Jury Duty in Today’s America

by Stuart Rothenberg December 18, 2014 · 10:47 AM EST

While most of America was still talking about what happened in Ferguson, Mo., and turning to law enforcement issues in Cleveland and Staten Island, New York, I spent the better part of the week of Dec. 1 in a courthouse in Rockville, Md.

I never expected to be selected to sit on a jury, let alone one where the defendant was charged with first degree rape. I also didn’t expect to hear some shocking information after the case ended.

No, my case did not involve a racially-charged act that tore apart a community. Though the rape was extremely violent, no lives were lost. There were no videos of the rape or of the police response, no national media attention to the case.

Still, as a member of a jury charged with determining guilt or innocence, I, like most members of juries and grand juries, felt an important responsibility to evaluate the evidence dispassionately and come to the correct conclusion. 

Mohamed Mansaray was charged with raping a woman on March 31, 2014. Police concluded he entered her apartment in Silver Spring, Md., and attacked the victim, binding her hands behind her back and putting duct tape around her eyes.

He then dragged her into her bedroom and raped her. Throughout the incident, he talked to her as she sobbed and begged him not to hurt her, according to her testimony on the witness stand as part of the weeklong trial. 

Even more shocking, we found out not only did Mansaray know the victim, but he was also her daughter’s boyfriend and the father of the unborn child her daughter was carrying at the time.

The victim testified she thought of Mansaray “like my son,” and she did not (or could not) identify him as the attacker and rapist to investigating officers or on the witness stand. In fact, after calling 911 and her sister, the victim called Mansaray to tell him what had happened.

But the accused had a key to the apartment, which showed no sign of forced entry, and he knew the apartment’s layout. An eyewitness’ description of a young man fleeing the scene seemed to fit Mansaray. The state also had DNA evidence from the woman that confirmed Mansaray was the rapist, as well as a videotaped confession from the 25-year-old native of Sierra Leone.

In response, Mansaray’s attorney sought to discredit the state’s case, primarily by raising questions about the chain of custody of the DNA evidence. Defense counsel also suggested the Montgomery County police had done a shoddy job investigating the case, including failing to follow obvious leads and interview potential suspects.

And the defense attorney sought to explain her client’s confession by arguing Mansaray said what the detectives wanted him to say only after they threatened he would never see his child if he didn’t confess.

Some of defense counsel’s arguments resonated, at least with me.

The first police officer on the scene was terribly green, and the detective investigating the crime seemed to have made up her mind very quickly that Mansaray had committed the rape. In addition, the eyewitness, a young woman still in her teens, never took the stand.

In her closing argument to the jury, defense counsel played the race and class card. She portrayed Mansaray as a “little guy” who was being rolled by a wealthy county and a prosecutor who could fly a witness across the country to testify. And she asserted the state’s allegedly cursory investigation of the crime and potential suspects reflected law enforcement’s lack of concern for the victim, because of her race and class.

The attorney for Mansaray also emphasized her argument that the DNA evidence in the case had been tampered with, leaving no doubt she believed the lead detective investigating the rape was involved in tampering.

In her rebuttal closing, the prosecutor called the tampering argument “beyond preposterous” and countered that defense counsel’s assertion the police and prosecutor “don’t care” a rapist was still at large was “offensive.” And she dismissed with equal zeal the suggestion race or class played any role in the handling of the case.

Jury deliberations proceeded quickly. Most jurors believed the charge of rape in the first degree had been proven, but a few believed second-degree rape was appropriate. After reading the judge’s instructions and the definitions of both first- and second-degree rape, the 12-person jury quickly agreed  the crime of first-degree rape had been committed.

We then turned to the question of who committed the rape. Had the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Mansaray was the rapist?

After a brief discussion of the evidence — and of possible holes in the state’s case — we took an initial vote on whether the defendant was guilty of first-degree rape. All 12 jurors believed Mansaray was guilty. The DNA evidence was overwhelming.

During my week in that courtroom, my feelings about being called for jury duty changed completely. I entered the courthouse annoyed at being forced to give up my Monday and praying I would not be impaneled on a jury. By the end of the week I would not have traded my experience for anything.

Since the trial, I have reflected on how my experience with one trial, in one courtroom, fits into the larger national discussion about justice in America and police behavior.

I am convinced all 12 members of our jury had one goal in mind: To evaluate whether the state had proven its case against Mansaray. We didn’t see the case as anything more than that. We certainly did not see it as about class or race.

We were not interested in making a statement about the police, African-American men, rape or the judicial system in America. That wasn’t our job. We simply tried to understand the facts of the case and apply the law.

Maybe we were able to do that because there were no television cameras focused on our courthouse, no news anchors present, and no television hosts/preachers/activists trying to promote themselves and or their political agendas. There also were no professional agitators or ideological activists trying to turn our case and our decision into something bigger than it was.

And, thankfully, we didn’t have the conjecture, half-truths, speculation and spin that come with today’s almost inevitable media frenzy.

After the case ended, we talked with the two attorneys and learned things that explained some of what seemed to be holes in the state’s otherwise overwhelming case.

The Montgomery County detective focused so quickly on Mansaray and didn’t follow the many other potential leads because she knew something the jury did not — he had served time for repeatedly raping an 11-year-old girl in 2008 and was on probation following early release. That was plenty of reason to focus on the accused from the beginning.

We also learned the witness who provided the description of the man fleeing the rape scene was going to school out of state and refused requests from the prosecutor to return voluntarily for the trial.

Many other pieces suddenly fell into place, as well, when we were given details about the accused. (Here is the news story I read once the trial concluded.)

We found Mansaray guilty of rape in the first degree because the evidence took us there. Given what we later learned about the accused, I am grateful we arrived at our verdict.

I don’t know what evidence the grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island saw, and I certainly don’t believe that every grand jury decision or jury verdict is a just one. But the jurors on my jury took their responsibility very seriously, and while any system is imperfect, my experience has led me to believe that it is far more reasonable to trust jurors than activists who have their own agendas.