked questions about detecting signs in a child that might indicate abuse. They also explained that if sexual abuse on children is ever reported, the outcry is usually delayed, resulting in no DNA or other evidence. That all made sense to me. Then they asked the panel, “Would you be able to apply the law and convict someone based on the evidence and testimony of a single witness?” That was hard for a lot of people, and it was conflicting for me too, but I answered “yes.”
    This question was key, and it ended up that one man selected for our jury (I’ll call him Ted) ultimately decided he could not convict on the testimony of one witness, though I do not remember him saying anything out loud during this part of the selection process. Later, I wondered if there was another question that could have been asked here, to help potential jurors like Ted realize and report their bias.
    I liked the prosecutors immediately. They were both women and both beautiful, charming, intelligent, to the point, and Texans. No games. They seemed honest and likable. It was an obvious contrast to the defense attorney, whom I immediately did not like. His tone of voice, his line of questioning, even his appearance and his glasses. He was not smooth, he was not charming, and he did not even seem confident. The contrast between him and the prosecutors was so striking, I almost felt like it was a joke. Was this a clever (or not-so-clever) ploy on his part? I was surprised how clearly I liked one set of attorneys over the other side. But I also had never been in court before—I’ve only seen things on TV, where all the attorneys are gorgeous and polished and have every point covered. This real-life courtroom experience made me realize that TV attorneys are not reality and that it is unlikely a real attorney, covering dozens of cases at once, could actually be perfectly prepared and smooth in real life. But what we see on TV affected more than just me—the rest of the jury discussed this in deliberations, nitpicking where the attorneys could have probed more during the trial.
    The defense got up and began asking questions. From the start, he was unclear and I could never quite tell where he was going. At one point he asked if we would count it against his client if the defendant chose not to take the stand and remained silent. This was probably the hardest question for me in the entire process, and my answer (that a defendant not taking the stand would seem suspicious to me) prompted the attorneys to call me in later to clarify. In my mind, it doesn’t make sense why anyone would not take the stand if they really didn’t commit the crime.
    The defense asked us what we thought his job was, and he got a variety of answers, some ridiculous. He asked, “Do I have to prove my client innocent?” Most people said, “Yes, it’s your job to defend your client and prove his innocence.” It was somewhere in here that I suddenly remembered two things: that suspects are “innocent until proven guilty” and that they have “the right to remain silent.” (Maybe TV helped a little after all?) I understood finally what he was getting at: He didn’t have to prove that his client is innocent; innocence is assumed. Instead, the prosecution has to prove he is guilty. That was what all the talk of “the State’s burden” was about. As I sat there, it dawned on me that my personal feelings about how to determine someone’s guilt were contrary to how the law determines someone’s guilt. I also realized that my previous answer about someone remaining silent would have to change too if I were to abide by the law. That moment was a turning point for me, and when I was called back in to clarify my answer about a defendant’s right not to testify, I confidently confirmed that I was able to obey the law.
    The final selection process must have taken longer than anyone expected because we didn’t break for lunch. It was well into the 2 o’clock hour when we were brought back into the courtroom and the 12 jurors announced. I did not know whether to feel privileged or burdened when I was selected—an odd feeling. The bailiff took us to the jury room to give us parking badges and further instructions on code of conduct. We left around 3:15 p.m., and I was very glad I didn’t have to worry about a parking ticket on my windshield.

We were scheduled to show up the next day at 9:30, and we all made it on time. Then we sat and waited for about an hour and a half before anything happened. This was a poor start, and a couple jurors were already antsy and frustrated. We had no idea what was going on; we felt forgotten and a bit trapped. It would have been nice if we had received an update every 20 to 30 minutes. Also, the coffee was bad. A small thing, I know, but bad coffee on our first day of jury service with 11 strangers and things already running more than an hour late? It was harsh. I made a mental note to bring my own fresh grounds the next day. In the meantime, I did my best to introduce myself to and make small talk with the other jurors so we didn’t feel like the 12 strangers we were.
    We finally entered the courtroom around 11 o’clock, and the trial officially began. I’d never been in a courtroom before, and I tried to remain open-minded and logical, listening for what the State and defense had promised during voir dire. The opening statement from the prosecution felt dramatic, confident, and bold, detailing whom we would hear from and laying out their story of the defendant. The prosecutors ended their opening by saying they were confident we would find the defendant guilty on all charges. The defense attorney’s remarks were much shorter and ended with the opposite sentiment, his sureness that we would find the defendant not guilty. I did find it interesting that he begged us to consider all the charges as one unit in our verdict.
    When the prosecution read the charges, I was surprised by how literal and specific they were. There was a charge for each body area that was reportedly violated. I noticed the felony charge was listed first—digital penetration—followed by the lesser (but no less disturbing) charges. It was a lot to take in; I knew that these things happen in the world and in movies, but it was hard to realize that it happens in my city, in neighborhoods I’ve frequented.
    When we heard from the victim, we had high expectations. The defense had claimed in its opening remarks that she would be poised and composed, bold in overcoming her fears to find justice. But when the victim finally took the stand, she was soft-spoken and seemed shy. I knew it had to be terrifying to sit there within sight of her alleged perpetrator. I could also see her discomfort as she almost hid underneath the jacket she had draped over her shoulders. The jury discussed these details at length in deliberations later.
    Her testimony was the hardest to listen to and made me very uncomfortable. The most awkward moment for me was when the prosecution used the opening of a Kleenex box to represent the female sexual organ and asked the victim to demonstrate the motion she had experienced (I assumed to clarify for the jury whether penetration had happened). The victim was shy here but followed through, and I thought she was brave. I wanted to avert my eyes from her (she was describing things that are hard to talk about), but I also felt like I needed to look into her face and watch her to determine her credibility. It was hard to keep looking at her, but I knew the trial and our deliberations would hinge on her testimony, as her testimony was the primary evidence.
    I noticed fairly soon into her testimony that her story didn’t align in perfect detail with the other witnesses involved. However, most of my doubts about her credibility left when I heard from the expert witnesses later (doctors and forensic interviewers). There was an acceptable amount of historical error to me—her allegations didn’t change. I greatly appreciated the clarity one expert witness provided. She was trained in forensic interviewing with children, and her testimony helped me understand the nature of assault on children’s minds and why some details of their stories will not always match up each time they tell it (like the exact number of times the assaults happened, the places where they lived, or exactly what date it occurred). The other expert witnesses explained why there would be no other physical evidence in the case of a delayed outcry. To me, the prosecution built a solid case for the victim’s credibility.
    As for the defense, we were all surprised when the defense attorney called the defendant to the stand, me especially because I had gone through all the trouble of clarifying whether I could apply the law if he chose to remain silent. I think we all respected him more for taking the stand, but his testimony ultimately did not help his case much. There was a moment when the prosecution zeroed in on a careless comment and asked the defendant if he would lie to keep himself from going to prison. He replied, “Honestly, yes, I would.” What? The jury could tell he was being honest in that moment—but he was being honest about lying … and he said all of this while facing prison time.
    Throughout the trial it was hard to remember our oath and not talk about the case on our breaks, but our jury took our role and that oath very seriously. There were a couple times when general talk about the court system would begin to get too specific, and we reminded each other that we shouldn’t talk about such things and distracted ourselves by changing the subject. We discussed one attorney’s full-arm tattoos (they were peeking out from his sleeves), the animated blond woman in the back of the courtroom (she turned out to be the defense attorney’s girlfriend), Austin’s horrendous traffic, and outrageous property taxes. We talked, laughed, and bonded together during our breaks, trying to keep our minds off the case. As far as I could tell, all the jurors took their oath seriously and did not talk about the case at home either. I was proud of everyone.

Finally, the prosecution and defense rested around 11:00 a.m. on Thursday. The judge read us the charge and dismissed us to the jury room. They had taken our orders for lunch and delivered our food so we could begin deliberations immediately. Once everyone was in the room with food, we took an initial poll before talking freely about the case. I felt the defendant was guilty when I was sitting in the courtroom and I assumed everyone else felt the same way. But as we went around the table, the first three confidently voted “not guilty.” By the time I gave my initial answer, I became “undecided.” I think there were three solid guilty, at least five not guilty, and the rest were undecided. That’s when I knew deliberations would take longer than a lunch hour.
    As we began to talk, the conversation got slogged in some details that weren’t helpful. Ted—the man I mentioned before from voir dire—called us to order and went over some definitions. This action was important in setting the stage for what we would consider as we deliberated. Ted had previously worked as a private investigator, so he claimed to have experience with the law and how it worked. He went on to define the words “fact,” “evidence,” and “not guilty” versus “innocent.” This was helpful in focusing us as a team, but I also noted how quickly he dominated the conversation.
    A few jurors suggested Ted be our head juror, but Ted actually handed off the job to a man we’ll call Ron. This was a surprising gesture but I was grateful for it. Ron was a much more open-minded and diplomatic person, and he kept cool even when the discussion got heated. We continued discussing, and as Ted talked through the case, another juror wrote out what we were considering on the white board. We wrote out the allegations, evidence, and timelines. Ted explained apologetically that the only real evidence we had was a single witness’s testimony, which wasn’t that great (in his opinion). He made the case that we literally had nothing else: no physical evidence, no videotape, and no other witness. “It’s a he-said, she-said case,” he said over and over throughout deliberations. As he explained everything, my hope of declaring the defendant “guilty” sank. Was there any way I could convict a man on the testimony of one girl? What if she was lying?
    We took one or two more votes to gauge our progress. We decided we had reached an impasse after a couple of hours and informed the judge, who promptly ordered us to continue deliberating. We deliberated until 6 that night. By the end of the day, my vote had changed to “not guilty,” but I was not happy about it—I believed the defendant to be guilty, but I was not sure there was enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty. That was where I wrestled. The judge gave us an option to order dinner and deliberate into the night, or to break and come back to deliberate at 9 the next morning. We all voted to break and come back the next day (which turned out to be a great decision—we all needed a breather). The only thing we all agreed on that day was deciding to treat the allegations as a unit (meaning we would convict the defendant the same way on all three charges), something the defense lawyer had suggested during his opening statement. Either we believed the victim or we didn’t.
    Two (maybe three) jurors were particularly closed off to any change and would consider no other option than where they stood at the end of that first day. The other jurors seemed open-minded enough to hear both sides. When we left Thursday night, the vote stood at eight “not guilty,” two “guilty,” and two “undecided.” I left very frustrated. I had heard some sobering viewpoints from my fellow jurors and witnessed some close-minded, even borderline racist views, and my heart was heavy. I went to a concert that evening (one I’d been excited about for weeks), but I was so tired I left early. Sleep did not come easily that night, as I was thinking back over the case and praying for wisdom. I had been praying all week over the case, for the people involved and for the jury, and I was at a loss with how to proceed with my fellow jurors. I prayed for justice for the defendant and the victim, whatever that might mean, and I prayed for my fellow jurors to be soft-hearted and open-minded, faithful to consider all of the evidence we heard during trial. I was reminded that night that it is lawful to convict someone based on the testimony of one witness if we consider her credible, though Ted had made it sound like that was illegal or immoral during deliberations.

The last day
On Friday morning, several other jurors reported that they had not slept well or at all and had been thinking through the case all night. Shockingly, almost every vote had changed in some way since the evening before: Only two people remained “not guilty,” and there were now four or five leaning toward “guilty,” and the rest were “undecided.” The victim’s testimony was discussed again, and more people agreed that she was credible. It wasn’t too long, though, before the conversation got heated. In one tally, only Ted was holding out on his “not guilty” verdict; everyone else had swung to “guilty.” It finally came out that Ted refused to convict based on the testimony of only one witness (contrary to our vow in voir dire). His decision was based on a verse from the Bible he wrote out on the white board (Deuteronomy 19:15, which states you must have more than one witness to convict someone), and then called anyone who was a Jew or Christian to submit to what the Bible says. As you can imagine, the room got hot pretty quickly, almost volatile.
    A few people had some words for Ted, but our head juror, Ron, called for peace. I confronted Ted respectfully with Romans 13:1–7, which clearly talks about how Christians are called to submit to governing authorities, but to no avail. Ted was angry and unmoved. There were two people on the “guilty” side who were also unmoving—they were convinced the victim was credible. At this point, we all felt that we had reached an impasse, and around 11 o’clock we informed the judge. Again, he urged us to continue deliberating and reminded us that a mistrial would mean that the trial process and jury selection would start over for all those involved in the case. But he also told us not to vote in violence to our conscience.
    When we all came back into the room, I asked if the rest of the jurors would allow me to pray over our deliberations and the trial. To my surprise, they all agreed. When I finished, we were quiet for a bit before beginning deliberations again. Ultimately, we didn’t make any progress. We were still grid-locked, and Ted was unchanging in his “not guilty” stance. We reviewed the judge’s written order and wrote a third note declaring that we were at an impasse—there was at least one person on either side of the verdict who would be doing violence to his conscience to change his vote. After this note, the judge called us back to the courtroom, declared a mistrial, and explained what would happen next. He thanked us for serving and had us escorted back to the juror room. The judge came back to personally to thank us all again, and we were officially dismissed. He let the prosecution and defense attorneys ask us some questions about the deliberations, and we were told we would get our checks for serving in the mail. I left the courthouse dazed and a bit frustrated but with a clear conscience.

Reflecting back over the trial and deliberations, I see how emotionally intense that time was for me. As the week dragged on, I felt more and more exhausted, and I needed a lot of rest over the weekend after the mistrial. I had to process my frustrations alongside my roommate, pray through what happened, and release the outcome back to God. In the few weeks that have followed, I’ve become more interested in the trial process and even (for a quick minute) fancied the idea of becoming a bailiff. I’ve been more interested in how people search for the truth and have found a couple of TV shows and podcasts in this vein.
    But the most tangible way that this trial has affected me (besides writing an article about it) is that I now actively encourage people to go through jury duty. My hope is that my generational peers will become educated about the trial process and be willing participants and positive voices in the justice system.