Things are not always what they seem. Sometimes in life we find ourselves dealing with situations and events that seem innocent and innocuous enough at the time, but we realize at some point or another that our lives have been changed because of them. Irreversibly, undeniably changed.
I’ve heard an expression about how we are all just a sum of our parts relating to our life’s experiences. The person I am today is built on all past challenges, successes, failures, heartbreaks, gains and losses. Without pain and adversity we lack growth. There have been times I’ve wanted to wish away some of the bad–some of the events of my life that felt like they were tearing me down, breaking me. I understand that I am who and where I am in life because of everything I have done, but it’s challenging to appreciate everything.
The person I am today is built on all past challenges, successes, failures, heartbreaks, gains and losses.
In May 2004 I was called for jury duty. I had never been called to serve on a jury before. I was actually excited. (I realize that most people aren’t excited for jury duty, but I honestly was.) It was an opportunity to fill a need in the community. Be a part of the system that seeks justice for all. I had no idea what I was getting into … or how much my life would change because of it.
When I received an 8-page questionnaire in the mail that asked nearly 100 questions, I figured it was all part of the routine of picking a jury. Throughout the entire voir dire process (when the prospective jurors are asked their opinions regarding a variety of topics), I didn’t realize the gravity of the trial at hand. When I was asked about my thoughts on the death penalty and life sentence, I just thought they were making sure they had people who would be objective and follow the guidance of the law–ensuring that they wouldn’t be putting any unstable people on a jury. When we were told that the trial had a change of venue because there had been too much local publicity regarding the crime and the defendant wasn’t likely to get a fair trial, I figured it was because the small Ohio town had little else to report on … so they probably just reported the hell out of whatever it was. I had no idea that all of these were indicators of what the trial could possibly be about. I had no idea that my world was about to be rocked–to the core. I had no idea.
During the opening arguments, I quickly realized the gravity of the situation. The defendant, Marvin Johnson, had killed Daniel Bailey–the 13-year-old son of his ex-girlfriend, Tina. Marvin’s attorneys conceded that in the first 15 minutes of the trial. They didn’t believe, however, that he should be charged with aggravated murder. They were going to argue semantics that Marvin didn’t kidnap Daniel, as he was charged, because Daniel was already dead when Marvin gagged and hogtied him and dragged him to the basement. They also didn’t believe that Marvin should be found guilty of rape and aggravated robbery (the victim of those 2 crimes was Tina). They would argue whether or not Marvin actually held the knife to Tina’s throat while he sexually violated her, and the technicality of aggravated robbery because she was able to talk him into leaving the knife at the house while she drove him to the bank to get $1000 following his demands. (It’s not considered aggravated robbery–the more serious charge–without the weapon.)
As is the case with any trial, we were told NOT to discuss this case at all, with anyone–spouses, family, friends or other jurors. We were also barred from looking for information regarding this crime in newspapers or on the internet during the trial. We were to hear all testimony and see all evidence before forming an opinion on the matters at hand. For me, that was hellish. I was dealing with the most horrific, violent, disturbing and unsettling event in my life completely alone. I felt isolated and empty. I couldn’t share with my own husband, mother or sister what was ripping me apart. I cried myself to sleep most every night of that trial, picturing poor Daniel and what he suffered at the hands of that monster … and for his poor mother and all she must be riddled with–guilt for bringing that man into her family, for not keeping her child safe, the absolute heartbreak of losing a child particularly in such a violent way, and for what must have been the most horrible moment of her life when she found her son–gagged, hogtied and bloody–and then tried to revive him herself. I still feel an absolute ache in my core when I think about the trial–even nine years later. I still cry sometimes.
I was dealing with the most horrific, violent, disturbing and unsettling event in my life completely alone.
Through all the graphic testimony, photos and evidence presented, I was (and still am) able to close my eyes and picture the crime as if it were happening right in front of me, as if I were standing in the corner watching the entire thing happen.
I always knew that horrible things happened in the world, that there are terrible people who commit heinous crimes against others. Until that trial, all of that happened outside of my sphere of reality. I was aware that it existed, but I never lived it. Then, sitting in a jury box, I did. I sat in a courtroom mere feet from the most evil person I have ever encountered. It was at that point that my world was corrupted. The horrible, villainous events of that crime and every other felt like they were all happening in my life. Emotionally I couldn’t find the line that separated my world from the one in which other atrocities were being committed. That trial opened the floodgates of my emotional struggle. Once my protective “not my reality” bubble had been broken, I felt ravaged by every news story of violent crime. I went from those-things-don’t-happen-in-MY-world to EVERYTHING-happens-in-my-world. When I heard about soldiers who were being captured and beheaded, I felt like they were my sons being brutalized. I couldn’t breathe. I mourned for each victim of crime like they were my family. I sobbed through the stories. I couldn’t watch any form of the news without feeling overcome with sadness and devastation. I was overwhelmed with grief. I felt completely tormented.
Ironically, as I was suffering the emotional pains of the mother in every tragedy, I couldn’t connect with my own two children. I would sit, slumped and drained, in a chair watching them play while my thoughts would tell me I should be on the floor playing with them. But I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t physically able to do it. It was like I was paralyzed by my emotions. I cried every day, feeling beyond overwhelmed, unable to pull myself out of the deep.
I was paralyzed by my emotions.
It wasn’t until months after the trial when most of us on the jury got together that I realized I was dealing with something of grand proportion and out of my control. Several of us were reeling from our experience of the trial. Depression. Anxiety. Disconnection from what we used to do and love. Inability to cope with setbacks or problems. About two weeks after our get-together, I went to the doctor and cried my way through the appointment. She told me that I had Depression with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. She prescribed an anti-depressant to help me. It worked. I was on that medication for about a year.
Nine years later, I’m fine. I am no longer overwhelmed by all of this, but it still affects me. I cannot watch movies about trials without feeling incredible amounts of anxiety. I can’t drive through the city where this happened without feeling my blood pressure and heart rate rise, but it’s not as pronounced as it was a few years ago. I used to check Marvin Johnson’s inmate status and look for information regarding his appeals about once a month. Over the years I have checked less often and, as I write this, I realize that I haven’t looked up his status in over a year. The other day while looking through a box of mementos, I unexpectedly came across the newspaper I had saved that detailed his trial and sentencing. I immediately felt sick when I caught a glimpse of his picture. I had a sour feeling in my stomach the rest of that night. Nine years later, I still have a visceral response to that experience.
I will never serve on a jury again.
When I hear of violent crimes in the news my first thought is for the family of the victim. My second thought is for the men and women who will have to sit on a jury listening to the details of the crime. Hearing testimony from experts who can recreate the horrific acts in painful, thorough detail. Seeing photographs of the crime scene. I think of those innocent civilians who will serve their communities and our justice system. Those people who will never be the same because of what they see and hear.
I have seen headlines and heard small bits about the Jody Arias trial. I understand that the jury had determined that she was “exceptionally cruel” when she murdered her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander. To come to that verdict, I can only imagine the horrors that the jurors had to process. I feel for each of them. For what they’ve been through and for what lies ahead as they weigh the crimes committed in the penalty portion of the trial.
Deliberating the life of another person is incredibly daunting. Most all of us on the jury cried during the deliberation process. We shared opinions. We asked questions. We listened. We sat quietly and thought. We talked. We held hands and prayed. We hugged each other. We all struggled with the gravity of the situation.
Several of us from the jury went to the sentencing hearing. We drove together and talked at length about what an impact the trial had on us and our lives. After the hearing we met with and talked to the judge, the bailiffs, the prosecuting attorneys and the lead detective on the case. They were all very grateful for our dedication and service to the community.
We also were able to meet and talk to Daniel’s mother, Tina, that day. She thanked us for our role in bringing justice for her son and family. When I hugged her that day, I knew that, indeed, my life had been forever changed.
I knew that, indeed, my life had been forever changed.