There were so many of us in the courtroom that we filled up the gallery and spilled over into the jury box. I figured the odds were on my side. The cliché goes that you’d never want to be judged by 12 people too dumb to get out of jury duty, but when I got my summons in summer of 2011 I didn’t think I’d need to work that hard to get bounced on professional history alone. I was seven years deep into a journalism career with first-name-basis relationships in the police department, coverage of two first degree murder cases from arrest to sentencing, plus a rape acquittal. Two of my cover stories during the previous year for the alt weekly then employing me dealt with Kansas City’s systematic failure to curb a shameful homicide rate. And I straight-up told the prosecuting attorney during voir dire that I was skeptical that the justice system even wanted to give everyone a fair trial. Yet — somehow they kept me. And then put a man’s life in my hands.
If you’ve been following the fallout from the wildly successful Netflix series Making a Murderer, you know that some jurors have come forward claiming they now believe subject Steven Avery was framed, while others are standing by the guilty verdict. Some have even said they voted “guilty” because they believed that if they acquitted the police would retaliate. This is just the latest case to stir up the sentiment that juries are composed of godforsaken idiots. Start a Google search with “juries are” and the autocomplete will offer up “stupid,” “bad,” “biased,” and “racist.” Having now spent two weeks cooped up as a juror on a first-degree murder case, I will suggest “pissed off,” “unappreciated,” “exhausted,” and “bound by shitty state laws they may regard with deep moral ambivalence.”
Our case was to decide the guilt of defendant Tony Sisco, a black male in his mid-twenties who had, without question, shot another man to death in an eastside bar after hours one night more than a year earlier. I say without question because there was security camera footage of him doing it, along with his brother Vess. The brothers had been playing pool with two other men who, halfway into the footage, produces an AR-15 assault rifle. There is no audio, but on body language alone you can tell the conversation becomes heated (understandably). While Tony argues with one man in a corner of the bar, behind his back Vess draws a pistol and starts shooting, gunning down one man before starting towards Tony and the person he’s arguing with. Tony spins to see Vess advancing, everyone pulls out guns and starts firing, and five minutes later the Siscos are the only two people left alive in the bar. They were tried separately. At the start of the trial, the lawyers didn’t tell us what happened to Vess.
They didn’t tell us much at all, and because they asked us not to take notes during the testimony (which may be a rule specific to Johnson County, Missouri) you discover that being on a jury is exhausting. Without knowing which facts will be relevant later — Does that coroner’s report really matter? Do ballistics tell us intent? — for two weeks of testimony you’re trying to hold onto an increasingly vast library of minutia that may or may not ever be useful again. And because talking about it could affect deliberations, you can’t discuss it with the only other people as obsessed as you are, or anyone else for that matter.
A moment to look around the jury box. There were 14 of us, including two alternates, a few more women than men, about a third black or hispanic, aged from students to retirees. Because they don’t want alternates to zone out during the trial, they don’t identify who’s getting cut before deliberations. At least the main 12 do get a vote. I was only slightly to the side of disappointed when the defense rested and they shut us up in the deliberation room with only a pot of Folgers.
Nothing up until that moment is fun, but at least it’s civil. Deliberation is when all the people you’ve been making small talk with for the past 10 days actually show you who they are. The woman who’s been doing crosswords and teaching anyone who’s interested to play card games will start screaming: “Not guilty! Self-defense! Nothing you can say will convince me otherwise!” This is not a good way to start a dialogue. On our first vote we split five to seven, with the majority in favor of acquittal. I voted guilty.
The talk goes from reasonable, to emotional, to condescending, to downright Socratic. “Everyone thinks I’m some out-of-touch old white lady who doesn’t get black culture,” one juror confided to me by the water fountain after being lectured on gang activity by an aspiring hip-hop journalist. “I have four black kids. My ex-husband is black.” She did not share this information with the other jurors. She didn’t think she should have to justify herself. The fact that she hadn’t gone to work in nearly two weeks and was being compensated with the state’s $6 daily stipend couldn’t help her mood.
Despite all this, jurors really do want to do the right thing. There is a sense of responsibility that we want to rise above ourselves if only because, I hope, no one wants to send someone to prison, or to be executed, and be wrong. You start questioning what your assumptions are, and if you’re not the introspective type, someone else will probably bring it up for you.
It took us two full days before everyone came around to not guilty — which is not to say innocent — with the deciding factors being that it was reasonable to think Tony Sisco felt threatened by the assault rifle, and because he didn’t see the shooting start it was reasonable that he could have believed he was being fired on and pulled his own gun in self-defense. I know at least a few people hated that — “Someone needs to pay for that man’s death,” one woman told me — but we did it because we had to go with the law as written and not how we felt, which is the point.
After 48 hours of masticating each other and turning in our verdict, we got a meeting with the defense attorney. Turned out Tony was already serving a 40-year sentence on an unrelated drug charge. His brother had been found guilty in a previous trial. Our decision would be used in an appeal. Despite promises to exchange phone numbers before deliberation began, I never saw any of the other jurors again.
A few weeks later, I got a check for $72.