We couldn’t talk about the gun, the Ruger 9 mm fired in the dark at the university and then hidden where the police would not find it. We couldn’t talk about the bullets, at least six of them, flying at random through a crowd—one hitting a freshman on his third day of school, burning his right forearm like hot coals until he pulled it out and saved the evidence; another hitting a sophomore from Spelman College, piercing her chest, filling her lungs with blood, leaving her dying on the grass. We couldn’t talk about any of these things because there was still a trial on, the State of Georgia v. Devonni Benton, and we the jury had been forbidden by the judge from discussing the case until after the closing arguments and the final charge. And so we talked about squirrels.
“Squirrels have invaded my house,” a female juror said. “They’re leaving their nuts everywhere. The other morning I was in my powder room and I found an acorn.”
Fourteen of us loitered in the jury room around a salmon-pink conference table, waiting in line for the bathroom. Judge T. Jackson Bedford Jr. had politely ordered us out of Courtroom 4-F so the attorneys could argue a technical point without contaminating us with their rhetoric. Now the jurors—seven women, seven men, four black, ten white, twenties to sixties, a pilot, a graphic designer, a model, three people in the insurance industry, and several others whose lines of work escaped me—were trying not to contaminate each other with premature impressions of innocence or guilt. The case was making headlines across the country. We were forbidden from reading them.
Safe topics: weather, rodent infestations, regional differences in the popular terminology for sweet carbonated beverages. In Chicago they call it pop. Around here everything’s Coke. Some people drop peanuts in their Coke. Old Southern thing, like RC Cola and MoonPies. No kiddin’. You never had boiled peanuts? Mmm, those are good. But you gotta buy ’em raw, and toss ’em in a pot with some Cajun seasoning. Anybody seen that new TV show, Undercover Boss? The boss went undercover and got fired from his own company.
We didn’t know why we’d been chosen. It started with a summons in the mail ordering us to report to the seventh floor of the Fulton County courthouse by 8 a.m. Tuesday, February 16. Then fifty-four of us were herded down to Courtroom 4-F, where we each got a red sheet of corrugated plastic with a number on it. I had #41. Judge Bedford went through a series of questions and instructed us to hold up our numbers if the answer was yes. Do you have a problem with the police? No. Do you personally know the district attorney? No. Do you own a gun? No. Have you been the victim of a crime? I held up #41. The judge asked me to elaborate.
“I was carjacked at gunpoint in Jacksonville,” I said.
The attorneys scribbled some notes, looked us up and down, and quietly made their choices. Mine was the first name called. I would be an alternate, and so would a sixty-year-old woman named Rhonda. We were only there in case something happened to one of the twelve main jurors. We would do everything they did during the trial, and then, before deliberations, if all went according to plan, we would be dismissed.