By David McDonald
---- — ATKINSON —The Rockingham County Courthouse is located on Route 125 just as you enter Brentwood, north of the Magnusson Farm. I had passed by its sign many times on trips to the White Mountains but had never had the occasion to drive up the winding, wooded road to the modern four story brick and granite building until this summer.
In late June, I received a letter saying that I had been selected as a petit juror for a two-week criminal session of the Superior Court that started in late July. Since I had never served as a juror, I did not know what to expect.
I drove to Brentwood on a Monday morning, parked, and got in the line, waiting to go through building security. There were several bailiffs checking belongings, running bags through an X-Ray machine, and monitoring everyone as they went through a metal detector. Court officers had each juror’s name on a small laminated card. I showed my ID, turned the card with my name on it over and went into the large juror assembly room. By 9:00 a.m., the room was filled with a mix of men and women, young and old.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m., we were all ushered into courtroom 2. We rose as Judge N. William Delker entered and stepped to a podium. Judge Delker started by explaining the importance of jury service in the American system of justice. He went over the structure of a criminal trial and stressed that jurors had to base their decision solely on the evidence presented in court. We were cautioned not to talk about a case or learn details about it from the media. After a short break, jury selections for the trials being held that week commenced. A court officer drew the laminated cards with our names from a box and I was selected as juror number 4 for a trial involving a home invasion that would last the rest of the week.
On Tuesday morning, the jurors selected met in the assembly room promptly at 10:00 a.m. We were seven men and six women ranging in age from the twenties to late sixties. I was clearly the oldest of the group. A bailiff came in and lined us up according to our juror number, highest to lowest.
In a routine that would become very familiar to us over the next four days, we filed into the jury box, eight in the back row and five in the front. Judge Delker started by reading the four charges against the defendant: conspiracy to commit burglary; conspiracy to commit theft; burglary; and theft by unauthorized taking. As the trial progressed, the judge called a 10-minute recess about once an hour. Since we couldn’t discuss anything about the case, we took these breaks as an opportunity to get to know each other on a personal level.
The county attorneys alleged that the defendant had organized and conspired with two other individuals to break into a secluded home and rob a safe of cash and guns. The other two co-conspirators did the robbery, were promptly caught by the police, pleaded guilty, and were incarcerated. The prosecution witnesses included several police officers, the victim of the home invasion, and one of the co-conspirators. This woman testified that the defendant had driven them to the house and had drawn a map of the safe’s location in the bedroom. Text messages between the defendant and her while the robbery was in progress were shown.
The defense based their case mainly on the testimony of the defendant who said he had no motive to rob anyone as his business was thriving and he didn’t need the money. Friday morning, the defense and prosecution gave their closing arguments and the case was given to the jury to deliberate.
It took two hours for guilty verdicts to be reached on all charges. The “smoking guns” were the incriminating text messages the defendant admitted sending and the handwritten house layout he made. I feel all of the jurors listened closely to the testimony and felt a great sense of responsibility to reach a fair and just verdict.
After the verdicts were read in court, Judge Delker joined us in the deliberation room. He thanked us for our service and asked if we had any questions. I asked him if New Hampshire allowed jurors to question the witnesses in the course of a trial. He said New Hampshire did allow questions from the jury but he personally had not had occasion to do so. He felt it would add significant time to a trial. He cited the recent Jodi Arias murder trial in Arizona where the jury submitted hundreds of questions that had to be reviewed, screened, and answered.
I left for the weekend only to return on the following Monday at 10:00 a.m. Two juries were selected for trials to be held that week. Many of the jurors from my trial the previous week were selected again. I was not selected for either case, and by noon my jury service was finished for at least the next three years. I felt it was a valuable experience and I would not hesitate to serve if I am called in the future.