Yeah, yeah, yeah—I know I haven’t posted anything in a couple of weeks, which will probably knock a couple points off the ‘ole 4450 rubric, but I’m back to tell you about an experience I had this past week. I’ll take you through it, but I won’t tell you the end result — you’ll have to read the Missourian story I wrote about it. Here goes.
I practically lived at the Boone County Courthouse for three days.
Yeah, really. Being on the public safety & health beat this semester, I’ve covered several court proceedings, but never any trials before Wednesday afternoon. I was plucked from the newsroom to replace another reporter on my beat who was covering this trial and had other obligations.
So, starting at 2 p.m. this past Wednesday, I planted myself in the ceremonial courtroom, a cavernous room with turquoise walls, wooden benches and terrible acoustics. This was the middle of the first day of a trial where the charges against the defendant were first-degree rape and second-degree robbery.
That afternoon, I watched the victim testify. I will never forget what she looked like. I watched as she steeled herself to tell her version of events, then as she completely broke down during cross-examination when the public defender repeatedly accused her of lying in a pre-trial hearing. Her cries of “I must have been confused, that’s not what I meant to say,” over and over again, pleading for understanding, tore through me. I just kept thinking how this young woman could easily have been me or any of my friends.
The trial continued until 8 p.m. that night. I returned to the courtroom around 11 a.m. Thursday morning when DNA evidence that seemed to all but condemn the defendant was presented. Then I watched as the defendant, who spoke through two Arabic interpreters, spun a yarn that seemed, to me and to the assistant prosecutor, like a tale crafted specifically to explain away each of the many wounds the victim accumulated that night: she was so drunk that she fell down at least three times and scraped her knees and face repeatedly. He couldn’t explain the bruises on her neck.
At the end of his testimony came the part I knew I’d hear. I gritted my teeth and narrowed my eyes as one of his interpreters said the intoxicated 5’5″ woman forced the defendant, 6’5″, to have sex with her. He didn’t even want it, he said. It was against his morals and his culture to have sex with strange women. Also, he didn’t steal her phone, he said (this was the source of the second-degree robbery charge).
The jury, made up of eight women and four men, all white and middle-aged, began deliberations a little before 4 p.m. They continued for six hours that day, during which I sat on a wooden bench outside of the courtroom and pre-wrote the story I anticipated I could top with a verdict that evening.
But 10 p.m. came around and the jury was still unable to come to a unanimous decision on the rape charge. The judge sent them home for the night. Deliberations were to resume at 9:30 a.m. the next day, Friday.
* * *
Thursday night, as I tried to fall asleep, I couldn’t get the defendant’s face out of my head. I couldn’t shake the feeling that what seemed to me like such an easy conviction could end without a conviction at all.
There had been several times during the previous two days where I’d looked across the courtroom to where the defendant sat and I’d see he was staring at me. At first I’d hold steady and stare blankly into his dark eyes. I couldn’t decipher his emotions. I’d eventually break the stare, feeling uneasy. Later on in the trial I’d avoid looking in his direction at all.
But, Thursday night, I couldn’t get his face out of my mind. Lying there in the darkness, anxiety welled in the pit of my stomach. Either this man, a transient Sudanese refugee in his early forties, was innocent and had become caught up in the events of a terrible night, or he was a liar and a predator. Both terrified me.
* * *
I went back to the courthouse Friday morning, a bitterly cold November day that followed several days of 70+ degree weather. Jury deliberations continued until 1 p.m. Then, it was over. The victim returned to the courtroom with her many supporters, many of which had been there every day of the trial. They gathered around her as the jury was called in… (Read my story for more.)