Handicapping a jury

Anyone who watches televised coverage of a major trial is bound to hear an expert commentator talking about the meaning of a jury’s questions for the judge during deliberations.

The reality, say many practicing lawyers, is that it’s foolish to try to deduce what’s going on in the jury room. It’s 12 individuals, 12 personalities – with diverse life experiences and education -- trying to agree about what among days of testimony and evidence they heard is fact, how it fits with the law and whether it is enough to support a verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?

Case in point: The Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury that on Friday found Edward Wilson guilty of third-degree murder in the shooting of Antoinette Austin, his live-in ex-girlfriend of eight years.

Wilson, 57, alleged the prosecution, shot and killed Austin, 26, on March 18, 2009, about six months after he had a debilitating stroke and Austin left him. After shooting Austin and leaving her for dead, Wilson drove back to his West Philadelphia home and shot himself in the head with the same shotgun he used to kill Austin.

Wilson lived, though the blast erased his face below the eyes.

The jury of six men and six women worked 90 minutes on Thursday and then resumed deliberations Friday morning at 9:40 a.m.

They came back twice with questions. In late morning, the jury asked to see a demonstration of how Wilson’s 12-gauge single-barrel shotgun worked. A police SWAT team member demonstrated in court, without ammo, of course – apparently so the jury could determine if the long gun was automatic or single-shot manual.

One juror, in particular, spoke up and asked the officer if he could close the shotgun and fire using only one hand, a question some in court thought was to satisfy the juror about whether Wilson had the physical capability to fire the gun.

At about 2:25 p.m., the jury returned to the Criminal Justice Center courtroom to ask Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi to explain the differences among the three types of homicide they must decide on: first-degree, a premeditated malicious killing; third-degree, a purposeful assault that results in an unintended death; or voluntary manslaughter, the killing of someone in high emotion.

Then the jurors asked the judge what would happen if they could not reach a unanimous decision. It’s an ominous question that made some observers wonder if the jury was so deadlocked that a mistrial might have to be declared by the judge.

DeFino-Nastasi reminded the jurors that Wilson’s attorney had conceded that he shot Austin. As for the possibility of a hung jury, the judge told the jurors: “You’re nowhere near that yet.”

Some in court speculated that the jury would wind up going home for the weekend and resuming deliberations on Monday.

About a half-hour later, the jury was back with the verdict.

Wilson’s attorney, Thomas Burke, restated the obvious: “You can never predict what a jury is going to do.”