Guest Column: I am Juror #1

Bill Schulz is a science journalist who has lived and worked in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.

Bill Schulz is a science journalist who has lived and worked in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.

When I stood to read aloud the verdicts in the first-degree murder trial of Demonta Chappell vs. U.S., I wasn’t sure if I should look at the judge, the defendant, or the prosecutors. So I made it a point to look at all the parties as the judge went one-by-one through each of the six counts, which also included weapons and obstruction of justice charges.

Some three weeks earlier, on Oct. 2, 2014, Judge Rhonda Winston had questioned me and 13 other potential jurors as she began the process for selecting the jury that would decide Mr. Chappell’s fate. She had a longer list of questions then, including whether I knew any of the parties to the case, had read about the murder, and could be impartial about all testimony, including that of police officers.

When I was assigned to seat number one in the jury booth, I felt both a rush excitement that I might get to witness first hand the drama of a murder trial and dread knowing that I would have to decide guilt or innocence for someone accused of the ultimate crime. What if we ended up convicting an innocent man? What if we set free a remorseless killer?

As the case got underway in courtroom 316 of DC Superior Court, there was plenty of drama as prosecutors described their version of a brutal killing in Southeast D.C. just after 9 pm on Oct. 27, 2012. Chappell — in front of onlookers — they said, pumped five bullets into Stevann Moorer — a young man he once called a friend. Chappell then fled down an alley, said the government, while Moorer convulsed and died in a pool of his own blood.

The defense claimed prosecutors had the wrong man — and they would prove it.

Throughout the trial, a well-dressed woman in a wheelchair sat in the back of the courtroom. I thought it might be the victim’s mother. She seemed to be crying softly into a handkerchief at times. I couldn’t look back at her when the medical examiner displayed photos of Moorer’s autopsy.

I furiously took notes throughout the trial, filling two steno pads. The note taking would aid my memory when we got to deliberations, and keep me awake through some of the more tedious portions of the trial — and there were plenty of those, too.

I heeded Judge Winston’s instruction not to discuss the case with anyone until the end of the trial and dismissal of the jury. When deliberations began, I saw the value of this rule. All of my thoughts and reasoning about the case were just that — my own.

In less than two days, we the jury reached a unanimous decision. One of my fellow jurors asked if we could pause and take a breath before we went back into the courtroom to deliver our verdict. It was a good suggestion.

My voice did not waiver as I announced that we found Mr. Chappell guilty on all six counts, including the first-degree murder charge.

And yes, I slept just fine that night.

Demonta Chappell is scheduled to be sentenced in Judge Winston’s courtroom on Jan. 27, 2015.

Bill Schulz is a science journalist who has lived and worked in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.

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