A close look at American justice

July 21, 2017

A couple of weeks ago in this column, I shared with you that I’d received a jury summons in the mail. I was told to call to see if I was required to show up on a Monday morning at the Fulton County Justice Center Tower.

Well, I was.

And as I headed downtown, I didn’t anticipate the remarkable week I was in for and the indelible experience I would have.

Let me start at the beginning.

I arrived about 15 minutes early (at 7:45 a.m.) outside the Justice Center Tower, and there was already a line outside. It felt like arriving at the airport, and getting in the security line.

I hadn’t expected such a big crowd, and it kept growing. Eventually the line stretched around the block of Central Avenue.

As I glanced around, wishing I’d grabbed a cup of coffee, I noticed the wide mix of people. Some were dressed as if for their work in an office; others wore flip-flops and shorts.

Eventually I passed through the security checkpoint and was pointed to the 7th floor.

There was a line at the elevator, and then another when I got off.

As the line backed up around the elevators, some fellow potential jurors took the initiative to organize the line in a snakelike fashion in the dim hallway leading to the Jury Assembly Room.

A sheriff’s deputy strolled the hallway, welcoming folks and joking with them.

People chatted with each other, some recalling previous experiences and offering advice to first-timers like me. I noticed a lot of people had brought books.

Each person was “checked in” by showing a photo identification card and the “juror badge” that came as part of the summons we received in the mail.

Then we were free to make ourselves comfortable in the assembly room. Or try to.

Let’s just say that Fulton County’s Jury Assembly Room isn’t the lobby of the Buckhead Ritz-Carlton or the Delta Sky Club.

Signs warned us not to use our cell phones in certain areas. We ignored them.

Vending machines offered coffee and snacks. The seats were hard. The room was hot and getting hotter.

Still, people were friendly, bathrooms were available, and a woman greeted us just before 9 a.m. She let us know how the process would work, and said we’d be allowed to get some lunch around noon. She said if we were picked for a jury, we’d be paid $25 for each day.

At about 9:20, Judge Robert McBurney greeted the crowd, and he immediately acknowledged the burden and inconvenience we were experiencing.

I had talked to McBurney for my previous column, and anticipated some of what he said.

He let the room know that some of us might be here all day before we could leave. Others would be free to go much sooner. And still others might end up on juries, something critical to the American justice system.

He expressed appreciation to us for making that system work in our role as potential jurors.

“You want to be here, even if you don’t feel that way now,” he said. In my case, he would turn out to be absolutely correct.

McBurney let us know that an effort was underway to get the air conditioning to work better, and he said that day’s crowd was bigger than usual.

Later, I would learn that about 425 were present, and eventually jurors would be seated for 12 trials.

About 9:40, a woman came to the microphone. She said she would be calling names for potential jurors to go to a courtroom. She called 55 names.

My name wasn’t called.

About 10:00, another set of names was called.

“Number 18. Kevin Riley.”

I said “here,” and headed to the elevator to find my assigned court room.

Outside the courtroom, a deputy instructed us to line up in the order of our number. She checked our names against a roster.

We filed into the courtroom as the judge and lawyers – and the defendant, I later learned – looked on.

At my seat was a card with a big number. For the next several hours, I would be known only as “Juror 18.”

The judge greeted us, and explained the first step.

On the back of our numbered card was a series of questions. Each juror would stand, and answer those questions.

Included were basics like where we lived, our work duties and our family. We were also asked whether we’d ever served on a jury before, whether we owned a gun and whether we had ever been party to a lawsuit.

After each juror answered, the lawyers followed up with their own questions, going juror by juror.

After a break for lunch, the judge told us he estimated the trial would take three more days. (It ended up taking more than four.)

He then asked if any of us had “hardships” that might get in the way of service. Some people mentioned some long-planned vacations and business-related trips.

The lawyers then passed paperwork back and forth – they were “striking” jurors. Each side gets nine chances to eliminate someone they don’t want on the jury.

At 3:50, the bailiff said: “Judge, we have a jury.”

The judge read off the numbers. “Number 18.”

Against all odds, it seemed to me, the Editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had landed on a jury.

I was in for quite a week.

It turned out that we would decide the fate of a defendant in a double-murder case. A 26-year-old man faced 16 charges, including murder counts.

We heard testimony from 28 witnesses over two-and-a-half days. The lawyers showed us video from security cameras, autopsy photos, cell phone records and ballistics reports. The mothers of the victims and the defendant testified.

On Friday afternoon, my fellow jurors picked me as foreman before our deliberations.

As the 12 of us discussed the case and the evidence, I was proud to be part of this group of people I had just met.

At a time when we all sometimes question whether the ideals of America can work anymore, my time in that jury room showed me they do. And that even a small group of people, who had never met, can demonstrate that our justice system, while imperfect, is still the best available.

In all of our words, thoughts and insights, every juror took seriously the responsibility we assumed for the decisions we had to make. Our effort to understand what had happened and arrive at what we agreed was the truth exhausted us.

In the early evening, we reached our verdict. As foreman, I read that verdict before the court.

We found the defendant guilty on 13 of the 16 charges.

And then we went home, having performed a demanding, sacred and solemn duty as jurors in the American justice system.