Special Report: The journey of a jury

Jury duty seems to have picked up a stigma of being a pain or a chore; something people really would rather get out of. But, serving on a jury, essentially means you and eleven other individuals are deciding the fate of a defendant, and it can be a lot of pressure.

KIMT News 3 sat down with some former jury members, one from a very high-profile case in our area to talk about their experiences.

We also wanted to find out what makes an “ideal” jury, and how attorneys sift through dozens of people to find the most impartial group.

There’s a verdict, but the process to get that final judgment is usually secretive.

How does a group of 12 impartial people get to this point? We’re walking you through the process, from how these seats are filled, to what happens behind the doors of a jury deliberation room; where strangers are tasked with determining the fate of an individual.

We’ll call this person “Juror X”; they are one of 12 who helped decide the fate of a north Iowa teenager last year.

Just one year ago at this time, 14-year old Noah Crooks stood accused of shooting and killing his mom Gretchen Crooks.

Juror X hasn’t talked about the experience on the jury until now.

“X” wants to remain anonymous in part, because the case was so high-profile and also because this person was in the minority when it came to the opinions of the other members.

This juror believes the process of a jury trial is “broken” and felt immense pressure deciding the future of a 14-year old.

“That’s the thing that I think is terrifying. We should not leave the destiny of somebody to a bunch of people who have no idea what we’re doing with law.”explains Juror X.

The concept of a jury of your peers is nearly 800 years old. It goes back to the English document known as the Magna Carta. It was an effort by the people to limit the power of the King of England.

“So they said, you know what, how about if we let common people make the decision about who is right and who is wrong, not the king. In other words, the government isn’t always right.” explains trial attorney, Joel Yunek.

Yunek has tried hundreds of cases ranging from criminal to personal injury. He believes America’s current legal system is the best of its kind.

“In my experience, jurors very seldom make mistakes; occasionally it will happen but not very often. It’s just a fine system,” Yunek adds.

But, there’s a process to getting that system to work and the key is finding the right jury and people with no connection to the case at hand. Any attorney will tell you there’s no such thing as a perfect jury.

“In order to get a fair and impartial trial, we need to know what their view points are and how they think through things. That’s truthfully the whole goal of the jury selection process,” says Assistant County Attorney Blake Norman.

Norman says there are several questions he asks all potential jurors, that includes learning more about their demographics, what they do for a living, and if they have any opinions on the case from the beginning. But sometimes, there’s no science involved.

“Picking the right jury comes down to really, a gut reaction, or gut feeling on where this juror is going to be good for you and for the process,” adds Norman.

“I believe that I was selected as a juror for the sole reason that I had no outstanding opinions on any of the questions that were presented at the time of jury selection.” Gabe Johanns described his recent jury experience in a local drunk driving case as a positive one.

In fact, he was the jury foreperson, which ultimately means the spokesperson.

“None of the jurors, I believe had strong opinions either way going into the trial. It was only during testimony that some of us gained our strong opinion on whether the guilty verdict or not,” he adds.

Gabe’s jury only took a few hours to come back with a guilty verdict.

But in the Noah Crooks trial, the jury including “Juror X” mulled over the verdict for several days. At one point sending a note to the judge saying they were close to being a hung jury.

“All the way through, we thought we only had one choice. And someone at the end, we had come to the end, we were going to be a hung jury and someone said, I think we have other options here.” Juror X adds.

“X” says some of the jury members weren’t clear on their options for a verdict, which apparently caused some confusion in the deliberation room.

“We’re layman, we don’t understand law and when we’re given our instructions, we’re expected to understand exactly what it’s saying, but it’s very complex.”

“So the jury decided to re-go over the facts, and sift through all the evidence with a fine toothed comb.”

“We literally went through every single last little tiny bit of evidence. I mean, trajectory of the bullets, we went through everything.”

In the end, the group of 12 came back with a verdict of 2nd degree murder and while their duty as jury members was done, Juror X says the process is unforgettable.

“I cried at the end. There were no winners, there was a mother who was dead, a son who had been begging for help.”

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