Paul Harrison. Kristen Lyon Jones. Richard Seaman Sarratt. Charlene Gill. Shirley Ferrell. Tonia Roberts. Kelli Golgan. Ann Pennington. Keith Hall–Jurors who appeared at a news conference the week after the trial ended.
Here we are. The end. The resolution wrought not by experts, nor by lawyers, but by the work and sacrifice of 16 ordinary people selected precisely for that reason. Ordinary people asked to do the extraordinary.
Wednesday, I didn’t have an interest to wait in a cool, gray drizzle for the TTA, so I caught the juror press conference on the computer–tinny voices accompanying the halting, blurry digital images.
I was surprised. Not so much by what they had to say, but that they actually had voices.
I had gotten so used to the presence of these mute witnesses to the events in the courtroom, that their silence relegated them at times nearly to articles of civil infrastructure, almost like mailboxes or street signs. They were so inscrutable at times, blending into the background, as to make one forget why they were there–certainly not for the 25 dollars a day, nor because of lurid, breathless interest, but because they believed enough in the system of justice in this country to participate (jury duty being a snap to avoid).
And that says something–a lot. At a time when apathy is a buyer’s market and the systems put in place by the founding fathers are being battered by constant, relentless attacks, it is a simple thing to simply wash one’s hands of the whole mess and check out.
That was what made the juror’s sacrifice so compelling. No reasonable person would want the grave, somber responsibility of having to make a choice to put someone away for life. I was there for most of the trial and it was disturbing enough just being a spectator. I worried about them–those jurors. I have no doubt that those 16 people will carry with them forever the images that part of their responsibility dictated they view carefully, images I tried to keep at a distance and not dwell upon. I’ve seen enough pictures. Their difficulty was compounded by the implications of their job.
It is difficult to get two people to agree on anything. I can’t imagine getting 12 to do so. The jury was collectively able to strip away the chaff and layers of conflicting testimony and stay focused on the primary issues at hand. Occam’s Razor.
There was nothing to cheer about either way. No one wants to let a murderer go free, and yet we, all of us, yearn for liberty. To ask one to wrest away something so essential to every creature, to shoulder that exchange–the price of a man’s freedom in for another’s life–is a great challenge.
A no-win situation if ever there was one. But listening to those citizens telling their stories, gaining their voices amid the wreckage was oddly uplifting. That these people could live in this close proximity and bond over an experience fraught with such utter tragedy, I found to be oddly moving and, for me, a font of optimism.
“It took all the strength we had to walk out that door,” said Tonia Rodgers, juror number 8. “We had made the decision on Thursday, but wanted to take the night to make sure we had made the right decision,” said Kelli Colgan. juror number 9.
The startling aspect to the decision was that not one of the jurors believed Kathleen Peterson fell down the stairs, a view bolstered by what was perhaps David Rudolf’s single biggest mistake: taking the jury to 1810 Cedar St. to view the death scene. It was there that Peterson would have had difficulty beating Kathleen, according to Rudolf, because of the confinement of the stairwell. It turned out that it was in the jury’s view even more incredible that she could have fallen–because of that very closeness–and that became a major crux of the issue.
There has been a great deal of chit-chat about “reasonable doubt” in this case, but when one climbs out of the mindless blather on the street and on the message boards, and really grasps the two sides’ theories and how they nested, there really was no other choice.
Either Kathleen fell or she was beaten by Michael Peterson. Boom. Those were the choices. There was no “one-armed man” defense–another intruder–and never any suggestion that anyone else was involved. There were no forensics to support it and Rudolf didn’t raise the theory. So the two agreed-upon scenarios, fall or beating, were what defense and prosecution decided were the foul lines. After that it became a game of white-knuckle legal chicken. Both teams stared into each other’s eyes–double or nothing–either he walks or it’s first-degree murder with life and no parole. Hardin and Rudolf laid their cards down and Rudolf came up short, despite a superbly crafted scenario, one that just didn’t have the legs to carry it through–and that is exactly what the jury deduced.
Ultimately, it came down to three photos according to a majority of the jurors who elected to speak that rainy Tuesday: the crime scene photo, a look of pain and surprise frozen on Kathleen Peterson’s face; the blood spatter image which recorded the severity of the assault like some sort of gruesome punch-card; the autopsy photos, especially the one of the back of Kathleen’s head, showing a maze of seven bone-deep splits in a circle the size of a saucer–pretty good shooting if it were a 25-yard pistol target and an impossibility from falling down three steps.
These three photographs (not even good ones) dispelled and negated a million and a half dollars (estimated) of lawyers, investigators, certified experts, laboratories, software analysts–on and on.
The term “common sense” is bandied about in courtrooms like peanuts at a pool hall. In this case, it was entirely appropriate. And who was better prepared to make that call than the regular folks of Durham, from seasoned observers like EMT Jay Rose and Officer McDowell to CSI Dan George and on down to juror Charlene Gill, the 19-year-old–a naif in this world. They were each forced to confront the imagery and the actual scene and they thought universally, “That’s a lot of blood.”
Look, no one wants to put anyone in jail for life. I wouldn’t have wanted too and I’m glad I wasn’t on the jury. When the question, “Do you think he did it,” was put to me, my response was, “I think he had something to do with it”–a gutless and lame non-answer. The simple truth is that Michael Peterson murdered Kathleen Peterson in a series of brutal, savage attacks, then left her to die while he wandered off to do–things.
The decision to vote as the jury did illustrated a rare and forgotten quality called “courage”–the courage to face a difficult decision and live with the consequences, the notoriety, questions and verbal abuse some of them are bound to receive; the courage to confront the circumstances amid all the questions many people in Durham, especially black, have about law enforcement and the Durham Police Department in particular.
One of the jurors, Paul Harrison, spoke of the jury as a “family,” and how families, while they have disagreements, are always family. I only hope and believe that sort of positive thinking that cuts across lines of gender and ethnicity goes out to this community, scarred and battered as it is, and begins to heal the gulf that separate the citizens of Durham from one another. If there is any good in the strange, sad case of Michael Peterson, that could well be it.
Peter Eichenberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org