Three Days in Cook County Criminal Courthouse–as a juror

In the spring of 2006 I was selected to serve on the jury for a kidnapping and sexual assault case in Cook County Criminal Courthouse. The experience was so distressing that I spent several months after that researching various aspects of criminal justice, including the legal definitions of the terms “kidnapping” and “reasonable doubt,” as well as the jury system in general.

The trial involved a young Hispanic man (represented by a public defender) who was accused of kidnapping and assaulting a thirteen-year-old African-American girl on Chicago�s South Side. During the trial, the facts presented were these:

One afternoon in 2005, the girl and her eleven-year-old sister ran an errand to a local store for their mother. On the way home, they were spotted by the defendant, who was driving by in a pickup truck. He quickly parked somewhere nearby and then got out of the pickup and ran after them through a viaduct. He caught the girl by the back of her collar and started to drag her up the embankment toward a flowering bush near the train track. She yelled and told her sister to run home for help while he continued to drag her.

The viaduct and embankment were located at a busy intersection. Passing motorists saw what was happening and stopped to give aid. Three men were standing across the street talking, and they immediately ran to the girl’s aid.

By the time the men caught the defendant, he had torn the girl’s clothing and fondled her. He had also bruised her neck and shoulders, not to mention terrifying her.

Bystanders waved down a passing patrol car, and the defendant was arrested.

He was taken to a detention center, where he remained until two in the morning, when an assistant state’s attorney interrogated him and took down his confession in English. The confession included a graphic description of his sexual arousal during the assault and what he intended to do to the girl. He signed the written confession. He was out on bond at the time of the trial.

On the first day of the trial, the defendant had a Spanish translator with him. Every word during voir dire and afterwards was whispered in Spanish into his ear.

The prosecution claimed that dragging the girl off the sidewalk (“where she wanted to be”) up the embankment in the direction of a bush constituted kidnapping. The defense said that was absurd. However, in his opening statement the public defender also admitted that the defendant had committed aggravated sexual assault.

The next day, after that admission, the defendant jumped bail and failed to show up in court again. The jury did not know this. The judge told us that “the defendant has chosen not to be present in the courtroom,” and all of us accepted this without question. It was a relief to us, actually, because the translator disappeared along with him: it had been maddening to listen to two audio tracks simultaneously. We did not know he was free on bail despite being an apparent pedaphile, let alone that he had skipped town, until after the verdict.

In the end, we found him not guilty of kidnapping but guilty of attempted aggravated sexual assault and aggravated assault. The judge made it clear that we had made a serious mistake by not finding him guilty of kidnapping. According to her, it would have been kidnapping even if he had moved her only an inch. The intent was irrelevant (that is, the intent to commit a violent, sexual act in some measure of secrecy, even though it all took place at a busy intersection and even though he had to be severely under the influence the whole time). The reason she wanted the kidnapping conviction was so she could sentence him to thirty years instead of fifteen for this, his first offense.

During deliberations, none of us questioned the assault charges, because the public defender had admitted the defendant was guilty. It didn;t even occur to me until later that this is why the defendant may have jumped bail. He had pled not guilty, then was sandbagged by his attorney.

I tried to raise the issue of the confession during deliberations. It struck me as unfair that the confession was extracted in the middle of the night and put into “good English” by a state’s attorney. The defendant did not have an attorney while he was being interrogated, and he may not have understood (or at least not fully) what he was signing. I was reprimanded by other jurors, who told me that the evidence of the confession was not subject to question.

The failure to convict for kidnapping was made primarily because most jurors thought the distance the girl was dragged was insignificant. I also thought that the issue of intent was important, but I couldn’t convince anyone else it was worth discussing.

After the trial, I tried to find out whether or not the man was ever apprehended. I failed. The more I thought about it, the greater the miscarriage of justice seemed. I was appalled at the public defender’s conduct and at the judge, who was clearly biased against the defendant. I became increasingly distressed the more I researched the law: the confession was probably obtained illegally; the judge probably should have declared a mistrial in the opening statements when the public defender conceded his client’s guilt against his wishes; the judge probably should have postponed the trial when the defendant skipped town; the judge appears to have badly distorted Illinois statutes in the jury instructions to make it appear that the defendant was guilty of kidnapping; the way deliberations were conducted probably would have been grounds for an appeal of the guilty verdicts.

I considered writing my congressmen. I considered writing essays for publication. And then I decided to write The Juror Investigates, a mystery novel about a juror who’s so frustrated by her trial experience that she sets out to find “the real killer.”

11 Misconceptions about Jury Duty

  • Misconception No. 1: A juror takes no risks by serving.

  • Misconception No. 2: Jurors have an easy job; they passively observe what goes on in a trial, then deliberate, and finally make a simple, binary decision.

  • Misconception No. 3: Jurors are anonymous.

  • Misconception No. 4: Jurors must be completely ignorant of the crime or the issues involved in the trial.

  • Misconception No. 5: Jurors may not consider any information other than what they hear in court in coming to a decision.

  • Misconception No. 6: The role of the bailiff is to monitor and �police� the jury deliberation room.

  • Misconception No. 7: The defendant is tried on the charges in the indictment.

  • Misconception No. 8: Jury instructions instruct the jury.

  • Misconception No. 9: By the time a juror signs the form, he or she has made a decision.

  • Misconception No. 10: The judge is happy, no matter what the verdict is.

  • Misconception No. 11: The attorneys care what jurors think and will ask you questions about why you agreed or disagreed with them.