It turns out I’m a stalker. Like you, I find stalkers to be a little twisted. Maybe that makes me twisted. But I’m a stalker, and so are a lot of reporters.
It turns out I’m a pretty effective stalker, too. My stalking instincts rise up when a court case is settled and jurors exit the courthouse. We almost always talk to prosecutors and defense attorneys and victims following criminal cases. But jurors can give the most insightful and unpredictable analyses of court cases, when they’re willing to give it. Yet jurors rarely show up on the courthouse steps, agreeably waiting for cameras and reporters. You’ve got to hunt them down.
The toughest part is knowing who they are. They’re never on camera when trials are televised. The court rules disallow it. TV folks typically operate their recording devices outside the courtroom. So except for the pool photographer and newspaper reporters (who usually prefer to sit in the courtroom and not the media room), media folk rarely eyeball the jury box.
I was in the courtroom during the verdict in the John Henderson murder case, where a jury convicted 30 Deep gangster Jonathan Redding. I spent most of the time eyeballing the jury, trying to memorize faces. While the trial is pending, judges instruct jurors to keep mum about the case. After the verdict is delivered, judges tell them they are free to talk about it if they so choose.
Once released, it’s not easy to know where the jurors will go. In some courthouses, bailiffs will escort them out of the building. At the Fulton County courthouse, they simply scatter. Fulton is complicated by the fact that they can exit on opposite sides of two buildings.
I spent about forty minutes standing in the foyer of the Fulton Courthouse Tower. It afforded me a view of the Central Ave. exit, and a view of a 2nd-floor walkway leading to the Pryor St. exit. A savvy (or completely lost) juror could have eluded me. But that’s where I began my stalk. Sometimes jurors hang out together in the jury room following long trials. Sometimes, they chat with attorneys or the judge about the case. Sometimes, they’re anxious to get on with their lives. The timetable of their departure is never certain.
About an hour after they delivered the verdict, the AJC’s Steve Visser and I spotted the jurors exiting Central Avenue. A WXIA photog was waiting outside. I approached the foreman, a middle-aged white guy. I held a mic but didn’t extend it. I cheerfully identified myself and said “may I ask you a question?”
“Get the fuck away from me,” he answered. That was a first. I can’t recall ever getting that kind of treatment from a juror.
“All right. Thank you.” I turned to a handful of other jurors. They had either made a pact beforehand, or the foreman’s response had poisoned the well. The other jurors at least smiled while emphatically turning Visser and me away.
Frequently, jurors want to talk to the news media following high-profile cases. If their verdict is intended to send a message, they often want to say so explicitly. If the verdict has a bizarre quality — think Curtis Rower or Marcus Dixon — then reporters might chase jurors a little more aggressively.
The gang activity involved in this case may have given this group of jurors the jitters, though it would have been easy to withhold their identities had they chosen to speak.
But you never know until you ask. And you can’t ask until you stalk.