Still from the film 12 Angry Men. (Credit: United Artists)
I was cocky. On the morning of June 15, I breezed into the waiting room of Manhattan’s criminal court, supremely confident that I was untouchable. What lawyer, I thought, would be crazy enough to pick a former lawyer turned snarky journalist as a juror?
Ah, hubris. I ended up being one of the first to be picked: juror No. 4. Quickly, I fell into the five stages of juror denial: shock (why me?), anger (damn the system for wasting my time), depression (panic about being locked in a juror room), magical thinking (maybe the defendant will get run over) and finally, acceptance (there’s no escape).
But what seemed like a chore turned out to be a revelation not only about our justice system but about our collective desire for truth. That sounds uncharacteristically Pollyanna of me, but this experience was riveting.
As one who covers the rarefied world of Big Law, this case took me to unfamiliar turf: the alleged rape of a 12-year-old girl by a 47-year-old man, both Hispanics. (Yes, Donald Trump’s words about Mexico sending us rapists came to mind, but the defendant was Ecuadorean and legal.) They shared an apartment in the Bronx; the defendant lived in one room with his three kids, while the girl lived in another room with her mother and two siblings. After being charged with rape, the defendant was incarcerated on Riker’s Island for two years—a fate unlikely to befall a middle-class man accused of rape.
Strange that I would sit in judgment of him, I thought. Stranger was the notion that 12 perfect strangers of various ethnic, educational and socio-economic backgrounds—including two other lawyers, a custodian, a language therapist and a stockroom worker—would come together and reach a unanimous decision.
We did come together, mostly. Because physical evidence was scant—no DNA, no bruises, no blood—the case hinged on circumstantial evidence and the credibility of the girl and the man. Emotions ran high. There was no class or racial divide, but a gender gap emerged. Early on, the six female jurors were convinced that there was at least evidence for the lesser charge of sexual abuse; some of the men were slower to reach that conclusion. One woman asked in frustration, “Do guys have difficulty believing women are raped?”
Despite the tensions, we respected each other, and we took our task seriously. We hashed out details from the testimony, donned rubber gloves to re-examine the physical evidence and challenged each other’s theories. (Unintentionally comedic moment: Three jurors tried to demonstrate the sexual position alleged in the rape charge.)
People changed their minds, but no one hurried the process. “I felt the responsibility keenly,” says juror Debra Cohen, a civil rights lawyer, “knowing that both the accused and the accuser’s lives will be changed forever.” Another juror, Keith Bracey, a stockroom worker at Macy’s, puts it more bluntly: “Maybe I’m a loud and obnoxious individual, but I have a conscience, and I want to make sure I make the right decision.”
We were model jurors. But here’s the hitch: We couldn’t reach consensus. So after nearly a week of exhausting deliberations, the judge declared a mistrial. In the end, we were split on the rape charge, and a lone juror refused to convict on the sexual abuse charge. He said that he couldn’t convict without physical evidence. So that was that.
“It was a huge waste of resources and time,” says one juror, a former Am Law 100 partner who asked to remain anonymous. (The prosecution says that there will likely be a retrial.) I’m disappointed too.
But I’m also proud to have been part of this jury, 12 strangers who tried to do right. That’s worth something.