Murder? On a Jury? Moi?

by Michele Drier

When the jury summons envelope showed up, I put it aside to look at later. I could have asked to be taken out of the pool, I’m old enough to have been excluded.

I believe in civic duty, though. Always vote, even in strictly local elections. Obey traffic laws. So on the appointed date, I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. in order to get to the jury assembly room before 8 a.m., coffee mug and ebook reader handy. I figured it would be a piece of cake. Even on the off chance my name was called, I go to a courtroom, sit in the back, watch as a jury was chosen and then head home, dismissed.

The judge asked what my favorite book was.

This was not to be. I was in the first group called to report to a court room. Once there, I was in the first eighteen people to be seated for voir dire (when the judge and attorneys ask questions). I’d carefully written down that I was an author of murder mysteries on my questionnaire, thinking this was a slam dunk for dismissal as the case was murder.

The judge asked what my favorite book was (I’ve probably read thousands) and who my favorite author was (before my jaw hit the floor I managed to come  up with Agatha Christie), the attorneys asked if I would wait to hear all the evidence before I made up my mind and bang, I was juror #7.

It was a murder case, but the defendant called the sheriff’s office and announced he’d shot his wife, so our job was to sift through testimony and evidence and come up with the degree; first or second degree murder or manslaughter.

The defendant was a young man in his early 20s who’d shot his female partner and killed her. There were no witnesses, it happened in the middle of the afternoon in the mobile home they shared with their 3-year-old son. We saw pictures of the scene, pictures of her dead on the bed, pictures of the gun and ammunition, pictures of the mobile home and pictures of their cars. We heard testimony from another man she was dating, the defendant’s closest friend, the victim’s mother and a psychologist the defense retained to interview the defendant after he’d been in jail for about 18 months (right before the trial).

It was just a sad tale of domestic abuse and jealousy.

It was just a sad tale of domestic abuse and jealousy. One of the pieces of evidence used by both the defense and prosecution was a facebook message that he’d posted on the page of his girlfriend’s other lover. “You don’t mess with someone else’s wife.”

We heard from forensic experts on gun-shot residue, blood spatter (there wasn’t any, it pooled on the mattress under the exit wound), stippling (gun powder marks on her face), to judge how close he was to her and at what angle the shot was fired. We saw autopsy pictures clearly showing the entry and exit wounds.

There were text message conversations and cell phone records to give us a picture of what happened the day he shot her and what he did immediately after (left in her car, with the gun, drove around somewhat aimlessly until he called the sheriff about 45 minutes later.)

In California, “premeditated” murder can be as little as a few seconds.

After about four days of testimony—broken up by a holiday, unavailable witnesses and other court matters—almost three weeks after I’d first reported, we were given the case and began deliberations. I was chosen the foreperson and watched each person wrestle with the evidence and their own conscience and understanding. The choice we had, ultimately was between first and second degree murder, with the only factor separating those two decisions being premeditation.

In California, the jury instructions and definitions of the varying degrees of murder and manslaughter are very clear and the definition of “premeditated” doesn’t have any time constraints. Premeditated can be as little as a few seconds and hinges on testimony and evidence as to the defendant’s state of mind and preparations before pulling the trigger.

Twelve people, six men and six women, strangers to one another, were locked in a room, handed all the evidence and told to come up with a verdict. At the end of the penultimate day, ten people voted for first degree and two for second degree. When we came back the next morning, it was eleven to one. I asked each of us to give the one piece of evidence or testimony that made them believe it was premeditated and finally, we were unanimous on first degree. My piece was that there was only one shot, a kill-shot to her face, that entered next to her left nostril and exited through her brainstem, killing her instantly. He testified he never shot the gun before.

During this process, I was reminded, and reminded my fellow jurors, we could only use the evidence and testimony we heard and saw. Several people were concerned about the child, but that was beyond our purview. Some people wanted to understand the relationship that led to the murder, but that was beyond our purview. As mystery writers, we’re free to explore the other motivations, points of view, secondary characters surrounding the actual event, but it was a good lesson to hear again—rely on the evidence.

Mystery Author Hallie Ephron comments on Bouchercon

Hallie is among the amazing Authors that will be at Bouchercon 2020! We hope to see you there! 📚❤️

Posted by Bouchercon 2020 on Friday, July 27, 2018

Look who’s coming to Bouchercon 2020! 📚❤️ #carablack

Look who’s coming to Bouchercon 2020! 📚❤️ #carablack

Posted by Bouchercon 2020 on Tuesday, April 3, 2018