My First Murder Trial

photo by: Jimmy Emerson, DVM

It was a little after 1 o’clock, and the Mississippi sun was at its peak. As we walked along the oak shaded sidewalk, it occurred to me, I had never paid any attention to the Courthouse before. As we stood in front of the staircase, leading to the portico, I had to stop and admire her. The towering columns, the overwhelming height of the building, the original Federal style bricks, hidden by the Colonial Revival remodel, the fortitude… A grand building, with such a somber appointment.

As we made our way to the grand entrance, her beauty quickly faded. I pulled gently on the door handle, and quickly realized how heavy it was. With a stronger pull, the door heaved open, and the hall’s chilling air engulfed us. A cold shiver went down my spine.

As directed, we opened the courtroom doors quietly, set our eyes on the ground before us, and walked quickly to the balcony seating. Once we were settled in, I began to survey the courtroom. My eyes went to the Judge first, as she was the commanding force in the room. From there, I went to her left, and noticed an attorney, sitting a few steps below the Judge (my first of many “this isn’t like TV” realizations).

From there, I saw a well-dressed boy. He did not appear to be a relative of the victims or defendants, so I was left confused at his presence in front of the courtroom.

Next, my gaze went to the group of Sheriff Deputies. One stood in the corner, shifting the weight he placed on each foot, ever so lightly. After observing him for a few minutes, it led me to believe that he was acclimated to standing for long periods of time. The other three sat along the wall, with an unobstructed view of the entire courtroom.

Just below me, the defendants. Being unfamiliar with the case, I did my best to put a name to the face, as the trial progressed. Each defendant had two attorneys, and it appeared as though, neither set of attorneys worked closely with the other. Yet, all six sat together, at two desks, crudely pushed together. The desktops were littered with papers, drinks, flash drives, laptops, cell phones, and pictures.

Next, my gaze went to the jury. Two rows of six, men and women, black and white. A lone woman sat in front of the jury, separated by a half-wall partition. At the time, I assumed a family member of the victims.

As I watched each jury member, I was amazed at how much my untrained eyes observed. Anxiousness. Exhaustion. Indifference. Boredom. One even even fell asleep, for one brief second, and as her head titled a little too far, her body jerked her back to reality, along with an adrenaline rush. The outcome was already decided.

At the prosecutor’s desk, sat one black female, and one white male. The desktop was tidy, papers stacked neatly, and no cell phones in sight.

The gallery was packed. Family & friends from each side of the courtroom were present. Tensions were high, but all remained quiet between the groups. As the trial progressed, I learned that the defendants’ and victims’ lives were constantly intertwined, starting at grade school.

As the Judge completed her instructions to the jury, the attorneys from each side started to shuffle around. Being unfamiliar with trial proceedings, I was curious at the sudden movements. As though she felt my confusion, the Judge spoke, and informed the courtroom that closing arguments were about to begin.

One by one, each attorney would step forward, and face the jury. The prosecution went first, and started with a childhood story, preparing the jury for “muddied waters”, that would surely be attempted by the defense. Next, one of the defense attorneys stepped forward. This was when I first noticed a strategy by the defense attorneys: one black female, one white female, one black male, one white male. I can only assume they were hoping to reach each category of juror (well played, I may add).

The female defense attorney seemed irked by the prosecutor’s remarks about “muddying the waters”. As I watched, the remarks had the intended effect, and threw her for a loop. Her mind was spinning — so many points she wanted to make. You could see her mind in action, and she would pause, and grab the best point for the track she was on.

The second female defense attorney stood, and faced the jury. Poised, but definitely nervous. Instead of relying on her memory, she had a perfectly crafted list of intended points. Instead of carrying the notepad with her, she left it perched atop the podium. Each time a new point was to be made, she walked to the podium, clicked the pen in her hand — anxiously, until she found the point. Then, it appeared as though she drew a line through each one, so that she would not repeat it. All of her points were made, and she sat.

The first male defense attorney stood, straightened his suit, and walked confidently to the jury. He had a different approach that caught my attention quickly. Instead of speaking negatively about the local police, he praised them. Stunned by his tactics, he brought me to the edge of my seat. I listened intently, as he spoke highly of the skilled police, sadly for the tragedy that had unfolded, and finally, about his client.

The second male defense attorney stood, looked towards the front of the courtroom, then began his walk to the jury. Intrigued, I did my best to follow his gaze. Finally, the answer to my question of who the boy was, and why he was there, was answered — he was with the attorney. His confident stride proved he was not new to the courtroom. After his remarks, he sat.

And, finally — the female prosecutor stood, and brought an end to the closing arguments. She had a stern voice, with unwavering conviction. I could tell she would be a force to reckon with, especially for those who are slow with words.

As the closing arguments came to an end, and the jury was excused, all eyes were on the Judge. The courtroom became silent, the Judge’s face became stern, and I leaned in intently — wanting to capture every word that was spoken. The Judge informed the courtroom, in complete detail, and with full repercussions listed, that she would not allow any disruption while the verdict was to be read.

As she stood, I heard “All rise…”, and before I could gather my bearings, she was off the stand, and out of the courtroom.

That’s when the magnitude of the day’s events hit me. As I was attending as a curious citizen, others were here to find out their fate. Not their fate for the day, but for their entire lives. Loved ones were there to offer support, while their hearts ached at the tragedy. Others were there, with hate burning, and their hearts shattered.

I walked past a Sheriff Deputy, and quietly asked a question. Expecting to hear how jaded he was, and how this type of event happens all the time, he came to me with empathy, and love for the community. He had HOPE.

After a short deliberation, the Judge returned, and the jury read their verdict — guilty. I listened somberly, as two more lives were decided by another’s hand.

In television courtrooms, the Judge states the verdict, hands down the sentence, and dismisses the courtroom. Not here… The Judge waited for the verdict to settle in, then she spoke. She calmly explained what the verdict meant, what the sentence was, and how the trial had impacted their families, friends, and community.

What happened next, amazed me. I heard compassion… Compassion for the guilty, and for their families. Compassion for the victims, and for their families. Compassion for the community as a whole.

I listened as the Judge explained how one act, one single act, has the ability to devastate an entire community. But, what if… if one single act can devastate an entire community, how many acts would it take to positively impact a community? ONE.

Each step would be small, and the Judge acknowledged that. But, if each step could positively impact ONE LIFE, each step forward would be worth it.

Standing there, in a courtroom swirling with emotions, is when I realized how important local leaders are.

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