As I write this, I’m seated on a couch on the third floor of the Douglas County Courthouse, waiting for a jury to decide whether to send a 20 year old kid named Tracen Franklin to death row. It’s the third day I’ve spent doing this.
Franklin’s guilt wasn’t difficult for the jury to determine. But the jury is struggling with the penalty phase that comes after the guilt-or-innocence phase. They started deliberating late Tuesday. Today is Friday. This morning, they sent a note to the judge saying they were deadlocked 10-2. They were ordered back into the jury room to keep talking.
For those of us waiting for the decision — reporters, attorneys, family members, court staff and spectators — it means we’ve gotten to spend lots of quality time trying to stay comfortable and somewhat busy in and around the courthouse. We know that at any moment, the verdict could come — at which point we’ll go full throttle to make the evening’s deadlines, in addition to getting the story on the web.
But until then, we wait.
For me, the best spot has been this mostly overlooked couch on the third floor. Bruce Harvey, the famed ponytailed Atlanta defense attorney, is seated at a table nearby, working undisturbed. The courthouse, built in 1998, has a unique circular atrium. Looking through the atrium from the third floor, I can see the hallway outside the fourth floor courtroom, where spectators are idly waiting for word that court has reconvened. Their body language will tell me when something is up. Likewise, Harvey has an assistant inside the courtroom. She has whisper / hollered through the atrium at Harvey whenever the jury has sent the judge a note, requiring his (and my) presence in the courtroom. So although I’m one floor away, I’ve got a solid system for monitoring the courtroom.
To get to the courtroom from here, I have to go through courthouse security. In Douglas County, “security” is required for courtrooms. However, county administrative offices — including the county commissioners’ offices — don’t require security. My couch is near the commissioners’ offices.
Normally, courthouse security is a dreary but necessary evil. It’s worse in Douglas County though. The chief judge here — I don’t know the name — has told bailiffs that people wearing visible belts must remove them before going through the metal detector. It puts us in the awkward and slightly creepy position of removing the belt in public, then putting it back on in public. Very few courthouses require this onerous step. (And if your belt isn’t visible, and doesn’t set off the metal detector, it’s overlooked.)
Near the security system, a guy has a shoe shine stand. He growled at me a few times when I passed, making note of my scuffed wingtips. He snagged me Thursday afternoon, before the end of a second full day of jury non-decision.
When killing time in the courtroom, a bailiff sits by the door leading from the jury box to the jury room. Whenever news comes from the jury, that doors is the conduit. As a result, whenever the doorknob rattles, the folks chattering in the courtroom go quiet. Frequently, it’s just a member of the judge’s staff, who sheepishly apologizes for raising expectations.
At one point, reporters from WGCL and WSB and I traded stories about the silly questions producers ask of reporters covering trials. The best one is, of course: When is the verdict expected?
Fortunately, nobody at WXIA has asked me that question this week. In fact, this afternoon, I began volunteering an answer: This jury will finish, one way or another, today. It’ll either come up with a verdict (and based on the “we’re deadlocked” note sent earlier, I’m not expecting that). Or, they’ll throw in the towel — and probably in plenty of time to get their weekend off to a solid start. These folks have been at this for three weeks. It’s now 2:15. I’ve already told folks they’ll have a decision around 2:30 – 3pm. Yes, I’m sticking my neck out. Yes, I know better than to predict what a jury will do. But hey – it’s Friday.
Don’t none of ‘em want to come back here Monday. And count me among them.
The jury returned at 5pm deadlocked. The judge dismissed the panel from the case.