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Jurors' sound legal decision breaks their hearts

Each believed the psychiatrist was guilty of sexual assault. Each voted 'not guilty.'

By Joshua S. Burek / October 27, 2003

From the beginning, it was a trial by tears. In soft, apologetic tones, high school junior "Sara" told the court how she was sexually assaulted. Asked to point out the man who'd groped her body when she was 12, she broke down. Her tears, burning reminders of innocence shattered, formed a salty shield against the defendant's blank gaze.

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To the prosecutor, those tears were powerful evidence that a perverted psychiatrist had abused a vulnerable client.

To the defense, they were drops of delusion, signals that a psychotic adolescent suffering from an eating disorder wanted attention from the man she trusted most.

To the jury I was on, they were a gauge of truth.

As in many sexual-abuse cases, objective evidence was scarce. With her word against his, the logic seemed inescapable: If we, the jury, trusted Sara's tears, we'd have to find the defendant - even by Sara's mother's account a dedicated doctor - guilty.

Just hours into the trial, I wanted to go home.

Earlier, I'd been wide-eyed at justice in action, thrilled as a draft pick to make the final cut of 12 jurors. Now, I wanted to be blind like Lady Justice, coolly weighing evidence in her scales.

But Sara's eyes caught my own. Gulping down water during a recess to compose herself, she nervously scanned the jury. When she looked my way, I tried to keep a poker face, but it was no use. Her tears were the kind that couldn't be faked. I believed her. I nodded support and smiled with my eyes. She smiled back as if to say, "I'm sorry you have to be here, but please believe me."

As a popularity contest, the case was over. The contrasts were telling.

Sara was the very picture of wholesomeness, dressed like the ideal baby sitter. The defendant, a young Indian doctor, had a stiffly polite demeanor that was jarringly clinical.

Her many supporters, including a steadfast mom and a loyal band of classmates, couldn't have been more likable. His family, though stalwart, was frustratingly inscrutable - they didn't so much as blink, even during embarrassing testimony.

The district attorney presenting Sara's charges conveyed humility and earnestness. His cheap suits and "Mr. Rogers" tone endeared him to the jury. The doctor's impeccably coifed lawyers were condescendingly suave, even offensive.

None of this was evidence. Yet all of it mattered. My eyes were not blinded, and the scales were tipping heavily in Sara's favor.

But my sympathy was troubling. By becoming emotionally invested in the case, was I compromising my sworn pledge to review the case?

This wasn't a rhetorical question. I took seriously my responsibility to reach a verdict based solely on the facts. The other jurors, I figured, were as guilty of sentiment as I was. Sobered by this realization, I watched the rest of the trial emotionally withdrawn, feeling the duty to uphold a high standard of justice.

Eager to escape the frigid breath of an industrial-strength air conditioner, the jury happily left the drab courtroom for a drabber jury chamber. The chairs were comfy and well-worn, but the clockless walls suggested why: We'd be here a long time. We were like 12 strangers in a busted elevator, suffering the awkwardness of close quarters with no promise of a quick exit. There were precious few distractions: no window views, no fresh-air breaks; even the celebrity magazines were out of date.

The empty table that joined our 12 chairs symbolized our challenge. We had no hard evidence to place on it. After intense deliberation, the tabula rasa was covered only with crumbs of turkey wraps and the jostling of competing memories and speculation.

Our group was a model of diversity: Six men, six women, black and white, blue-collar and white-collar, college student and senior citizen. Our impressions about the trial were as varied as the accents in the room.

"Didn't your heart go out to Sara's mom?"

"The doctor looked so shifty."

"That's not what I had in my notes."

"Why didn't the defense call a witness to support his character?"

"What if he's innocent?"

"What if he's guilty?!"

We entered the room as without stated biases, but the veneer of impartiality soon scraped off under the pressure of deciding the defendant's fate and Sara's request for justice.

Two camps formed: jurors who "simply believed" Sara, and those who - like me - felt the state fell short of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

But this divide rested on a profound commonality: Each juror confessed strong feelings that the defendant was guilty. For all our diversity, I wondered whether race was influencing our assessment. Defensively, one juror professed warm feelings for his own Pakistani doctor. The jurors insisted it was the defendant's alienating demeanor, not his race, that had sapped their empathy.