I have said several times that I intended to stop writing about personal matters, but it struck me that my opinions are shaped by what I have experienced along the road of life, so it is difficult to write about issues without referring to personal experiences. One such experience was being on a first degree murder trial jury in the state of Florida. This certainly gave me a hopeful view on justice in that state level at the time. (Reubin Askew, democrat, supporter of civil rights and desegregation of schools, had been elected governor, and this trial indicated that this was indeed, the New South. Unfortunately, as we know now, that didn’t last.)
I was finishing up my Ph.D. dissertation in Gainesville and then I got a jury summons. Oh well, said I, the likelihood of my being selected was fairly small and it was my civic duty, so of course I showed up at the courthouse for the Voir Dire without an excuse. As I went through the process and we were getting toward the end, the 12th juror was called and it wasn’t me, so I relaxed —too soon as it turned out. The juror was dismissed for cause and my name was called! The trial, which lasted a week, was based on a rather spectacular case that involved voodoo and a police chase on the Interstate.
After the choosing of a foreperson, we got down to business of hearing the evidence The accused had allegedly kidnaped his wife in Miami and then drove north, stopping at a gas station south of Gainesville, where she mouthed the words “Help” and “Call police,” to the gas attendant. Her husband then proceeded down the Interstate with her in the car and was soon surrounded by police cars. When the police finally stopped him and opened the front side door, his wife fell out with two bullet holes in her and the gun on the seat. Since there was no other person in the vehicle he could blame her death on the police immediately arrested him.
His lawyer claimed that she had tried to shoot him and in the struggle killed herself. The jury were presented with these facts:
1. She always picked up her kids at school or called her mother to do it, but she had done neither.
2. She had mouthed the words to a gas station attendant indicating that she was in the car against her will.
3. There was a recently fired gun in the car with two shots fired.
4. There were two bullets in her body, which ballistics matched with those fired from the gun.
5. Her husband was the only other person in the car.
We needed to first answer the questions — Why did he kidnap her and what were his intentions? The answer to that seemed to be that he and his wife had become estranged and he was going to take her against her will to a voodoo practitioner in Alabama in an attempt to get her affections back.
The jury asked for the gun and we tried to pull the trigger. The trigger was very difficult to pull and in fact it took a very strong effort to do so. It seemed unlikely that his wife, who was not a big woman (as we had seen from the photograph of her corpse), had been able to pull it from under the seat and pull the trigger twice, shooting herself two times.
After having been presented with all of the evidence, we took a vote and the results were: First-degree murder 2, second degree murder 8,innocent 2.
I need to add one further detail here- both the defendant and his wife were black, which I’m certain influenced the first degree votes, though they could not recommend execution as it was ruled out in this case. It was clear they were pushing for a decision of premeditated murder because the defendant was black. The eight, including me, soon talked them down and they agreed to vote for intentional but unpremeditated murder. The two who voted for acquittal were more difficult to convince, but we were able to get the male juror to back down fairly quickly.
Now, we were down to one juror voting for acquittal and she seemed to feel that nobody was ever guilty of anything! Somebody asked her if kidnapping you wife was a crime and we sent to the judge a query on this subject. The answer, as I suspected, was that anybody who is taken against their will is by definition in Florida law, a victim of kidnapping. It was pointed out to our errant juror that by Florida law the death of a person in the process of a felony was 3rd degree murder. Finally, she relented and said that she could see that he must have kidnapped his wife and she was obviously dead so he must be guilty of 3rd degree murder. We were able to get the two racists down further because they were getting tired of the whole issue.
So after several days of the trial and hours of deliberation we came at last to a verdict: murder in the third degree. A lesser crime than ten of us believed happened, if you count the two racists. Ironically, I found out later it did not matter as he had several other felonies to his credit and was not supposed to have a gun in the first place! Ironically, I also found out later that the defendant had tried to plead guilty to second degree murder, but was rebuffed by the county attorney, undoubtedly thinking a conviction at that level would get him some political advantage. The case for first degree murder had no merit because if the defendant had planned the murder there were any number of swamps between Miami and Gainesville where he could have dumped the body and let the ‘gators do the rest. It was obvious, to most of us at least, that he must have shot her in a rage as the police closed in.
It gave me hope because eight of twelve members of a Florida jury based our opinions on the evidence, not from prejudice. I thought that was a pretty good ratio, and a sign of a South moving out of racism.
As we left the courthouse one of the jurors suggested that we all get together on the anniversary of the trial. The rest of us looked at him as if he were out of his mind. This is not Perry Mason, someone wryly remarked.
While the defendant was found guilty of a felony (that he actually committed), this was a much fairer trial than I expected. I wonder if it would be now or will be in the future.
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