It was almost exactly three years ago today that eleven jurors and I reached the final verdict in the death penalty trial of Marissa DeVault. Once the court reporter recorded our verdict, we were released from our admonishment and escorted down a secret hallway to the exit of the courthouse.
We each went to our respective homes and disappeared into the fabric of society. Every one of us carried the memory of Dale Harrell in our hearts and did our best to rest easy for the rest of our lives, confident in our decisions through three phases of a trial.
During the period between the verdict and the sentencing, the seeds of doubt began to settle in. Should we have given DeVault death after all? Had we gotten soft in the deliberation room? Had we found justice for Dale Harrell and his family?
I recently completed a radio interview with Alan Warren of KKNW – Mystery House Radio. I made mention that being a juror on that trial had changed my life but I do not know that I was able to convey the complete thought.
There were three times throughout the trial process that caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up. The first was when I was assembled in the courtroom with hundreds of other jurors as Judge Roland Steinle introduced the murder case to us from a microphone. I honestly feel that the hair standing up on my neck was God’s way of telling me to pay attention.
An hour or so later, we were in the process of completing a lengthy questionnaire. I remember thinking that I would adhere to the strict rule of honesty. It was all I knew as a potential juror. The first time that I saw the question as to whether I had experience with domestic violence, I initially checked the box ‘no’. It was not a question I expected and I do not live with mean people. Later, in the voir dire, a similar question was asked and I was forced to revisit the domestic violence question.
I checked the ‘yes’ box and admitted that I had experienced many years of child abuse and had taken my parents to court for it at fourteen years of age in 1976. I was sentenced to a year in a juvenile delinquency home. It was not something I was proud of. Although it was an injustice, I held no resentments. Instead, I held guilt but did not know it.
The next time we were called back in the voir dire process, small groups of potential jurors were placed in the jury box. In this segment, the attorneys and judge volley questions to jurors and they feel just as random as they did when completing the written questionnaire. I waited for the attention to come toward me regarding my domestic violence response. Somehow, I made it through the day without being asked one question.
“B-198? You are Juror #13, please step to the jury box,” the bailiff announced on the final day of selection.
I remember the surreal feeling as I walked from the back corner of the courtroom and took my seat in the jury box. There was nothing more humbling. Simultaneously, I worried that others might have been more qualified.
Somehow, I had made it on the jury despite the response I had worried about in voir dire.
The second time my hair stood on end was on the final day of deliberations during the guilt phase. Our jury foreperson encouraged us to look at every piece of evidence one final time to ensure we had missed nothing. At some point, one of us was extracting papers from an envelope seized from the killer’s lover’s home and we all froze.
We had found Dale Harrell’s birth certificate. It was not so much that we found it in the accomplice’s home as it was the feeling that somehow Dale was standing up in the deliberation room. Suddenly, with the certificate in hand, it was if to tell us that this was a real human being’s life that we were responsible for. Even further, despite months and months of evidence presentation, we did not know that Dale had a twin. This piece of information took us by surprise and we took it to heart. It seemed to reiterate the importance of the survivors as we moved through the process.
We found DeVault guilty of first degree murder.
It was not until we were deep into the death penalty deliberations phase did I realize that I made it onto the jury not despite my domestic violence experience but because of my domestic violence experience. There were two other jurors with a similar history with completely different scenarios.
A juror made mention that the defendant could not have experienced domestic violence because a neighbor would have reported it. Because of those words, each of us shared our story in front of the other jurors. Not one of us wanted to share our story but the law had asked us to do so indirectly because it had a bearing on the consideration of mitigating factors. Each story was painful to tell as well as to witness.
Just because a neighbor does not report abuse does not mean it did not happen. The unfortunate commonality each of us shared was that most people do not report abuse when they see it.
The third time my hair stood up was when DeVault allocated passionately for her life to Judge Steinle at her sentencing. I was stunned to realize that what I thought was a display of remorse when she allocated to us, as a jury of twelve, had only been merely a well-rehearsed act, spoken almost verbatim to the judge.
It would not be for another year and a half before I would get to meet Dale Harrell’s twin sister, Mindi Harrell. The one thing I wanted to tell her was that I was sorry that we had not given the defendant death for her crime. I carried the guilt of having considered the defendant remorseful when we had reached our decision. Further, I regretted sharing my story of domestic violence in the deliberation room because it may have been a factor in saving the defendant’s life.
It was like a reunion as Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Sins Productions flew all of us back to Phoenix for the filming of Dale’s story. My heart jumped when I finally met Mindi in person. We hugged in the parking lot like old friends and I shared my thoughts. I apologized.
She looked at me and said, “We never wanted the death penalty. You did the right thing.”
It was not until then that I had the peace that I had been looking for. Being a juror did change my life. It qualified the rest of my life. It was okay that that I did what I did at fourteen. It was good that my fellow jurors dug deep in their hearts for the truth. It was a blessing that we had a foreperson like we had.
It was an honor to serve on the jury in the search for justice for Dale. There is not a day since the trial that I have not thought of Dale and all those who knew him.
To that thought, I am proud to present the new edition of “Brain Damage: A Juror’s Tale”, my raw but telling story of being a juror on the trial. This book is dedicated to Dale, his family and all who knew him.
Banquet of Consequences: A Juror’s Plight is now available.