I'm not sure where my fascination with juries started. Perhaps it began when I read John Grisham's 1996 legal thriller novel "The Runaway Jury," which later was turned into a movie starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz. Or maybe it has something to do with the trials I've covered in my long journalism career.
Recently, my wife, Tamie, basically forced me to listen to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution podcast series in which the newspaper's editor, Kevin Riley, recounts his experience serving as the jury foreman in a double-murder case. As always, my wife knows best: The Breakdown series is suspenseful and thought-provoking. I really enjoyed it.
Speaking of juries, an amazing narrative piece on the foreman in the trial of Dylann Roof — the gunman sentenced to death in the Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston, S.C. — was published over the weekend.
Yes, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes has hit another home run:
When he went to court that day, summoned to jury duty, he hadn't expected to step into a dark chapter of Charleston’s history. His job had kept him on two continents in the months prior, so he wasn’t up on the local news.
When he arrived in the federal courtroom as juror No. 102, he glanced at the defendant in a striped jail jumpsuit — a slim young white man with a bowl haircut.
Along with the final herd of 67 potential jurors, the last of those winnowed from a pool of 3,000, Gerald Truesdale crammed onto a crowded bench. He listened to 17 of the 18 numbers called out for those would serve on the jury or as alternates.
Each rose and walked to the jury box, then took a seat.
One more to go. He prepared to leave.
“Juror No. 102.”
Given his job as a corporate executive, Truesdale was used to moving in front of large groups. Yet now he felt shaky as he rose from the third row. All eyes watched him step through a waist-high swinging door, across the courtroom and toward the last empty seat in the jury box.
The foreman’s chair.
Hawes' story marks the first time any jurors in the Roof case have shared their stories.
She paints a remarkable picture of jurors' experience and helps readers understand what they were feeling and thinking throughout the process.
Truesdale's experience is particularly poignant:
Truesdale is a numbers guy. It hit him then, the sheer randomness of his selection.
There’s some reason that I’m here, he thought.
He had grown up in Charleston and Mount Pleasant, where historic racial disparities persist, spent 25 years working with Fortune 500 diversity programs and now sat in judgement of a man charged with committing hate crimes.
“It became very real to me that everyone has a purpose in life. It made me feel as if all of the pieces fit,” he recalled.
But what would this puzzle look like in the end? He had no idea.
At this point, I couldn't help but wonder whether faith/religion/spirituality/etc. would come into play for Truesdale by the story's end.
Spoiler alert: His experience is emotional but — at the end — still seems mysterious:
About three weeks later, he returned to Emanuel. This time, he went alone.
He found himself drawn back again, then again after that, and began to go every few weeks, always sitting in a different pew. He wasn’t sure why.
It hit him one day in the way his eyes scoured the crowd. He was searching for the people he’d seen on the witness stand, the survivors and families whose grief he’d felt so deeply. Most, however, didn't attend Emanuel anymore, or hadn't in the first place.
Yet Truesdale still wanted to meet them in normal life. He wanted to hug them and let them all know that by the trial’s end, each juror felt as if he or she had lost a grandmother, an aunt, a wife, a son.
He wanted them to know that the jury voted easily and quickly.
A year later, he still wants to offer that. He still looks for them wherever he goes.
So is there a holy ghost in Truesdale's frequent trips to the church?
With an ordinary writer, I might make that case. In Hawes' case, she's a former full-time religion writer. She always has done such a remarkable job on the faith angle that I can't imagine that she would have ignored it if there was one. More likely, it seems, is that Truesdale himself is still grappling with his feelings and what they mean, and the story reflects that.
Go ahead and read it all, please. Maybe I'm missing something. In any case, I'd love to hear your thoughts.