Deathly Decision

I had the experience of serving on a the jury in 2008 for a resentencing trial in Pasco County, Florida.  It was a life altering event for me.

 

I stared a murderer in the eyes.  I sat in my chair, one among twelve, and stared a man convicted of killing another man straight in the eyes.

It’s a bizarre sensation to feel your soul pause.  It’s more than your heart skipping a beat or your breath suddenly disappearing from your lungs.  When I looked into the eyes of Lawrence Joey Smith, a man who was convicted of first degree murder in 2001, it was as if I’d stepped into a void and time, ever so briefly, stood still.

The gravity of this case was real.  The circumstances surrounding the case tragic.  At issue was whether Lawrence Joey Smith should spend the rest of his life in jail without the possibility of parole or whether he should be sentenced to death.  The weight of this decision was tangible, and as I looked around to the faces of my fellow jurors, I knew they felt the same sinking feeling in the pits of their stomach that I was feeling.

I need to be forthright and disclose that I am a proponent of the death penalty.  I have always believed that once you willingly and knowingly take someone’s life in a criminal manner you forfeit your right to continue to live yours.  It’s not so much an “eye for an eye” philosophy as it is one of responsibility, accountability and justice.  That being said, I am not sure I continue to feel the same way following my experiences earlier this afternoon.

As we, the 12 jurors burdened with issuing a sentence recommendation in this case, entered the jury room for deliberation, we did not know what to expect.  We didn’t even know where to begin.  Here was a collection of 12 diverse and varied individuals from around Pasco County asked to make a determination as to when death should come to Lawrence Joey Smith – either later in his life as a prisoner of the state or significantly sooner as a result of lethal injection.

My soul paused once again.

There is no way to possibly prepare for such a task.  What had been a fun, light-hearted and jovial jury transformed into a somber group of human beings holding in their hands the fate of another human being.

“No one should be asked to do this,” came a voice from across the table.  “Who the hell are we to determine if he should live or die?”  Yet there we were, with our notes, instructions, and piles of evidence from the case.  There we were, asked to do the unthinkable, and no one had any idea where to even begin.

“So who wants to be the captain of our little team?” I asked, trying to break the tension in determining the foreperson of our jury.  All eyes quickly turned to me.  My throat closed, my heart accelerated, and that condescending voice in my head reminded me that next time I should just keep my mouth shut.  I guess I should have felt honored the others in the room would entrust me to direct the deliberations, but as I would learn later, the price of honor can be steep.

I won’t bore you with legalities other than to say our task was not to determine guilt or innocence.  This trial was a sentencing trial, and our direction was to determine a sentencing recommendation for the judge.  The recommendation was just that – a recommendation – and it did not have to be unanimous.  The final decision regarding the sentencing rests with the presiding judge, and she is not bound to follow our recommendation.  Still, the recommendation of the jury carries great weight in determining the final sentence, and the responsibility is not something anyone in the room took lightly.

We went back and forth reviewing the case law and instructions presented to us by the judge.  We determined what aggravating factors existed in the case and weighed them against the many mitigating factors we also agreed existed in this matter.  We talked, we discussed, we even argued.  We were passionate and descriptive, logical and formulaic, objective and fair.  Yet in the end, if there was one emotion that ran through my body, I would have to say it was dread.

I dreaded the idea this was actually happening.  As I looked up at the board on which we documented our discussions and recorded the aggravating factors in the case versus the mitigating factors, I could see we were heading towards a decision of death.

“I don’t want to do this,” I said out loud.  It was really more to myself, but I know everyone in the room heard me.  “I don’t want to decide this.  I don’t want to sit hear and make this decision.”  I looked at my handout, reviewing once again the instructions and the law, and looked back at our board.  “I want so desperately to find something to change my mind.”  I wanted so badly to find a mitigating factor that was compelling and carried, in my mind, more weight than the aggravating factor of the case.  I did not want to recommend the death penalty for this man.

We went back and forth discussing various possibilities and scenarios.  We talked and argued about the defendant’s possible state of mind at the time of the shooting.  We speculated about factors surrounding the night in question and the days that followed.  We even went as far as to submit a question back to the judge and the respective attorneys asking for more specific information about the defendant.  Yet in the end, we all came back to the fact there was no evidence to support any of the speculations or hypothesis we were discussing, and the judge replied stating we had all the evidence we were going to receive.

After over 4 hours, we all agreed we had come about as far as we were going to go. We took another vote and like the first one, one that was done to establish a baseline in the deliberations, the recommendation was to put Lawrence Joey Smith to death.

The silence in the room was suffocating.  We sat at the table, some of us in shock, some of us in disbelief, almost all of us in tears.  I asked that we go around the table one last time and provide everyone with the opportunity for one last chance to say something or argue a point before we formalized the recommendation for death.  It was our own, personal ‘closing arguments’ of the case.  One woman made an impassioned statement in favor of life in prison.  Another woman was rendered speechless for the first time in all the deliberations.  Others just stared down at the table in front of them, dabbing away the tears from their eyes.

The discussion came to an end at my seat.  In front of me lay a form I was to complete that stated we the members of the jury were making a recommendation that Lawrence Joey Smith be put to death.  I placed a check in the appropriate field, I entered the final tally from our vote (7 – 5), and I dated the document.  I stared at the signature line for what felt like hours.  I stared and stared and stared and finally forced myself to raise my arm, pen in hand, and make our recommendation final.

My soul paused and I found myself once again in that timeless void, trapped between the surreal feelings in my head and the gut-wrenching reality of what had just happened.  We didn’t speak much after that.  The room felt as if we were all at a funeral.  Occasionally, one of us made small talk in an effort to relieve the tension we were all feeling.  Still, the fun, light-hearted and jovial jury was forever gone, and I sensed each one of us wanted to just go home and be as far away from that jury room as possible.

We wanted everything to simply return to normal.  However, I know in my heart things for the 12 of us will never really feel quite normal ever again.

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