Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.
NewsMaryland

Rumblings from the jury room may echo emotions in the city

Justice SystemRegional AuthorityTrials and ArbitrationSheila Dixon

I was ready to hand over my tickets to the Springsteen concert and tell them, "You need these more than I do, have a blast." If only I had 12 to Sunday's Ravens game.

"Do something nice," Judge Dennis M. Sweeney told the jurors in Mayor Sheila Dixon's criminal trial as he released them Friday for the weekend. "Take your mind off this."

It was the second afternoon in a row that the jury had sent out from behind the closed doors of their deliberation room a veritable message in a bottle. While it's too early after just 1¿ days of deliberations to consider the notes an SOS, clearly they're forms of distress signals.

"Things are getting a little overheated," said Friday's note, which arrived at 3:40 p.m. "May we be dismissed for the day?"

Coupled with Thursday's note, written in the same polite yet plaintive tone ("We need to close for the day. Things are getting a little out of order among us."), it's a window into the jury-room tensions.

And why would we expect it to be any different in there than out here?

If this is a panel that is representative of the city, I can imagine their discussions are taking on the same fraught overtones that you hear around town, wherever people are chewing over Dixon's trial on charges that she stole gift cards intended for the needy.

For the rest of us, though, it's just talk, no matter how hot the air gets. But for the jurors, their debate comes with immense consequences - for the mayor of course, but also for the city.

Jurors were told they can't concern themselves with implications of their verdict, but they have to be aware that their decision could remove their mayor from office. And even if they didn't have to walk past the TV satellite trucks to enter the courthouse every morning, they know they are under intense scrutiny and that whatever their decision, it will unleash much second-guessing.

And then there are the elephants in this and so many other rooms: race and, to a lesser extent, gender.

The city's first female mayor, who is also African-American, on trial before a jury about whom we know virtually nothing except their own race and gender? What do you think people are going to home in on?

So yes, five of the jurors are black women, and two are black men. Two white women, one Asian woman, one white man and one woman whose race no one can agree on round out the panel. Racially, at least, it's a pretty good reflection of the city's makeup.

None of us knows what is behind the late-afternoon calls for a breather. We don't know that any differences being hashed out in the jury room are the result of race, or only because of race. I would guess that any 12 strangers suddenly tossed together in a single room would bring a wealth of differences with them, including but not limited to race.

Perhaps they're just feeling the weight of the pressure-cooker atmosphere into which they've been thrust.

Here's what jurors' lives have been like the past two weeks. They went through a selection process that involved particularly intense verbal probing. They've listened to often obtuse testimony, interrupted by frequent objections.

Much of the evidence came in rows of numbers, receipts, credit card bills and documents showing gift cards being purchased and spent, phone logs of calls made and taken. Often, lawyers headed to the bench for private conferences, the white noise machine was turned on and when they came back, there was no explanation of what was decided.

One day, a huge chunk of the case suddenly vanished, and they were not supposed to wonder why. They found a packed, hot courtroom for closing arguments, and the audience seemed to want to let the jurors know how it felt - and maybe how they should feel as well.

Then the real, hard work began: deliberations. The first thing that happened was they found they couldn't get transcripts of testimony. They sent out questions, and the answer invariably was: consult pages 17 and 20 of jury instructions that they were given - which of course they'd already read and re-read and still remained confused about.

And when they went home, they couldn't do the one thing that everyone else appears to be doing: Talk about it.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Comments
Loading