The first thing that struck me inside the courtroom was the palpable anger that some of my fellow prospective jurors emitted when they found out that the defendant in the case we had been called to serve was accused of sexually assaulting a minor. I would call the mood smoldering. One elderly women in the first row, with a grouchy disposition to begin with, immediately told the judge that she thought the defendant was guilty even though she knew nothing about the evidence. I mean, her arm shot into the air so quickly to make her point to the startled judge and the rest of us that I thought it would soar off her shoulder.
A handful of others also raised their hands, over and over again, to let the earnest judge and the prosecutor and the cop sitting next to her and the defense attorneys and the defendant himself know that there was no presumption of innocence when it came to sexual assault on a child. The candor was both disappointing and refreshing. It was disappointing that for so many people the nature of a crime itself transcends all of the ways in which the law has been crafted to protect the rights of defendants. It was refreshing because these jurors were all disqualifying themselves without forcing anyone to uncover their prejudice.
The second thing that struck me was how many women in our group of about 60 prospective jurors said in open court that they were unsure they could fairly judge the defendant because they had experienced some form of sexual abuse in their own lives or knew people who had. The judge was not surprised by these urgent responses; clearly he had heard it before in such cases, and so he quickly tried to reassure these prospective jurors that they would not be put on trial during the jury selection process; that they would not be asked by the lawyers to recount their own experiences.
But that didn’t mean the trial itself wouldn’t bring up memories that some jurors clearly wanted to repress. One juror said just that: that she wasn’t sure what the evidence would be, but that she feared it would force her to confront experiences in her past that she did not wish to confront. She didn’t say that she couldn’t fairly judge the case, she told all of us, she just wanted the judge and the lawyers to know how she felt. At this point, all we knew about the case—all I know about it now as I write this—is that the defendant faced one charge stemming from conduct between 2006 and 2009.
During all these exchanges I tried to watch the defendant from my vantage point in the jury box. He is a small man, and relatively thin, and looked to be in his 50s or 60s. The two defense attorneys, both women, both clearly younger than their client, had wisely placed him as far from the jury box as possible. I did not see him speak to his attorneys or interact with them in any way. I did not see him wince or otherwise react when he was adjudged guilty before the first witness had been heard, by the people called to give him a fair trial.
Some people in the jury pool were desperate not to serve. One said she had an elderly parent to take care of. Another said he had business travel he couldn’t miss. One man told us that he suffered from panic attacks and took Xanax several times throughout the day. One woman let us know she has Crohn’s disease and would need to go to the bathroom many times during the course of testimony. An elderly man said the same thing on account of his diabetes. The nice man sitting next to me couldn’t hear the judge even with his hearing aids turned up, so he was given a set of headphones (which he said didn’t work very well).
And then there were jurors, I would say the vast majority, who said they weren’t sure they could give the defendant a fair trial but were willing to keep an open mind. And those were the jurors the lawyers would fight over for the rest of the day. The jurors whose views about crime and punishment and law and order would be probed. The jurors who finally would hear the story of the crime and ultimately render their verdict about whether the man against the wall on the far side of the room was guilty or not.
I did not get selected. I never do. I never can get past the question the judges always ask about weighing a case based solely on the evidence and law presented in court. I agree such an admonition is essential, and too often ignored by jurors, but I cannot unlearn or forget what I have learned as a lawyer and after nearly a quarter of a century of work as a journalist covering criminal justice. In the span of the jury questioning I witnessed I already was wondering why the charges had come so many years after the alleged assault, and whether there were any plea negotiations before the start of the trial, and whether the defense planned to use expert witnesses to testify about the reliability of survivor testimony.
As I left the courthouse it dawned on me that the judge had assumed the role of therapist. That simply didn’t happen when I first started covering jury selections. We are having a different kind of national discussion these days about sexual assault, and how the law ought to handle it, and the echoes of that new dialogue permeated the courtroom even before the first witness was sworn in.
Senior Editor Andrew Cohen, a lawyer and legal analyst, edits The Marshall Project’s daily newsletter, Opening Statement. The defendant in the case, Ralph Ramon Lujan, was found guilty on March 12 of sexual assault on a minor child under the age of 15 by a person in a position of trust, a Class 3 felony in Colorado. He is being held without bond until his scheduled sentencing on May 20.