You can’t write the story of one man murdered in cold blood and another man accused of killing him without considering what went on in the minds of the jurors who tried that accused killer. And eventually set him free.
What were the jurors thinking as the case was presented by the prosecution, the defense? What a wrenching story they had to consider In the case of defendant Michael Schertz, who was the police chief in Iola when his lone deputy, Jerry Mork, was murdered on the last day of the Iola Car Show in the sweltering wee hours of July 14, 1985?
The jury had a spectacle to behold as the trial unfolded. That was now 28 years ago and many of those jurors are still alive, and their memories of the days they spent in trial still pulse through their consciousness and consciences. They still ask themselves, “Did we get it right?”
“It was a most interesting case because of all those characters that were part of it,” a female juror told me recently. And one of her male counterparts added, “I had made up my mind he was guilty at first. I started playing solitaire and let the people argue. Then I said, ‘He’s not guilty, they didn’t prove it.’ There was all kinds of doubt.”
I was summoned to jury duty myself for the first and only time in December 2012, and I was happy for the opportunity, if only because it gave me insight and perspective for this book and, in a much smaller context, a look at what those jurors went through as they pondered Schertz’s fate.
Just as they did, I took my responsibility most seriously. I had the future of a young woman and mother in my hands. She had tied her fate with that of a charming young man with a long rap sheet for drugs and firearms possession. He brought her down, a pretty woman with one child before she met him and another child with him. She still owed money on her nursing student loans and held a hospital position when she was arrested at home shortly after he was caught in a drug sting in his SUV not far away. He was a repeat offender so he was going away for a long time. She had no record at all.
Now she does. We found her guilty as charged after long deliberation, much to the dismay of one of our fellow jurors who was fit to be tied that we didn’t walk directly from the courtroom, cast a quick vote and be done with the case. “Okay, we all know she’s guilty, let’s vote and get out of here,” he said imperiously. The rest of us were stunned. That’s not what the judge instructed us to do. We were told to deliberate, to consider all we had heard over two days of testimony from witnesses, opening and closing arguments from counsel, and the judge’s instructions that included an explanation as to just what “reasonable doubt” entailed.
Our jury foreman, the young man we all voted to that post, did a most conscientious job of going over the points of law we were to consider and in particular, reasonable doubt. As it happened, in this young mother’s case, we could find no reasonable doubt at all. We found her guilty.
But in the Schertz case, reasonable doubt was his ally. Because the prosecutor could not provide evidence of Schertz at the murder scene, could not provide a murder weapon no matter how hard he tried, and because of so many contradicting statements by the witnesses that were called to testify for and against the police chief, the case against him was riddled with reasonable doubt. In the end the jury had no choice but to find him not guilty.
“It never leaves you. It was emotional,” that female juror from the Schertz case told me.
I know what she means. I felt terrible voting “guilty” when my turn came in that jury room – because of the implications for her children, her mother whom I knew, her career which would forever be impacted. Just like Mike Schertz’s life was impacted…and he was found not guilty.
Sentencing in the case for which I was a juror didn’t involve me; it occurred two months after the trial. But being a reporter with a nose for news, I looked it up in online court records a couple of months later. She was given a fine which I can’t imagine she could easily pay and put on probation. I hope she and her children can move beyond this terrible event in her life and find the happiness and a chance at a life rebuilt that Schertz never did.