Serving as a juror for a DeKalb murder case, I learned to appreciate the cost of justice

Writer Kirsten Ott Palladino describes her experience as a juror in a murder case—from jury selection to trial to deliberation—and what she learned about the legal system

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Summoned

Illustration by James Zucco

When the summons arrived in my mailbox in August 2021, I didn’t think much about it. I’d been called for jury duty nearly a dozen times before. I’ve usually been dismissed via automated phone messages or, at the latest, during the first round of questioning when judicial staff ask about insurance carriers. Apparently, my insurance company spends a lot of time in court. The one time I had actually served was a classic slip-and-fall lawsuit over a wet floor in a grocery store.

I should’ve realized this case was going to be different. In 2021, routine trials were still being conducted by video conference, but I’d been summoned to the DeKalb County Courthouse. When other prospective jurors and I entered the courtroom and sat down in the gallery, plexiglass walls divided us, witnesses, attendants, and attorneys, turning the oak-paneled room into a sort of surreal Pac-Man maze. Everyone was wearing masks. We were directed to seats with paper paddles that matched our assigned numbers.

Superior Court Judge Courtney L. Johnson presided. Wavy black curls and soft dimples cast a kindness about her face. When she spoke, it was with a leveled countenance—tolerant but stern. The authority she held over the courtroom was evident. Glancing around, I realized that everyone with any power—from the juror liaison to the bailiffs to the judge and the attorneys—was a woman. All but two were Black. Their strength and energy bolstered me in this unfamiliar territory, though I still felt more curious than nervous.

I wasn’t comfortable for long. The judge announced that Malik Nunnally, age 28, was facing murder-related charges. We would soon learn that he was accused of shooting Maya Mitchell, age 22, in the head, then abandoning her nearly nude body in Glen Emerald Park on Bouldercrest Road in Southeast Atlanta on December 31, 2018. The gravity of the situation before the jury became apparent. But I was still unprepared for a legal process that would leave me personally shattered and confused.

• • •

JURY SELECTION

The prosecutor announced that she would ask a series of questions. Those of us answering in the affirmative should hold our paddles in the air, high enough for everyone to see. At first, the questions were nonthreatening. Would we have difficulty being impartial in a case involving the sale of marijuana (though, to be clear, this case was only tangentially related to drugs)? I internally rolled my eyes at the thought that anyone would care. But there it was: An older white gentleman with a crew cut raised his paddle.

The questions became more personal. Who has been or is close to someone who has been assaulted? I put my paddle up in front of me, cheeks burning with the shame I thought I’d learned to release in therapy. Higher, the attorney commanded. We need those paddles up where everyone can see the numbers. I extended my elbow while tears pricked my eyes. The questions kept coming. Who has had a negative experience with law enforcement? Who has been arrested? Who has fired a gun? Paddles up high. I glanced around. Paddles were up in every direction. Together, we were bonded in the humility of divulging our private lives.

The attorneys conferred with each other, two at the prosecuting table and two at the defense. Whispers, glances up, heads back down. No one in the jury pool spoke. Then, we were divided into groups of 14, which took turns in the jury box. Here, we would have to surrender our privacy completely. I had not expected this. To be honest, I almost wished I hadn’t been so forthcoming with my paddle. The questions turned into an interrogation. Potential jurors confessed DUIs, assaults, shootings, shoplifting, and being biased against police officers for any number of reasons, including the unjust and frequent mistreatment of Black people. Some citizens admitted they simply could not decide in favor of anyone who had law enforcement on their side. We could plainly see that the defendant, who sat next to his attorney during the interviews, was a Black man. Our collective hackles were up.

When my number was called, the prosecuting attorney locked eyes with me. I stood up and pinched my wrist where a handwritten message—“Be here.”—is tattooed to remind me not to disappear as I’m wont to do, a symptom of my chronic posttraumatic stress disorder.

She began, You raised your paddle when I asked if you or a loved one has ever been assaulted. What was that experience? I paused. She nodded once. Was she telling me to take my time or warning that I was legally obligated to answer? Slowly, I shared that I’d been sexually trafficked. I could barely get the story out. She asked me to elaborate: Did I go to the police? (Yes.) Was anyone arrested? (No.) How long did this go on? (About 14 months.) At some point, my words became one long incoherent babble of spit and tears. Someone pushed a tissue box toward me. The prosecutor asked if I needed a break. I steeled myself, pinched my wrist, and thought, This is the only time I’ll ever get to tell my story in a courtroom. The rapists who assaulted me aren’t here. My story matters, and this is my testimony. “I can continue,” I said.

After I was told to be seated, I collapsed. With my steamed-up glasses and snot-filled mask, I felt the opposite of dignified. I was lonely, sad, and completely drained. I wanted to go home, but we had to stay for all the interviews. Finally, the judge dismissed us, warning that we should not discuss the case or look for information online. We would all be receiving phone calls within the next couple of days to find out if we had been selected or dismissed. I was certain I would not be selected.

But the next day, I was sitting with my spouse watching the evening news when an unidentified call came through. I let it go to voicemail. When I checked the message, I discovered that I was to report to the DeKalb County Courthouse on Monday, August 30, 2021, at 9 a.m.

• • •

THE TRIAL

Fourteen of us were chosen—12 jurors and two alternates—though we wouldn’t know which was which until it was time to deliberate. There were no Black men in our group, which angered me. DeKalb County is nearly 55 percent Black, and there had been plenty of Black men in the jury pool. Why hadn’t the defense made sure Nunnally had a jury of his peers? This was the first of my many illusions about courtroom procedure that would be shaken by this trial.

As a queer woman, I would not want to be tried in front of a jury of all cisgender, heterosexual people. This jury included two older Black women, one Asian man, four white-presenting women, and five white-presenting men. I would learn later our group included a doctor, a bartender, a retired schoolteacher, a music teacher, and office workers. None of us were true peers of the defendant, nor, as we would learn, of the victim.

The attorneys made their opening statements. The prosecutor, Oto Ekpo, who was then senior assistant district attorney, seemed confident, like she already knew she was going to win. She warned that we would be seeing and hearing a lot of technical data—calls, text messages, and maps of cellphone towers—so we should pay close attention. There would be no physical evidence linking the defendant—or anyone else—to the scene of the crime. I thought to myself, How could anyone convict someone for murder because of cellphone records?

Nunnally’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Jamie Schickler, took a more emotional approach, looking at us with pleading blue eyes. She painted Malik Nunnally as a victim, whose unfortunate text exchange over selling Maya Mitchell some weed, on the night she was murdered, “would devastate both of their lives.” She cited texts that indicated Nunnally had sent his brother to deliver the marijuana that evening—and that he himself was visiting his ex-girlfriend, who was pregnant with his child.

Schickler also noted there had been a couple of other unsolved murders in the same area that month. By her telling, the investigation had been inadequate, and the police had zeroed in on Nunnally without investigating his possible alibis. Most of all, she reminded us it was the state’s burden to prove guilt. It was not the defense’s burden to prove innocence.

Already, this tragedy felt like none of my business, like I had a front-row seat to someone else’s trauma. These were real people with real lives and real pain, all physically in the same room as us. All but the victim.

Ekpo presented Mitchell as the classic all-American college kid, a promising young Black woman due to graduate from Kennesaw State University in another year. She’d recently moved into her boyfriend’s home in Decatur. We saw happy photos from Mitchell’s years at Shiloh High School in Snellville.

On December 31, 2018, at around 10 a.m., a man on his regular walk around Glen Emerald Park found Mitchell’s body. Investigators determined that Mitchell had died of a single, close-range gunshot to the side of her head behind her right ear. The photos were hard to stomach. Mitchell was found lying on her back, partially on pine straw and partially on a paved sidewalk. She was wearing a light blue sweatshirt over a white sports bra, but the rest of her clothing was strewn about—pink underwear, fuzzy slippers, and thin gray sweatpants, hanging inside out on a nearby low branch—unlikely choices for the cold winter night and arranged awkwardly, with an almost deliberate randomness. Her phone, car, keys, and wallet were all missing. There was no identification. We were told there was no sign of sexual assault. There was no mention of a struggle, though a detective testified that her knees and legs were free from scratches and the bottoms of her feet were completely clean, as if she’d been stripped after being murdered. The time of death was inconclusive.

Her mother, Gail, had been preparing a large meal for New Year’s Eve. Her daughter would never miss such an occasion, so it was strange that she wasn’t responding to calls or texts. That evening, Gail used Find My iPhone to track her daughter’s cellphone to a dumpster at a gas station, where she and her husband, A.J., searched through the debris to no avail. The following morning, Mitchell’s boyfriend filed a missing-person report.

Remembering that her iPad was connected to her daughter’s iPhone, Gail started calling the numbers Mitchell had been texting. One of the calls was to a phone being used by Nunnally (though it belonged to his girlfriend). He told Gail his name was “Lee,” said he hadn’t seen her daughter recently, and suggested looking in various locations, all of which proved fruitless. Eventually, he told her parents to go to Glen Emerald Park. “He said it wasn’t on the news,” said Gail, “but a body had been found.” Soon, the police called and asked them to come to the station.

A.J. testified that the defendant told him that he was supposed to meet their daughter the night she died, but that he’d stood her up. A.J. said Nunnally appeared apologetic, saying “something about sending his brother and he stayed home, you know, with his baby’s mama.” Again, there was mention of Nunnally’s brother and his pregnant ex-girlfriend, two people I was eager to hear from.

Based on phone records and text messages between Nunnally and Mitchell, the prosecution said that Mitchell had occasionally contacted Nunnally for weed. They also said that their transactional relationship appeared to turn sexual—a conjecture based on texts Mitchell wrote about when she was having her period and unavailable for intercourse.

The night that Mitchell died, Nunnally had texted her that he had some product if she was interested. More texts showed that he kept changing his mind about where they should meet. At one point, she was at a Texaco and appeared to be getting exasperated, texting he was “doing too much.” Nunnally insisted she go to the park to meet his brother, who was supposedly already there with the weed. I could almost hear her sigh of frustration as she texted, “What park?”

Frustratingly, neither attorney asked witnesses for details about Nunnally’s brother—his name, where he lived, or his whereabouts that night. Also, Nunnally’s girlfriend did not corroborate Schickler’s earlier implication that he had gone to see an ex-girlfriend. Instead, she’d said he’d gone to help his uncle sell a gun—a contradiction the defense never resolved.

We heard endless testimony from experts on cellphone data. Based on pings off cell towers, Nunnally appeared to be in the vicinity of the park where Mitchell was murdered sometime in the middle of the night. The following evening at 7 p.m., his phone showed an internet search for “breaking news atlanta.” Later, he searched again, adding “murder” and “Glen Emerald Park.”

Based on cell tower records, on the day of the murder, Nunnally traveled to an area north of I-20, took a call, and then returned to his girlfriend’s house. That area is where Mitchell’s car was later found abandoned—with no fingerprints besides hers. The defendant’s attorney pointed out that a stolen car was found right next to Mitchell’s, but the lead detective testified that he’d not been able to determine a link between the two vehicles.

After two days of testimony, the trial ended abruptly. We were told we’d hear the attorneys’ closing remarks on Wednesday, September 1. I felt like we were just getting started.

The prosecutor presented a polished, animated slideshow with one theme: Use your common sense. Either Malik Nunnally was the unluckiest person in the world—having gone out to sell a gun (placing a weapon in his hands) after directing his repeat customer to a dangerous park, ultimately standing her up before someone else came along and murdered her—or he lured her to the park and shot her. His guilt was the simplest, most plausible explanation, Ekpo stressed.

The defense presented closing arguments with a marker and a pad of paper on an easel, making an impassioned plea for us not to send someone to prison over a misunderstanding and “reckless and sloppy” police work. She maintained that Nunnally was a concerned citizen, googling local news to verify rumors. “Word spreads fast,” she said. His genuine efforts to help Mitchell’s parents locate their missing daughter had been turned against him. Surely, there was cause for some doubt.

With testimony concluded, I had more questions than answers. Did Nunnally even have a pregnant ex-girlfriend? If he was with her at the time of the murder, why didn’t she testify? Why were Mitchell’s clothes strewn about if this wasn’t a rape scene? Was a sexual assault examination even done? Was Nunnally’s brother also being charged for Mitchell’s murder? We had learned virtually nothing about Nunnally. The defense’s only substantive witness was his then girlfriend, who spoke so softly that we had trouble hearing her—sobbing and admitting that she didn’t even know his last name. Nunnally himself had sat calmly throughout the trial, wearing khaki pants and a white button-down shirt.

• • •

Summoned

Illustration by James Zucco

DELIBERATION

Before the trial even began, one juror had left for a health matter, so only one alternate had to be identified and removed from our group. Still, he would have to remain on site until we reached a unanimous decision.

The rest of us retired to the jury room. We had not been allowed to discuss the case during the proceedings, so we were relieved that, after days of mindless chatter, we could finally talk about what was on everyone’s minds. Someone proposed an early vote just to get a sense of where we stood. Hands went up, and the room was split. We debated the meaning of “malice murder.” What makes it different from “ordinary” murder? One phrase in the definition we were given in our jury documents still rings in my ears: “where all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”

Did Nunnally have an abandoned and malignant heart? Mitchell had texted that she only had $40 or $50. Was this a robbery? Did Nunnally and/or his brother want her car? Some jurors didn’t believe that anyone would commit murder over a Ford Fusion, much less $50. I shared a story from middle school, when a kid in my homeroom was murdered for his prized pair of sneakers.

We requested transcripts, but the court refused to share them—even though we knew a court recorder had taken down every word. Our own notes were inconsistent. Someone thought they had heard one of the lawyers say that Nunnally’s brother was on trial for the same murder in another courtroom. We were down to two undecideds. We agreed to come back the next day.

In the end, we determined that Nunnally and his brother were responsible for Mitchell’s death. Whether or not Nunnally had pulled the trigger, he had undoubtedly directed Mitchell deep inside the park and was instrumental in the shooting. One more vote: all in favor of guilty of all charges.

Many of us began to cry. There would be no winners in this case. The Mitchells had lost their daughter, and a 28-year-old father would likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

We knocked on the door to signal to the deputy on the other side that we had a verdict, then organized ourselves into a line to enter the packed courtroom. I looked around at the attorneys, the defendant, Mitchell’s parents, and several young women who had now appeared on the defendant’s side. The room had filled up with people—and more police. The tension was palpable.

Our foreperson, a young man who was now visibly shaking, stood and handed the deputy a form with our decisions on each of four counts. The judge asked him to stand and respond verbally to each count. No one made a sound. Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty. Gail Mitchell gasped and collapsed onto her husband’s chest. They rocked back and forth in an embrace. Police swarmed Nunnally and put him in handcuffs.

Afterwards, the judge came to the jury room to thank us for our service, inviting us to stay for the sentencing. I was the only juror who chose to remain. Each party had an opportunity to make their final pleas. One by one, Mitchell’s family urged the judge to sentence the defendant to the maximum time allowed. When it was time for the defense, a woman I’d not seen in court earlier identified herself as something akin to Nunnally’s stepmother. As she spoke about his kindness, Nunnally hung his head and cried audibly. She talked about his child, who would have to grow up with a father in prison. She expressed frustration with supporters who had refused to testify on his behalf.

The judge’s decision came swiftly: Nunnally was sentenced to life in prison. He would never be eligible for parole.

As people filed out of the courtroom, the prosecuting attorney asked if I would be willing to talk and invited me, along with her co-counsel and the main investigator, into an adjoining office. She asked me a few questions about how we’d reached our decision. I shared that we were all certain Nunnally was responsible for the murder, but some of us wondered if his brother might have been the one to pull the trigger. I mentioned one juror’s theory that the brother was being tried for murder in another courtroom.

She looked directly at me and responded, “There is no brother.”

• • •

REFLECTION

After the trial, I studied the sparse news reports, as well as the full transcript, which is now public record and helped me write this article. For me, discovering there was no brother just confirmed our decision—though it seems odd that the prosecution chose not to make that absolutely clear during the proceedings, when it could have discredited a possible alibi.

I asked Aaron Danzig, partner and chair of the Government Investigations practice at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP and a previous federal prosecutor, why the court wouldn’t give us the transcript during deliberations. Wouldn’t they want us to base our decision on the most complete record available? He said, “A witness’s testimony is evidence, but the transcript of that testimony isn’t evidence.”

I wondered aloud to Danzig why someone wouldn’t want to take the witness stand to defend themselves. He reminded me that it was Nunnally’s constitutional right not to testify and not to be judged for his choice. “There could be many reasons why a defendant chooses not to testify,” said Danzig. “There might be unrelated issues or a background that could come out related to the defendant’s credibility in the cross-examination. There’s no crime against not being a good person. It may be that the defendant just doesn’t present well as a witness. Part of a trial is theater.”

Theater indeed. After reviewing all the testimony, I am even more confident we reached the right verdict. But there’s so much we will never know about what happened that night, including the motive for the killing. Given all the personal and emotional costs of serving on a jury, it seems only fair that jurors could have access to all the facts—yet maybe that’s just my curiosity. Legal strategies can be a mystery to average citizens, yet we’re the ones who make the ultimate decision. We may not get the full truth, but maybe it’s enough to get some measure of justice.

This article appears in our September 2022 issue.

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