It was late July when the lead story on the Ten O’Clock News opened with a view of our historic Freewater Courthouse and reported that a local, Philip Norland, had been arrested and charged with the deliberate murder of his 17-month son. He had left the toddler strapped in his car seat to die a long painful death by overheating in a locked car in the middle of a parking lot.
The Norlands hadn’t lived here long. Philip Norland worked as a clerk in a sporting goods store. His wife, Karen, was a sales girl in a dress shop. The couple had taken turns dropping off little Jimmy, as everyone called him, with a babysitter. On that fateful day, Norland claimed that he simply forgot to drop him off and drove directly to work, inadvertently leaving the child in the car for some eight hours.
From the start of the trial, the courthouse was filled to capacity. I, a young schoolteacher, was honored to be chosen as a juror and was grateful for the experience. Norland’s wife was not in court. She hadn’t been charged and had fled back to her parents.
Norland’s attorney listed three main points: Anyone can make such a mistake, the man was devastated, and three of his friends had testified that he was a good father who loved his son.
The prosecutor, young, smart and energetic, had already established his reputation with a history of convictions and gave us a number of compelling facts as to why Norland was guilty of malicious murder, the only charge against him. We all diligently took notes.
The trial lasted a short three days. The judge gave us our final jury instructions, reminding us again that a guilty verdict had to be unanimous, and we were quickly ushered into the jury deliberation room.
Once seated, I looked around at the somber faces of my fellow jurors and realized that although I was certainly the humble fledging in the group, we were all feeling the same weight of responsibility.
We selected a personable middle-aged accountant as foreman because he’d been one before and liked the job. Dapper in black suit and red tie, he started with a simple statement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, over a hundred years ago, Minnesota banned the death penalty. Well, I don’t have to tell any of you how that law enraged the people in this tight-knit community – and how we differ from other communities. And I can tell you that there are few citizens of Freewater who don’t believe that there’s only one way to deal with such inhumanity as we have seen in this case. They, and myself as well, consider it damned unfortunate that the most Philip Norland can get under the law is life in prison, and as no other charge has been filed, we find ourselves facing a situation where it is a choice of life or death.”
We nodded, and he continued.
“Now, you all know that the awfulness of this crime has caused a great deal of what I’d call simmering rage in Freewater, and our mayor and council members have wisely urged restraint” – he paused dramatically as he looked at each of us in turn – “as they most anxiously await our verdict – so let’s get to it! May justice be served!”
He sat down to applause.
“Very well,” he said, glancing at his watch, “let’s take a poll.”
It was only after the poll that we discovered an unexpected problem. One juror, Miss Jeanie Henderson, disagreed with the rest of us. Given the amount of evidence and unfathomable cruelty of the crime, we had assumed we would all be in agreement. Needless to say, we were stunned.
Jeanie was a tiny woman who I would say was inching towards seventy. The gray suit she was wearing matched her gray face and her gray hair.
“I never wanted to serve on a jury,” said Jeanie in a sweet low voice. “I don’t feel right about playing judge.”
“Is that your religion?” asked the foreman, sudden creases lining his forehead.
“No, sir. My conscience won’t allow me to vote as you wish.”
We all sighed. We tried our best to get Jeanie to change her mind. We continued to study our notes and presented her with one harrowing fact after another. One female juror looked her straight in the eye.
“Jeanie, dear, have you at all visualized what happened that day? As experts have testified, the temperature in that car rose to over 140 degrees, and an innocent child had screamed through closed windows until he roasted to death.”
Jeanie looked away.
Another juror read from his notes. “Jeanie, you heard the prosecutor say that little Jimmy’s life had been insured for $35,000 when he was a year old. Don’t you find that damning?”
Jeanie shuddered. “Yes, of course.”
An elderly juror stood up as he addressed her. “Jeanie, you heard what the prosecutor said. Norland was heavily in debt from a gambling addiction, and the couple were having marital problems.”
“I heard him,” said Jeanie.
The foreman tried his best, addressing us all.
“What did it for me is that Philip Norland’s home computer showed that someone had recently researched hot car deaths.”
We all nodded as one – except for Jeanie, who sat like a stone.
“Doesn’t that do it for you, Jeanie?” asked our frustrated foreman.
A cry pierced the room. “Please stop!” screamed Jeannie. “I know the facts and you needn’t keep mentioning them over and over.”
We all groaned.
The early afternoon turned to late afternoon, and we were running out of ideas and energy. Jeanie had stopped listening to us. She slumped in her chair, closed her eyes as if to blank us all out, and went into her own solitary world. We sat looking at each other in hopeless silence. We turned to the foreman, who shrugged his shoulders, stood up, loosened his red tie, and said he needed a break. We all agreed.
Most people got up and clustered in small groups of two and three; a few were whispering somewhat frantically. Others just sat there and collapsed with their heads on the table.
I sat where I was and stared at Jeanie. The thought struck me that she looked like a little old crazy lady who lived alone with a cat. A moment later, I had a sudden inspiration. I had nothing to lose.
I leaned across the table to get her attention.
“Jeanie,” I asked, “do you have a cat?”
Jeanie had been holding her head in her hands, but now she looked at me.
‘Yes, I do,’ she said, nodding her head.
“How old is your cat, Jeanie?”
“He’s old – like me,” she mumbled.
“Jeanie,” I said, “I have a kitty myself, and I love my kitty as much as you love yours. My kitty’s name is Lucy. What’s your kitty’s name?”
“Pumpkin. He was just the teeniest little red ball of fur when I got him, so I called him Pumpkin. It was … oh, I’d say it’s been about 15 years now. He’s still my fuzzy little Pumpkin.”
“My Lucy,” I said, “is a long-hair who is the color of bark. If she sits against the trunk of a tree, she disappears. Is your cat an outdoor cat like mine?”
She actually smiled. “No, Pumpkin is an indoor cat, like me.”
So far, so good. I had made a small connection.
“Jeanie,” I continued quickly, “if some evil person ever put my cat in a hot car and left her to die in such a terrible way, I would … well, I swear I would want to kill whatever evil monster did that!” I admit I stressed the word ‘evil.’
Jeanie jerked upright from her slump. “What?” she asked. “What are you saying? Why would someone do that to a cat?”
The question had no answer. It was beyond comprehension. The room filled with silence. Jeanie lowered her head and closed her eyes. The agony playing out on her face made it obvious what she was going through. Jeanie’s love for her cat had made it personal and was removing her mental block. Difficult as it was, she was allowing herself to imagine her beloved cat dying a slow death in a hot car.
Finally, she raised her head, opened her eyes and looked straight at us for the first time. “What kind of person would do that to a cat? It’s hard to believe that any human being could be that evil.” She paused and shook her head sorrowfully. “But it wasn’t a cat, was it!”
Then, with sudden resolve, Jeanie grasped the table and pulled herself to her feet. “Unanimous!”
I burst into tears.
Sighs of relief and murmurs of gratitude flooded the room. The foreman immediately wrote out the verdict and tightened his tie.
Moments later the courtroom had refilled, and we entered the jury box for the last time. The foreman handed the verdict to the bailiff, who handed it to the judge, who glanced at it and handed it on. The court clerk announced the verdict loud and clear: Not Guilty.
Nobody in the courthouse moved or spoke. Things happened very quickly now. The judge announced that Philip Norland was free to go, and he and his attorney rushed out escorted by deputies. We the jury were routinely and politely thanked and dismissed. The judge and the prosecutor walked into the judge’s chambers. We figured they were having a stiff drink together.
We left the courtroom in a tight little group. Once outside, we heard that Philip Norland had jumped into a waiting car and had been whisked away. We said our goodbyes quickly. As I hopped in my car, I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror. It seemed to have a new maturity. I drove home feeling proud of myself.
That night the Ten O’Clock News announced that the body of Philip Norland had been found lying in a ditch with a bullet in the back of his head.
The next morning our local newspaper was all about the upcoming Freewater Flea Market Festival and Art Show. The jury’s verdict was no surprise. It was exactly what was expected – justice for little Jimmy.
There was not a line about the trial or the aftermath except for the one-word banner headline that said it all: UNANIMOUS! And if you don’t know what that means, you don’t live in our town.