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Seeking justice

In the jury pool at a murder trial, I came away impressed

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WHEN I REPORTED FOR JURY DUTY last month, I hoped I’d get a murder. And I did. Well … almost.

At a small, round table in the jury assembly room, I sat with three fellow citizens—an optometric tech, a drone pilot, and a white-bearded man who earns a sleigh-load playing Santa Claus during the winter. (He was super nice, a Navy lieutenant commander in his other life.)

We all knew there was a big case on the docket. Santa and I were intrigued.

I’ve always wanted to serve on a jury. Not because I want to sit in judgment of another, but because I find the legal process fascinating. If I hadn’t been a writer, I’d like to have been a lawyer. I love reading depositions, court transcripts, police reports, affidavits, warrants, and other documentary evidence. All the attorneys I know think I’m crazy.

I’ve read that the children of alcoholics, having endured and observed much unfair treatment, grow up with an overdeveloped sense of justice. And I have more alcoholics dangling from my family tree than monkeys swinging through a David Attenborough documentary.

But “overdeveloped” is a relative term, and Scripture, of course, is packed with justice.

Deuteronomy tells us that all God’s ways are justice. In Job, we learn that God has established His throne for justice. Jeremiah averred that Jesus would execute justice and righteousness in the land. Isaiah prophesied the Messiah would proclaim justice to the Gentiles and that His very throne would be upheld by justice—forever. A quick and inexhaustive search of the Bible turns up the words “just” and “justice” 131 times.

So there I was, a cog in the wheel of a system built on Judeo-Christian ethics and morality, when the clerk called my name for the Big Case. She called Santa, too, along with 69 others. We all headed up to Department 1901, Judge Dan Goldstein presiding.

The matter at trial: The death of Mario Fierro. On Feb. 1, 2021, Jesse Alvarez, now 33, shot and killed Fierro, a teacher and coach at Cathedral Catholic, a private school. There’s no dispute about that. The question is, was it murder?

The prosecution alleges Alvarez was a jealous ex-boyfriend who murdered Fierro after learning Fierro was engaged to marry Alvarez’s former girlfriend. The defense says Alvarez shot Fierro in self-defense—six times, including once in the back and at least once in the back of the head. Alvarez has pleaded not guilty to murder with the special circumstance of lying in wait.

We didn’t know all that during voir dire. I sat in the front row of the gallery, 10 feet behind Alvarez. Each time the jury pool entered or exited, he stood and faced the bar, nodding with a nervous half-smile when anyone made eye contact, which I did. But I could not see into his heart.

Voir dire took two days. At lunch on Day 2, I was talking with another member of the pool, a scientist. Reza had immigrated from Iran 20 years ago and spoke perfect English with a light, elegant accent. This was his first time at jury duty, and he was utterly enthralled.

“This is nothing like my country,” he said, marveling. In Iran, the government can storm into your home, spirit you away, even kill you, he told me. Due process? Not a thing. Reza was astonished at the care the judge and attorneys took to educate us all on procedure, and at how deferential they were to us, mere citizens. “This is like a miracle!” he said.

I had to agree. What struck me was the extraordinary effort to afford Alvarez a fair trial. The pool included people from every part of society. Judge Goldstein questioned all 71 of us, some at length. Then the attorneys each gave a presentation, after which they too questioned some jurors individually. This process weeded out, among others, people who didn’t trust law enforcement, who feared racism, who were victims of violent crime, who didn’t like guns, who were too close to the case … and, alas, me, the only working journalist.

Nevertheless, I came away impressed with our system. At this writing, the trial is still underway. Given the evidence that’s emerging, my being rejected may be just as well for Alvarez.

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.


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