Why I helped send a man to jail for life

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis first dreaded jury duty, but found it a powerful experience
  • Ghitis: Jurors decided a father accused of molesting daughters was guilty
  • Still, she writes, the responsibility of putting him away for life was a heavy weight
  • Ghitis says serving on a jury was important and meaningful

A few days ago, I helped send a man to prison for the rest of his life. I haven't been able to get his face out of my mind.

But my mind is also filled with the voices and faces of the man's daughters -- his victims -- his shockingly young and incredibly brave accusers.

It all started with a mail delivery familiar to most Americans: a summons for jury duty. I held up the envelope and groaned. Does anyone want to serve on a jury? I had always felt somewhat intrigued by the prospect. But the potential interference with the rest of my life and the unpredictability of the schedule tipped the scales: I hoped to go home without serving.

I was wrong. The days I spent along with my fellow jurors, listening attentively, and trying to do the best possible job of reaching the correct decision, will remain in my memory as an indelibly powerful experience. At every moment -- even as I waited in the jury room with my 13 new acquaintances while the judge and the lawyers spoke out of our presence -- I had an inescapable sense that what I was doing was important. That it mattered. It was exactly the opposite of wasting my time.

I confess. We felt as if we were characters in a "Law & Order" episode.

Frida Ghitis

For three days, the accused, a grandfatherly 63-year-old man, sat impassively next to his court-appointed lawyer, while the smart-as-a-whip assistant district attorney laid out the case against him: A dozen felony charges ranging from aggravated child molestation to furnishing obscene materials to a minor.

His daughters sat in the witness stand and described in excruciatingly detail what their father did to them. Their father.

Expert witnesses testified. I watched the defendant. I thought about how his life had come unraveled, about what awaited him. What if he was innocent? What if we got it wrong? Could I vote to put him in jail until the end of his life? We were, all of us, there to decide a human being's fate.

On the fourth day, the testimony ended. The daughters walked back in the courtroom to hear closing arguments. Their presence jolted us. This wasn't just about the defendant. It was just as much about his victims.

By then, the 14 of us -- two would become alternates -- had developed an odd bond. We were not allowed to discuss the case, which is what we had in common. We were tense. We had not been sleeping well.

It's a peculiar system, this "jury of your peers." Some countries prefer to have courts, trained experts, make all the decisions. On the surface, that sounds like a good idea. But our unlikely collection, including a dental technician, Web designer, mortgage broker, a nurse and a tire changer, dazzled me with its insights. Everyone had a unique and useful point of view. No one seemed foolish or superfluous.

As the trial progressed, I'd had a disturbing sense that the system was terribly unfair to the defendant. The prosecutor had such a strong case. The defense had nothing. I was awed by the lengths to which society went to try granting a fair trial to a man accused of such terrible offenses.

But the system is clearly flawed. A better lawyer, one with more resources and time to devote to the case, might have provided another version of events that exonerated his client. A wealthy defendant, guilty or not, has a better chance to win. In this case, the accused had a court-appointed lawyer.

The experience showed me some of the weaknesses in the system; the imbalance between the adversaries; the impact of poverty; the fact that family ties, ravaged in the crime and even in the legal process, are barely an afterthought.

But I also gained respect for the jury system. It worked far better than I expected.

I became jury foreman, determined from the beginning of the trial that during deliberations I would try to make up for the uneven sides, push beyond the weak defense to seek the truth, tearing through any flaws in the prosecution's case.

When we sat around the table, our shoulders tight under the weight of our extraordinary responsibility, it turned out we all wanted to do exactly the same thing: We wanted to be fair to the man accused of such a terrible crime. And we wanted to find truth for the sake of the victims. Because as awful as the charges were, convicting an innocent man of such unspeakable crimes -- on behalf of society -- would constitute no smaller outrage.

When we found evidence or testimony less than completely convincing, we set it aside. What remained was still overwhelmingly powerful.

We found the accusers' stories impossible to deny. We found him guilty of 11 of the 12 charges.

When the verdict was announced, the man's daughters wept in each others' arms. The accused still showed no emotion.

I waited in vain to feel a sense relief. I wanted to be glad it was over. But I couldn't stop thinking of the man I helped send to prison, where he will spend the rest of his days, where, as other child abusers, he might be killed by other inmates. I find it shocking that society accepts that as routine.

I wonder whether his daughters will miss their father despite his terrible flaws. During the trial, I could see they don't hate him.

I remain profoundly impressed by the girls, women, who spoke out against their father. After watching them testify and hearing how they fought to get their story heard, after learning how they have persevered with their lives since their family fell apart, I know they will make it far.

The one part of this experience I feel most certain about is serving on a jury. I am glad I did it. I can't imagine a more important, meaningful responsibility or a more powerful experience.

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