Twelve of us sat scrutinizing one another. Each of us bringing life experiences just as flawed and scarred as the dented and scratched up conference table around which we gathered.
This jury pool of one's peers included me, Jane Brown. Not Jayne Brown or Jane Browne or any other rendering. I am the epitome of plain Jane, a stay-at-home mother of two, married to my childhood sweetheart Tom Brown.
As arbitrator of daily conflicts between eight-year-old twins, I get the importance of an impartial verdict.
The court officer greeted us. “Follow me. There will be no talking as you enter the courtroom.”
Surprised to find the courtroom filled, I quickly slid into a well-worn cherry chair at the front of the jury box sealing my identity as juror number four. Seated to my left, number three was a multi-tattooed truck driver and to my right number five was a petite, impeccably dressed career woman.
“All rise for The Honorable Judge Martin Gentry.”
“You may be seated.” Judge Gentry said as he walked to the bench wasting no time. Already I knew he was a no-nonsense judicator.
Bailiff: “Your Honor, this is the case of Robert Hawkins vs. The State of Connecticut.”
All eyes turned to the Defense table to see the accused, Robert Hawkins. My heart skipped a beat as I realized he was but ...a boy, no bigger than my nephew Paul whom I often had to chide for standing with my refrigerator door open. This boy was being tried as an adult.
Still stunned, my attention went to the Prosecutor, a corpulent man who was offering his opening statements. Sifting through all the legalese and showmanship of the Prosecutor, I learned that Robert was accused of armed robbery of a convenience store. Police had apprehended him driving the get-away car. The Prosecution pointed out that his participation made him as guilty as the man who had held up the clerk at gunpoint.
My heart grew heavier as I sat listening to attorneys and witnesses. It was apparent the “tough on crime” laws were hard at work. The desire to see criminals behind bars had launched the controversial practice of trying juveniles as adults if the crime warrants. Adult court with adult sentences meant putting young offenders into prison with career criminals who are tougher, bigger and abusive.
Could I close prison doors on this small young boy who sat quietly while he was maligned? He looked so frightened. His court-appointed attorney said little to him and offered few objections to testimony. Robert glanced often at a woman who I took to be his mother.
The proceedings went rapidly, not at all the Perry Mason or Matlock trials of TV shows. By mid-afternoon the jury was dismissed to deliberate.
Walking back into the jury room I had a terrible sense of dread. I had many unanswered questions.
“What choice do we have? He was caught driving the car.” The jury foreman was a tall distinguished man who spoke with a quiet voice. I could tell he had doubts of Robert's collaboration in the robbery.
“ We can refuse to find him guilty.” The voice came from a little white-haired lady who could double for Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, sitting toward the back never missing a crochet stitch as she spoke.
Continuing on she said, “It's called jury nullification. We have the right to refuse to find the defendant guilty if we believe the verdict would be unjust. Regardless of the evidence. We can acquit for any reason that appeals to us and the courts must abide by the decision.”
“ I can't see sending a juvenile to an adult prison....sexual abuse...suicide.”
“He is just a boy. Not sure he even knew what was going on.”
“His attorney was lame.”
“ No evidence he had ever been in trouble.”
Murmurs went around the room. The first vote was nine to three to acquit. The second vote was unanimous to acquit.
Our verdict sent a message to the Connecticut legislation. Trying a juvenile as an adult is a very serious matter. In Robert Hawkins's case we could not judge him as an adult. We hope we made the right decision. Only God knows. I pray for him daily.
Author's Note: The majority of juveniles being tried and jailed in the adult system are not violent offenders.
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