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Under that restriction, people find ways to talk about the case without actually talking about the case. "Did you see the defense attorney's Mickey Mouse tie?" someone asks. "What a disrespectful thing to wear in a case like this." A few of the women talk about the woman prosecutor, rating her pearls and commenting how cute she'd be if she tried a little harder.
Then there's the stress of a dozen strangers packed together into a small room for two weeks. This has nothing to do with how friendly or interesting each of us is, and the group gets along well. There's Jack, a retiree who teaches physical fitness at a YMCA and has definite opinions about long-distance runners in their 80s and 90s. Dee wants to be a writer and covers hip-hop for an underground publication available only at 7th Heaven. A Mary Kay rep becomes foreman on a coin toss. Another woman tells us that she was legally emancipated and married at age 15, divorced at 25 with two children, and now worries that her baggage keeps men away. It's like being seated at a wedding-reception table where no one knows anyone else, except there's no open bar and the small talk lasts two weeks.
We know that two of us are alternates, but we don't know who. For most of us, the idea of being dismissed after the trial without being able to talk about it together is legal blue balls, a punishment on the order of a film reel breaking just before the killer is revealed. Cell-phone numbers are exchanged so that the dismissed can find out what happens.
Not everyone wants to know the ending, though.
"I don't want to be here. I want to be an alternate," says Michael, who spends his two weeks playing games on his laptop and bringing in a Superman comic the day after he overhears a discussion about superhero movies. "I'm afraid of karma. It could be the universe is using me as a tool to dispense karma, but I don't know that. And if it's not me acting on the universe's wishes, that will come back on me threefold."
At the end of the trial, the universe lets Michael get back to being Michael. He's one of the alternates, dismissed along with a blond woman with a yin-yang tattoo over her right breast. Someone promises to call her when the verdict is reached. She won't hear from us.
The first vote finally releases us to talk about everything we've seen and heard, and it's that moment when we realize just how much we've assumed about one another in all that small talk. We've been together five days a week, eight hours a day, yet it's as if I'm now meeting entirely new people.
"Self-defense. Not guilty. Self-defense. I'm done. I don't need to hear anything else, and you can't convince me otherwise. Not guilty." These are the first words out of Jessica's mouth when she sits down at the jury's table.
Before deliberation started, Jack had told me that he was having dreams about the case. Now he's shouting. "Not guilty! I think it's self-defense, and if they'd threatened me with an assault rifle, you better believe I'd do the exact same thing!"
I vote guilty. Sisco shot a wounded man in the back.
We're split: Five vote guilty; seven vote for acquittal. The first day of deliberation is a mess.