How 12 Strangers Agreed on Murder

Six months ago, I was walking in downtown Colorado Springs wearing a blue-and-white pin labeled “Juror Div. 8.” I was part of a group of people selected by two teams of lawyers to interpret evidence in the 4th Judicial District of the Colorado State Judicial Branch.

After the lawyers completed their arguments in the first-degree murder trial, the jury was excused. I’d decide a man’s guilt with eleven other people, culminating two weeks of listening to witness testimonies, and getting acquainted. Finally, we could speak about the most meaningful thing this group of strangers had in common: a twisted love triangle and its deadly shooting.

Juror Division 8We filed into the jury room, where the clerk explained the intercom system, as well as the piles of boxes and folders against the wall, littered with colorful tape and scribbled initials. There was a stack of autopsy photos and hours of recorded conversations. There was a plastic bag with bloodstained clothing, torn by a shotgun blast. The lawyers had held it up so many times.

“Guilty,” I said, during our first hand-raising poll around an oval table. Clearly the evidence showed the accused man’s guilt, I thought. It’s obvious. This’ll be a quick decision – everyone heard the same evidence. As elected foreman, I suggested a synchronous vote to curb bandwagon responses. Surprisingly, six people kept down their hands, gesturing for acquittal or indecision.

Today, six months later, as a graduate student in critical and creative thinking at the University of Massachusetts Boston, I understand the background process that unfolded in the Division 8 jury room. During a dialogue coaching call yesterday, I explained our jury’s listening process. My coach and I reviewed the four fields of listening, as explained by Otto Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Scharmer calls the fields judgmental listening, listening from outside, empathic listening and generative listening. When we listen from what we hear inside ourselves, as the only factual and reliable information, that’s judgmental. By sharing our thoughts and views, we start listening from outside. But we’re still mostly listening from patterns of the past, withholding our attention.

ArgueSo, what had happened? How could the other jurors not think the same as me? We all heard the same compelling evidence, right? I hadn’t thought of a jury foreman as a dialogue leader, more of a person who’d be accountable for paperwork, evidence and reading a verdict. We were handed the applicable laws and conduct instruction. Nobody explained the fields of conversation.

Prior to deliberation, our group chatted about special interests, family members, career achievements, social issues. While in the first field of conversation, people download assumptions to remain cordial. We carved a container for deeper conversations later by talking nice, initially.

Enacting Emerging Futures

Source: Scharmer

During the time we couldn’t talk about the trial, I shoved our attention away from our individual boundaries. We needed to exercise an effort toward deeper understandings, so each individual could practice opening their mind, heart and will. I mentioned a comment from someone excused during juror selection. She told the lawyers that she’d have a “seriously hard time” judging a man’s actions, convicting someone of murder.

I explained my seven years in Qatar, where one person often decides on a conviction. I shared my wife’s stories of growing up in Morocco, where justice is consistently sold. In the United States, despite all our laws, lawyers, judges, police officers, forensic scientists, we the people retain control of each other’s criminal culpability. If we don’t participate in this process, who will? If we refuse it for others, do we still deserve it ourselves?

We formed a culture of inquiry with reflective dialogue. Through inquiry, boundaries collapsed and generative listening unfolded, the final field of listening. As we began deliberation, we ascended from our conversational container. The constant stench from the bloody clothing kept our purpose clear, along with the families waiting for a closure only we could deliver.

The constant stench from the bloody clothing kept our purpose clear, along with the families waiting for a closure only we could deliver.

To reach a verdict, we had to listen from within others, as if their views were our own. Early into the proceedings, our dialogue process teetered on breakdown within the argumentative context. At one point, two jurors folded their arms and claimed “a hung jury is the only way.” Trying to get 12 adults from all different walks of life to agree on anything is tough. Here, we had to agree on either convicting a murder, or acquitting a falsely accused man.

We accepted common agreements. We banned the phrase “hung jury.” We each agreed we feel reasonable, and sense the others are reasonable, too. We decided each juror’s doubt is rational. For that reason, we’d take turns voicing opinions, and protected the need for everyone to be heard. We slowed down and detached, enough to question our own ideas. Using the juror laptop, we reviewed the audio and video evidence, again and again, retrieving the parts fueling debates.

Scharmer outlines three internal voices of resistance: judgment, cynicism and fear. Judgment relies on limitations of thought; cynicism on emotions of disconnection; and fear on the need for safety and predictability. For collaborative understandings to emerge, these voices must be silenced through thinking, sensing and feeling – presencing.

I’m noticing that I’m discovering guilt, where others found doubt. I think we’ve overlooked a critical piece of testimony causing us to disagree. I hear us relying on judgments that ignore the group and contrary evidence. As I disagree with you, I’m wondering if my experiences are causing an unreasonable amount of distrust. As I hear you say “reasonable doubt,” I’m wondering if it’s reasonable enough to acquit. We cannot witness the murder.

To reach a verdict, juror dialogue must respect an open flow of information, capable of new insights and discoveries.

To reach a verdict, juror dialogue must respect an open flow of information, capable of new insights and discoveries. Jurors must learn to listen from within others. A verdict isn’t based on one person’s ruling, but rather a consensus over time. We didn’t find the accused man guilty of first-degree murder. We agreed on second degree, and found him guiltily of all the lesser charges.

It was a tough case, where an otherwise law-abiding man got caught in a deadly scheme. But after two weeks of testimonies and three days of deliberation, the legal process impressed me. Each juror entered deliberation as strangers from around El Paso County, harboring different interpretations of the trial’s evidence, yet came together in agreement.

Share a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s