Juror #4 and Me: A Tale of Trial on Remand
On Friday, February 28, I finally had a chance to talk with my lovely wife, Meredith, about what had been on her mind for past 1½ weeks. From February 20 through 28, Meredith wasn’t just a mother, an R.N., and a graduate student. She was also Juror #4, in front of Judge M. Brooke Murdock of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.
I have a new appreciation for what jury service means for the jurors. Circa 2005, I served as an alternate in a murder trial. As I would later learn, defense counsel ran out of strikes. I never had the chance to deliberate. Ultimately, the jury deadlocked down the middle.
I always looked back fondly on that experience, since it was interesting to sit through trial as a spectator. And that’s how Meredith felt all the way through closing argument. But deliberations were a wrenching experience for her. To a lesser degree, they were for me as well. We’re a couple that ordinarily talks to one another about everything, and it was awful for us not to talk about the case.
The jury in Meredith’s case acquitted the two defendants on nineteen counts, including murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit murder. The only conviction was on handgun charges for one of the defendants.[*] Meredith felt awful for the victims and their families, but the State couldn’t cross the “reasonable doubt” threshold.
One of the details Meredith told me after the verdict was that the crime had occurred in 2005. Once we got back home late Friday afternoon, I quickly turned to Google Scholar to see if there had been an appeal to explain the delay. Sure enough, I found the case within seconds: Beads v. State, 422 Md. 1, 28 A.3d 1217 (2011). A prior jury had convicted both defendants, who each had received life sentences. A unanimous Court of Appeals, however, reversed and remanded for a new trial. Among the holdings was that the State’s “‘say Enough!’ exhortation” in opening and closing argument “implored the jurors to consider their own personal safety and therefore violated the prohibition against the ‘golden rule’ argument.”
If you’re interested in the facts of the case, the Beads opinion’s recitation of the facts look straight out an episode of The Wire. What struck me, however, was the Court of Appeals’ rejection of the State’s claim of harmless error:
[T]he case at bar is not one in which the State’s evidence was overwhelming …. [W]e are unable to declare that we are persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that the erroneous rulings … “in no way influenced the verdict.”
It looks like the Court of Appeals was correct on that score. And I can tell you, just from the look on Meredith’s face after each of the three days of deliberation, the decision was anything but easy.
Serendipitously, Meredith and I ran into one of the alternate jurors that Friday evening. He didn’t participate in deliberations, and his impression of the case was totally different. He thought the State’s case was airtight. And, as Meredith tells me, some of the jurors felt that way when deliberations began. But then they deliberated over three days. Twelve Baltimoreans from all walks of life came together and deliberated as equals. They followed Judge Murdock’s instructions carefully. If she told them to disregard a fact, they refused to consider it. And they kept coming back to the “reasonable doubt” instruction.
Acquittals in close cases are rarely cause for celebration for anyone other than the defendants and those close to them. But I’m proud of Meredith, and of her fellow jurors, for working so hard, at great emotional cost, to do their constitutional duty.
[*] I originally drafted this post on Saturday, March 1. Out of an abundance of caution, I have waited to publish until after the time for any motion for new trial or a notice of appeal. On March 18, 2014, the convicted defendant received a three-year sentence, dating back to November 9, 2005 (time served). Not surprisingly, there was no appeal.