Jurors' sound legal decision breaks their hearts

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

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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.

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.

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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.

Our first straw vote - six "guilty," six "not guilty" - reflected the group's ambivalence about the right verdict and each juror's inner struggle to define justice. The straw vote offended my rational sensibility. How could six seriously think the state had met its burden of proof?

Gripping a tiny piece of chalk, I scratched my reasoning on the dusty chalkboard with the impatience of a Pictionary player. "The defendant is presumed innocent.... The prosecution established no motive, no previous pattern of suspicious behavior.... All evidence derives from the questionable testimony of a disturbed child who'd been taking a cocktail of antipsychotic drugs!"

The group was not convinced.

"Are you saying Sara's lying? .... You want to set him free?!"

I invoked the maxim, "It's better for 10 guilty men to go free than one innocent man to be punished." My rhetoric was aggressive because I was sure the evidence simply didn't add up to a guilty verdict.

The next straw vote, however, left only three "not guilty" votes - I'd won no converts. Tension began to thicken.

Despite the obvious split, the group was bonding in very personal ways.

We began the third and final day of deliberation with silent prayer. Strangers shared intimate details of their lives. We acknowledged how fallible we felt. Several jurors talked about the role faith played in their views about the case. We no longer felt stuck in an elevator.

With a new feeling of confidence, we turned our attention from the table to the chalkboard. We'd let the evidence speak for itself. We spent most of the day simply listing every pertinent detail of the case.

By late afternoon, the chalk dust had settled. The answer was clear. Despite our gut instincts, we'd have to find the defendant "not guilty." Neither the logic nor the consensus was comforting.

One juror confessed that she'd been sexually abused as a child. She related the torment she endured over the years because no one had believed her at the time. She agreed in principle that "not guilty" was the right verdict, but she was emotionally unable to write the words. Tears from a well of hurt unhealed streamed down her cheeks. She lifted her head. "Does 'not guilty' mean we don't believe her?"

Her plaintive question struck me personally. Earlier, I'd wanted to give Sara a hug. Now my verdict felt to me as if it would be a slap in her face. I'd wanted to be blind to sentimentality - but I started to fear I was being blinded by hubris. I began to panic, worried about my part in bringing about this outcome.

Sara would soon hear our verdict. Almost all the jurors buried their heads in their hands, muffling sobs. There was a genuine yearning for a sense of peace, and before making the vote official, we took a break to gather our emotions. To assuage the feeling we were about to make a monumental error, the youngest juror tried his hand at consolation: "I'm a religious guy, and I know the defendant will never escape God's judgment."

The verdict we handed to the judge on the charge of indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of 14 had no asterisk explaining our reservations. In clear, emphatic tones, the judge read: "We the jury find the defendant ... not guilty."

Sara collapsed into her mother's arms. Most of the jurors broke down, too, shaking as they left the room.

The judge came back to console us: "You are to be commended for your conscientious attention to this case. I should probably tell you now ... this defendant is facing additional charges of sexual assault in a separate case this fall."

The bottom fell out: Grown men, already in tears, lost all composure. Amid bursts of profanity, we confronted the fear that had haunted us all along: "What if we set him free and he hurts another child?"

* * *

I recently bumped into the jury forewoman on the street.

"How could we be so wrong?" she implored.

She's right in a sense.

Four years ago, a psychiatrist almost certainly sexually assaulted a fragile 7th-grade girl under his care.

Two months ago, I helped him leave court judged innocent.

Today, I stand trial before my conscience, charged with doubt and guilt. I also stand by my verdict. Sara's tears - and her suffering - may have been real. And I'm not proud of my cocksure argumentation. But in a court of law, my decision was sound.

Joshua S. Burek, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, is on the Monitor staff.

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