Bound by Silence

A look at the State of Georgia v. Devonni Benton

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.

The trial lasted nearly three days, but we liked each other almost immediately. As much as we complained about the inconvenience—for example, how are fourteen people supposed to take a short bathroom break when they have only two toilets—we understood the importance of our collective work. I hurried to the courthouse every morning, feeling needed. One morning the pilot brought two dozen Dunkin’ Donuts to share, and the model brought a dozen more. She loved the kind with peanuts. The next morning Rhonda brought in a tray of cinnamon pastries. We devoured them.

Risky topics: the gum-chewing habits of various state witnesses. The tired eyes of a bailiff. The tired eyes of a visiting Japanese judge. The merits of the American justice system relative to the rest of the world. One of us was so worried about these topics or similar ones that he or she reported it to Judge Bedford, who issued another stern reminder not to talk about the case.

Even then, a vague paranoia crept into the jury room. One woman sat in the corner and stared out the window, hardly ever talking to us. Another sat at the conference table but swiveled her chair toward the wall to shield herself from anything improper. All the while, we wore out our wrists and our pencils with notes on an unfathomable killing.

After the closing arguments and the charge to the jury, Judge Bedford had special instructions for Rhonda and me. We should go to the jury room, gather our things, and surrender our notebooks. We could leave the courthouse, but we had to be on call in case one of the regular jurors dropped out. What did that mean? We still were not to talk about the case.

By then the silence was almost unbearable. I thought about the events of September 3, 2009, at Clark Atlanta University, the way menacing facial expressions led to menacing words and gestures, and then to a brawl between two groups of friends, and then to the gunshot that killed Jasmine Lynn, who was only there to make peace. I thought of Devonni Benton and the missing Ruger; the parade of undernourished young men with their mumbled lies; the defense attorney’s refrain about catching the real killer; the tear on the prosecutor’s right cheek as she implored us not to let Benton escape.

Benton was a twenty-one-year-old former basketball player from Benjamin Banneker High School and more recently a computer-networking student at ITT Technical Institute. The case against him was not airtight. There was no single piece of irrefutable evidence that proved Benton was the shooter—no DNA, no fingerprints on a gun, no clear video footage, no confession. To convict him, you would have to sift through hours of conflicting witness testimony and decide which parts to believe and which to ignore. I was undecided.

Rhonda gave me a ride to work on her way out of town. We exchanged phone numbers. Later that afternoon, while the jury was still deliberating, she called me.

“I feel empty,” she said.

She called the judge’s office every hour to get updates, which she relayed to me. By 8 p.m. the jury was still out. Rhonda said it felt like reading a novel only to find the last page was gone, or becoming a soldier and then missing the war. I understood what she meant.

On Saturday afternoon, I noticed I had missed a call on my cell phone.

“Mr. Lake,” the voicemail said, “this is Judge Bedford. I’m calling to tell you that you’ve been released.” He went on to say that the jury had found Benton guilty of felony murder, among other crimes, and the sentence was life plus twenty-five years. My heart fluttered. I reminded myself it was out of my hands. It was an excruciating decision I did not have to make.

“I know it’s hard to be an alternate,” the judge said. “So I appreciate your conscientiousness and attention.”

I hung up and called Rhonda. We had a lot to talk about.

AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Vino Wong