We all filed into the courtroom and took our seats in the audience.  Straight ahead sat the judge, poised behind the giant wood desk-type thing. I sat on the left side, where the prosecuting attorney had his notes open on the table beside him. To the right was the defense, along with the man on trial. I hadn’t been expecting to see everyone there. I didn’t expect to see an actual person on trial standing in front of me when we entered the courtroom. The charges were announced and things got serious very quickly. It was no longer a fun little field trip to the courthouse, it was no longer an escape from work, it was no longer just a chance to live out an episode of Law and Order or The Good Wife. This was for real. This was a big deal. This was a man’s life. This was a family. This was so much more than just a civic duty. I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the possibility of having an actual impact on the outcome of someone’s life.

Of course, now that I've found a picture I realize he looks nothing like this man other than the fact that they basically have the same haircut. My bad.

The defendant, who had an uncanny resemblance to a character from the movie Ghost, was being charged with two counts of furnishing alcohol to a minor and one count of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree (sexual penetration of a minor, specifically, his 16-year-old daughter).

When you hear that, it’s hard not to feel the breath sucked out of your lungs. When you hear that, it’s hard not to look at that man’s face and have every fiber of your being fill with disgust. It’s hard to remain impartial. It’s hard not to be biased. It’s hard to not hate him.  You hear something like that, something truly heinous, and you want something bad to happen to him. You hear something like that, and you look at that man’s face and you think You are capable of this; you are a criminal.

I have no idea how long it took before my name was called. Everyone was fidgety and antsy to move around. It’s hard to be quiet that long. It’s hard to listen to people lay their life out for a room of 100 strangers to hear. It’s hard to hear people talk about traumatic events that inevitably make that person undesirable to the attorneys to keep as a juror.  To be honest, I thought I wouldn’t be called at all, simply because I wanted to be called so badly and I usually never win anything. I might as well have skipped up to the juror box, I was so excited. It took everything I had not to burst into song and smile until my cheeks hurt. I tried my best to play it cool as I took made my way to the first juror chair.

It's Not Real.

It’s incredibly nerve-wracking to sit in that box and face the attorneys, who pepper you with invasive questions and judge you based on your ability to be unbiased. I was asked if I knew any of the people involved in the case. I was asked my age, occupation, and if I had any close friends or family in law enforcement or involved in the legal system. I was asked if I had any personal experiences that would make me sympathize with the victim, any personal experiences that would make me unable to listen to all the evidence and testimony and remain impartial and unbiased. I was asked if I had any strong feelings about alcohol. I was asked if I had ever had experience with the court system. I was asked if I would have a problem accepting testimony via transcript rather than live testimony. I was asked if I understood that CSI was not real-life. I was asked if I knew what perjury was, and was asked to define the word. I was asked if I understood what a vendetta was, and if I could understand how a teenage girl who is on probation may have a “score to settle” with her father. I was asked if I could understand that a child may hold a grudge against his or her parent. I was asked if I understood that children lie and usually only dig the hole deeper when they do.

I was never dismissed. I sat in juror seat 1 the rest of the day, until we had thirteen jurors that the prosecution and defense were satisfied with.

We came back on Thursday morning to begin the trial. All thirteen of us were corralled in the room, which was a small room with an oval table with just enough room to squeeze twelve chairs around. One wall was made of two large windows, overlooking a parking lot. There was a tiny fridge, like the one Sarah and I had in our dorm room in college, a coffee maker, a microwave, a sink and a little bit of counter space. A shelf with five puzzle books was above a row of hangers for coats, which was located behind the chair I claimed as my own for the entire four days of the trial.  It’s interesting; all thirteen of us chose the exact same seats in the room every single time we were in there. Funny how humans really are creatures of habit.

The court officer was the only one to come in and out of the jury room with us. He gave us our notebooks and pens and gave us instructions. He’s the one who lined us up by our juror number every single time and who blocked the hallway off.

Close Enough.

I was so nervous that first day I could have thrown up. Every time, Mike, our court officer would give me the nod indicating it was time to move. He would say, “All rise for the jury” and every time I could feel my anxiety level increase. As the line-leader on our way to our seats, I remained single-focused: Just Walk. It’s a wonder I didn’t totally eat it on my way to my seat.

Opening arguments began and all thirteen of us were told two theories behind the charges.

The night of November 7th, 2009 Brian, the defendant, went to his mother’s one-bedroom apartment around ten o’clock that evening. In his hands, he brought with him a plastic bag with two fifths of brandy and went directly to the only bedroom. It was to be noted that Brian was technically not even supposed to be at that apartment, as he had gotten into an altercation with the landlord of the building and was no longer welcome on the property.

Brianna was raised by Brian’s mother, Viola, who had guardianship over her. Viola and her husband Albert lived in the living room of this tiny apartment. Albert resided in a hospital bed that was set up in the middle of the room, and Viola, who has battled cancer for a few years, cared for him. She slept on the couch while Brianna lived in the only bedroom. That night, she had two of her friends over (Monika and Aviance), and they were hanging out and listening to music on myspace.

When Brian got there, Monika had been hiding in the closet. All three girls were on probation for various reasons. Monika, due to the terms of her probation, was not to be hanging out with Brianna or Aviance. The fact that Monika was there caused a slight upset but it quickly dissipated. Brian provided the girls with the alcohol and took his seat on the window sill in the bedroom.

The timeline of events is unclear, but it wasn’t long before the girls had finished the fifth of brandy. Aviance and Brianna, who were described as “girlfriends,” had spent somewhere around 20 minutes under the blankets on Brianna’s bed while Brian sat at the window sill and Monika occupied herself with the computer. Brianna had gotten sick from all of the alcohol and had thrown up outside. After that, she came back to her room and passed out in bed. She remembered being warm and taking her shirt off to cool down but she kept her shorts on. Some time later, Brian and Aviance had gotten into an argument and Aviance was asked to leave. Monika left shortly after.

Brian had been watching TV on the edge of Brianna’s bed, but he, too, passed out in the early morning hours of November 8th. Brianna testified that the next thing she remembered was waking up at 4:16 AM with her dad inside of her. She pushed him off of her, pulled her shorts up from halfway down her legs, and went to the living room. She fell asleep in the recliner beside the couch, next to her grandmother.

9-1-1 dispatch received a call at 8:26 that morning, with a girl wanting to report a rape. Police were sent to the scene. Brianna was taken to the hospital via ambulance while the police stayed to investigate and interview everyone at the scene.  Brian had confessed to the detective that he had provided alcohol to his the girls but was surprised to learn the reason behind the police’s appearance at the apartment; he had thought it was because he wasn’t supposed to be there. DNA samples of Brian were taken, his clothes were sent as evidence and he remained in custody. At the hospital, Brianna was examined for somewhere between two and four hours. A rape kit was completed and her DNA samples were sent to be analyzed.

We heard testimony from a sexual assault nurse examiner, one of the policemen at the scene, the DNA analyst, the detective on the case, Brianna herself (even though she was quickly deemed “unavailable” due to her “lack of memory” and inability to cooperate and answer the prosecution’s questions), Aviance (Brianna’s friend and “girlfriend”), Viola (Brianna’s grandmother), and three other members of Brianna’s family.

It was incredibly difficult to have to keep all the details of the case secret. It was difficult to think through the case without talking it out. I think you guys can tell I’m just one of those people that needs to talk about everything, and that I can’t make a decision to save my life. With all the testimony I heard, the evidence in front of me, I didn’t know what to do.

It was hard not to think of the victim, how this had certainly not made her life better, how she had little support through all of this, how this had been traumatic for her. It was hard not to think of the defendant, how his life was ruined, how his family was torn apart, how he could be in prison for a very, very, very long time. It was hard not to think of the family involved, how they would never come back from this, how this had torn them apart.

I left court each day exhausted. My heart ached for everyone involved.

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