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Courts / Law

Journalist Juror Gets New View on Justice

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WUSF reporter Mary Shedden recently became one of the 74,000 Pinellas County residents called to serve on a trial jury this past year.

Prior experience reporting on trials wasn't an excuse for her to go home. Instead she spent three weeks on a first-degree murder case, and gained new perspective on the justice system. 

When the jury summons appeared in my mailbox, I thought this will be an inconvenience for a day. Maybe two.

Legend says prosecutors and defense attorneys hate putting journalists in a jury box. I'd been a professional observer for 20 years.

I was a shoo-in to get the boot. Or so I thought.

When Pinellas County Circuit Judge Joseph Bulone called my name on April 1, I became Juror Number 12. I was one of a dozen strangers who would decide if a man was guilty of first-degree murder.

For nine long days, the State of Florida's case against Michael McKinney filled my head. Witnesses rattled off details about a wedding party gone awry, gunshot wounds to the head, drug dealing and bitter ex-lovers. Then there were the cell phones - more calls and texts than I imagined ever possible.

Through it all, I had to keep quiet. Say nothing, the judge warned. Nada. Zilch.

It’s my job to talk about what I see. And I've done just that for dozens of trials over the years. So it was torture holding my tongue.

Two short visits to the newsroom during the trial made me squirm. Co-workers enjoyed needling me. I smiled shyly, saying I would fill them in...eventually.

Avoiding the urge to learn more outside the courtroom was almost as difficult. Hearings, depositions and motions to dismiss are standard fare in criminal court. I realized I wouldn't see or hear anything that didn't pass pre-trial muster with the judge.

Worst of all, I couldn't direct questions to the attorneys, the judge, or the witnesses testifying just a few feet away from me.

The margins of my legal pad were packed with queries that mostly went unanswered about the murder of 35-year-old Casey Garber. Those notes, which stayed on my designated juror seat for the duration, went straight to a courthouse shredder after the verdict was announced.

Journalists are trained to share other people's trials and tribulations. We feel, but only up to a point. And that's how I defined my role as a juror.

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  Testimony from the victim's tearful girlfriends was just part of a story playing out before me.  A day into the trial, I pondered how I would summarize the day's events, if I were sitting in the gallery and not under the gaze of attorneys, a judge, armed deputies and the defendant.

Seeing photos of the victim, sprawled on the ground at an abandoned golf course, didn't upset me. Sadly, I’ve seen far more gruesome images.

But four days in, the gravity of it all became very real. The state's key witness was a drug dealer, who said the defendant implied his guilt during a mysterious, midnight phone call. His word against the defendant would be critical in deciding the case. The thought made me nauseated.

My fellow jurors felt equally responsible about our charge. Rely solely upon the evidence presented at trial. Don't be an amateur detective.

We weren't allowed to deliberate during the trial. So we talked about our jobs, our families. Our cars. When a child or a sick dog kept somebody up late the night before, we commiserated. We developed a routine. At breaks, one juror diligently made a pot of coffee, then a pot of hot water for tea drinkers. We checked our cell phones for work messages.

A bond developed over our informal captivity. We got the most comfortable chairs in the courtroom, but from the time we arrived to the time we left, we were under the watchful eye of compassionate but stern Sheriff’s deputies. Every session ended with strict orders as to when we would return and to whom we could speak.

When closing arguments came to end, we felt a sense of relief. But we dreaded what lay ahead.  We quietly marched down the narrow hall to the windowless deliberation room. We had serious decisions to make. In addition to murder, there were burglary charges to consider.

The debate grew loud, and tense, but not like  "12 Angry Men," where people argue to beat others down. When one of our jurors asked about a detail, two or three jumped to help, flipping through notes or reaching for one of the nearly 100 pieces of evidence.

As a reporter, I'm used to debating about a story with editors and colleagues. These deliberations felt different. Journalists aim to inform, not judge. A jury does the opposite. We couldn't leave until we  reached a unanimous conclusion about a man we had never met.

We had been told that the case could include a lot of circumstantial evidence that would connect the defendant to the crimes. And indeed, that's what we got from the piles of cell phone records, digital photos found on lap top computers, and from standard forensic detective work done on guns and cars and at the crime scene. 

In the end, we found McKinney not guilty of murder.  No one could get past the classic phrase you hear in every courtroom drama: You must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. We all had doubts.

Our jury reached the opposite verdict on lesser, but still-serious burglary charges. Last week, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison. I checked the court record.

I'll never forget McKinney's smile when the murder verdict was read. Nor his stunned disbelief when he was convicted of the lesser charges. Our job was to reach a fair verdict, not make someone happy.

In the same way, I'll never forget Garber's face. Photos of his body were the last thing I looked at before leaving the jury room the last time.

My time as a juror wasn't going to bring Casey Garber back to life. 

But it was a just, fair deliberation and decision. We did our job - our duty.