“Number 71.” That’s how I verbally checked into the jury room each morning this week. That was my assigned juror number from the 150 or so people that were summoned to the Richland County Judicial Center at 9 a.m. Monday.
After sitting in the jury waiting area watching TV, about 9:30 a.m., we were herded into the courtroom to go through the usual qualifications: “Do you know the defendant? Do you personally know either the prosecutor or defense attorney?” The judge went through a series of questions. He also gave us an opportunity to request dismissal due to unusual hardships or the need to care for the young or elderly. Even though I could have been dismissed, I chose to stay and do my civic duty. After all, if I were on trial for murder, I would hope that fine, upstanding citizens (as I consider myself to be) would put their lives on hold a short time to determine the fate of my own life.
After eliminating a couple dozen potential jurors, those of us who remained were sworn in, promising to be attentive, impartial, and to render a just verdict. It was a good week to be called to jury duty, the judge said. All the civil cases had been settled and only one criminal trial was left on the week’s docket: a murder trial. The odds of being selected as a juror were slim, he said, as they only needed 15 people.
After that, we were all escorted back to the jury waiting room downstairs. That morning had already been stressful for many of us. It was unseasonably cold, rainy, and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper. So, we sat there sipping coffee or tea, watching episodes on HGTV. Will they love it or list it? Will they add that extra room or stay within a lower budget? At that point, we were willingly absorbed in the mundane fixer-upper issues of home renovations.
Then someone in authority walked to the front of the room and the TV went silent. “When I call out your juror number, report over to the person standing at the right.” She pointed to another person-in-authority in the corner of the large room. The room was eerily silent.
When number 71 was called, I joined the other potential jurors in the corner. After a fairly large number of us had been selected, at least several times more than the 15 that were needed, we were taken back to the courtroom. The odds were still good for not being selected. This time, when we walked into the courtroom, something was different. The two prosecutors and two defense attorneys were turned around in their seats, staring at us as we filed in. They were scrutinizing us—from head to toe. It was hard not to feel self-conscious. We had made the first cut, and now the final selections would be made.
As they called a juror number, that person went to the front of the courtroom and spoke into a microphone. When they called my name, I walked up slowly. I didn’t want to trip. If I was going to be disqualified, I wanted it to be for something substantial, like being redheaded, rather than for something more frivolous, like being clumsy. After I gave my name, occupation, former occupation, and spouse’s occupation, the prosecution smiled at me and said to the judge, “Please seat this juror.” The defense attorney added, “Please seat this juror.” I was the first alternate, juror number 13 for this murder trial. I was a bit stunned when I carefully, without tripping, made my way to the jury box.
The judicial system is full of rules, and once we were gathered as the jury panel for this trial, the bailiff began reciting a litany of “don’t do this” examples. Cell phones would not be allowed in the jury room, so each day they would be confiscated and locked up and returned to use for the lunch break only and at the end of the day. Over and we were told not to talk to each other or to anyone else about the case. “Don’t do your own research,” the judge said. Also, “Don’t use the restrooms in the hallways. Use only the jury bathrooms.” If their intent was to whip us into submission for the week with all these rules, it worked.
As a young girl, I loved to watch Perry Mason. In fact, Della Street was my first female role model. I wanted to grow up and wear suits and carry a briefcase like she did. (And I did.) Real-life courtrooms are much duller. It takes mental discipline to stay focused on testimony that goes over and over the same thing. This is a person’s life at stake, I kept reminding myself. Stay focused. While the jury was not on trial, at times it felt like we were. Both sides intently watched our reactions to the testimony or evidence being presented.
By Thursday morning, both the State and the defense had done their best to convince us their side was “the truth.” We heard closing arguments, and the judge went through a 30-minute explanation of the various laws that were applicable: murder with malice aforethought, transferred intent, self-defense, reasonable doubt, and a host of other things. Then there was nothing left for anyone to say. Mr. Robert Geter’s life was in the hands of the men and women of the jury. I’ll digress a moment here to say that I’ve always worried about juries. If I were on trial for my life, would I get a decent set of “peers”? I can’t speak for any jury other than the one I was on this week, but I would trust these people with my life. They were all courteous, attentive, and intelligent. When the first 12 jurors were sequestered and we three alternates were dismissed, I felt that at least Mr. Geter’s life was in competent hands.
The judge called the three alternate jurors back into the courtroom and thanked us. “Being an alternate is like being invited to the party but never asked to dance.” I had to think about that for a moment, then decided she was probably right. She also said, “I hope this has been a positive experience for you.” It had, indeed, been an educational experience and a positive one for me. Unquestionably, it had been an inconvenience and I was now even more behind in my writing and other tasks. But I had seen the process from the inside now—great research for a mystery writer. And I had done my civic duty.
Before we left today, the Clerk of Court took my juror badge (another “rule”: you must wear your badge at all times, even when out to lunch at a restaurant), and she returned my phone from the little black, locked box on the wall. She collected our phone numbers to call us when the verdict was in. Lunch was provided, today only, for the jurors, but the alternate jurors were free to take it with them or eat in a conference room. We three alternates went to a conference room with our boxed lunches. While there, since we were now free to discuss the case, I asked how they would vote. They answered quickly. I wasn’t surprised, but I was concerned.
The man whose fate we were discussing was Robert Geter, the defendant on trial. In March 2015, he got into a poolroom brawl about two o’clock in the morning. As a result, one man was stabbed to death and another man who got in the way was stabbed in the eye. Depending on whose side you were on, Geter had either committed “murder with malice aforethought,” or he had been beat up by several men who had been drinking and using marijuana. Geter claims he slashed at his attackers in self-defense with a pocket knife used in his work as an electrician temp worker.
All during this week, I have prayed each night that the jurors, and I, if I had to step in for one of them, would do the right thing by Mr. Geter. If he was guilty, he should be held accountable. If he was not, he should be declared “not guilty” of the charges against him. I prayed that each of us jurors would be impartial and just, as we had sworn to be.
As I left the courthouse around 1 p.m. on Thursday, April 12, 2018, my heart ached for Mr. Geter, for the two victims, and for all those who had been affected by this incident more than three years ago. I also worried that Geter would be judged by his color, his socio-economic status, and his dreadlocks. To me, he appeared a bit menacing. He had gained a lot of weight over the three years since the incident, and he looked BIG. As much as I hate to say it, being black in the judicial system makes it hard enough to get a fair shake. Being big, scary looking, and black—well, that’s hard to overcome. Yet, the one time I made eye contact with him, he smiled kindly. Was he a murderer or a victim of the very system he looked to for help? I honestly don’t know.
When I had asked my two fellow alternates if they thought Mr. Geter was guilty, they said “yes” without hesitation. For context, both of these men were males, obviously well-educated and middle class. They were nice, polite, and very white—just as I am. While I am in no way accusing them of being prejudiced, I had hoped they would hesitate before declaring Geter “guilty.” One of the men said he had to get back to the office and he left. While the other man and I ate lunch together, I went through my list of doubts with him. While he admitted my questions had merit, he still felt Geter was guilty.
From my perspective, both the prosecution and defense had done a decent job during the trial—with one exception. One of the State’s witnesses against Geter was exposed in court as being a jailhouse snitch who was clearly lying. The prosecutor looked ridiculous for putting him on the stand. And the defense attorneys left some questions on the table that should have been asked of their witnesses. I gave each side gave a solid C+. But after days of testimony, I still had doubts as to guilt or innocence. There was no question Geter had stabbed these two men—that fact wasn’t contested. The question on the table was murder vs. self-defense. Even though Geter had been outsized by men bigger than he and outnumbered in the altercation, the State had charged him with murder. I couldn’t help but wonder if winning had become more important than the truth for those prosecutors.
We finished eating, I said goodbye to the other alternate juror. While I was walking to the parking garage, my questions and doubts continued to bounce around in my head. I don’t think Geter is entirely innocent. But I don’t think he is guilty either—based on definition the judge had explained. I was unsure, and according to the judge, that meant I would have to vote “not guilty,” as I was not certain “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I said another prayer for the jurors to do the right thing—whatever that might be.
As I’m writing this, it’s nearly 6 p.m. I haven’t gotten a call yet from the Clerk of Court, so she’s forgotten to call me or the jury is still deliberating. I hope it’s the latter. I hope the jury, those men and women I got to know this week, will take whatever time is necessary to go through the evidence, re-evaluate their first impulse, and make an impartial and just decision. Whichever way it goes, I’ll continue to pray for Mr. Geter. Not because I’m convinced he’s innocent, but because he deserves the best treatment by our judicial system.
When I do learn the verdict, I will trust that the jury did their best. Serving on a jury, especially on a murder trial, is a very difficult job—not because of the bad traffic, long hours, inconvenience, acrid coffee, and endless HGTV programs, but because putting your prejudices, bias, and fears aside to decide a person’s fate, a person who is very different from you, is perhaps the hardest thing you’ll ever be asked to do. In fact, it’s damn near impossible.
UPDATE: At 7:01 p.m. tonight, I got a call from the Clerk of Court. Robert Geter was found guilty on both counts and was sentenced to 40 years.