A reporter ends up on the jury for a murder trial
We start watching the video again, and I know by the timer in the upper-left part of the screen that Jacob Higgs has less than three minutes to live. The footage is from a security camera in a corner of the bar.
“Is he reaching for the assault rifle there?” asks Nancy, whom I first met two weeks before in the Jackson County Courthouse, at the corner of 12th Street and Oak in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. She renovates houses for a living and wears her frayed work boots to court every day.
None of us can answer her question. The footage captures just seven frames of action per second, in coarse black and white. There is no audio. For the past few minutes, we’ve watched Higgs and his friend Reno Dillard argue with two brothers, Tony and Vess Sisco, in the darkened back poolroom of a bar called the Filling Station. Higgs has walked from behind a minibar to the back end of a pool table with even less illumination than the rest of the room. Dillard sits on the edge of the same table, near the center pocket. The brothers wait on the other side. Higgs’ white shirt floats in the dark, below a face the camera can’t see.
Higgs comes out of the black carrying an AR-15 assault rifle that he has picked up out of camera range. He’s holding it the way a soldier in an honor guard would. He hands the gun to Dillard, who slides it onto the table, by his side.
“See, that’s a threat,” Jessica says. “Not guilty.”
She’s one of two black women on the jury. Sequestered in our 8-foot-by-20-foot jury room above the court, she has been splitting her time between drawing pictures with crayons left on the long table and playing blackjack.
“The gun hasn’t been a threat to anyone for the last two hours it’s been out,” Amy says. She’s Jessica’s age and white, another of this jury’s nine women.
On the video, Higgs and Tony Sisco keep up their argument. Higgs sways as he absently pokes at the cash register and lets his hand slide over the beer tap. Tony talks, but we never hear what he says. When the coroners examine Higgs’ body, they will find that his blood alcohol level when he died was three times the legal limit.
In a slow, four-second draw, Vess Sisco takes a pistol from his pocket and aims it at Dillard’s back. The camera doesn’t record frames fast enough to capture the muzzle flash when he fires, but we see Dillard spill from the pool table. Higgs and Tony Sisco both jump, presumably at the sound of the shot. By the time Tony turns to face his brother, Vess is already advancing on Higgs. This time, the camera catches the explosion from the barrel when Vess pulls the trigger. Higgs joins his friend on the floor.
Tony Sisco circles the minibar, tugs a pistol from the belly pocket of his sweatshirt, and fires two shots into Higgs’ back.
When the footage stops, the jury foreman gets up from the polished wood table. Tony Sisco and his two defense attorneys spent the past two weeks seated at this table, where we view the video numerous times during deliberation. The courtroom is empty now except for the jury. Three hours earlier, after closing arguments ended in Tony Sisco’s first-degree murder trial in the death of Higgs, the judge sent us to deliberate, with instructions on how to communicate from the jury room. Ring the buzzer once to summon the court clerk, three times when we’ve reached a verdict. So far, it’s been used to ask that smokers be allowed to take a break on the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse and to ask that the video monitors be set up in the courtroom.
“Does anyone want to change their vote?” the foreman asks. A few people shake their heads. No one speaks. Then Nancy asks, “Did anyone catch the light fixture moving over the pool table? Was that from a gunshot?”
I walk to the courtroom’s thick, oak door and knock to signal the clerk. I know from experience that she’s waiting on the other side of the door, sitting in an office chair and reading a paperback.
“I think we need to watch that again,” I say when she opens the door.
When the jury-duty summons arrived in the mail, everyone told me that I wouldn’t be required to serve. Reporters talk to too many lawyers, cops and convicts to be attractive to trial attorneys. So when I answered the call at the courthouse that late-June morning, I expected to lose a few hours, get bounced and then go back to work.
The waiting room full of potential jurors is divided into groups, then not much happens. Everyone watches a video about jury duty, shot like an office orientation film, with George Brett and Kansas City Star columnist C.W. Gusewelle in cameos. Smarter people have remembered to bring a book or a laptop. I settle for a stack of waiting-room magazines. I’m halfway through a story on trout fishing in Men’s Journal when my group number is called, five hours later.
We’re taken to a courtroom on the fourth floor, where we see the prosecution team: a balding man in a suit and a blond woman in a blazer and a skirt. At the defense table is a tall, lean man with silver hair. Seated next to him is a young black man in a red button-down shirt and a tie. His dreadlocks are tied back, and he smiles at us. This is my first look at Tony Sisco.
In the waiting room, people joked about drawing a property-line dispute — neighbors arguing over a tree. The judge tells us that this is a first-degree murder case, with a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
For the rest of the afternoon and most of the next day, the lawyers question us: Do you know police? Do you know Tony Sisco? Do you have any knowledge of a shooting that took place at the Filling Station in October 2006?
Maybe two dozen people have asked to be excused for reasons they ask to discuss with the lawyers in private. Some in my group are obviously going to be dismissed because they’ve answered every third question. There’s the retired police officer who says he presented cases to the same prosecutor’s office trying this case. There’s the man with the assault charge on his record and 52 guns in his house. For my part, I make sure both sides know that I work for The Pitch. Any minute, I’ll be excused.
“Number 32, you raised your card earlier when we asked if anyone thought the justice system isn’t fair. Why is that?” the balding attorney asks me.
“I don’t think everyone can afford the same defense,” I answer.
He looks at me blankly for a moment. “And?”
“That’s it. That’s all. Some people can afford great representation. Some people get a public defender who’s got an overbooked caseload.”
“OK,” he says, apparently satisfied.
Afterward, I wait outside the courthouse with two other potential jurors. One, James, is in his 40s and ships electric guitars for a living. He has watery eyes and smokes cheap cigarettes.
“I don’t want to be judging anybody,” he says.
We go back to the courtroom and wait for another hour. James is one of the first jurors called.
Any worries I still have about being picked are soothed. They won’t call both of us, not when there are 63 people left, not when I’m a working journalist.
Then I hear my name. I don’t even know who reads it.
My stomach folds over. The woman next to me, her eyes as round as the buttons on a doll’s face, gives me a taut, teasing grin.
In the jury box, a chair is waiting for me. On top of the seat is a blue notebook with the numeral 2 written and circled in black marker on the cover.
Someone has made the assumption that a juror will want to remember this experience. On the table in the jury room is a stack of posters with the words “Twelve People, One Justice” imposed over the silhouettes of a jury, walking shoulder to shoulder like the cast of a gangster film. One of my fellow jurors reports having seen T-shirts like this elsewhere in the building. As if this were a cruise, and we would need tacky souvenirs to remember it.
Then again, maybe I could have used a memento. I won’t have any records from the trial to confirm my memories of it. Once the trial is over, the court clerk will collect and destroy our notebooks, and the transcript will be sealed. (The intensity and closeness of a jury room makes it easier to remember conversation than most other circumstances allow, but the dialogue in this story is nevertheless a reconstruction of our deliberation.)
The prosecution’s case is the video: Tony Sisco shot Jacob Higgs, no doubt about it.
Over the next two weeks, they call police who had arrived at the scene, and they play a recording from the 911 call that Dillard was able to make after he’d been shot and beaten. On the tape, the critically injured Dillard moans into the phone for 10 minutes before mumbling that he’s been shot. There’s testimony from the police video expert who helped recover data from the security cameras.
The mother of Tony Sisco’s baby is there to say she knew that Tony sometimes carried a gun, but it was only because he’d been shot in 1998. She was there that night at the bar, invited to have drinks after hours, but she says she left before anyone started fighting. Dillard’s mother appears at the trial, too. She testifies that her son’s injuries have affected his memory. She says he lives alone and drives himself around town without trouble. She doesn’t know where he is most days.
The defense attorney, Pat Peters, argues that this was an act of self-defense. He tells us that the assault rifle, which he holds up in court, was used to threaten the Siscos, and they acted to save their lives. He tells us that the police department never mentioned the gun in any of their reports on the shooting.
We spend a day on video recovery techniques, two hours on Higgs’ autopsy report, endless unrecoverable minutes on ballistics.
The overflow of information leads to a discovery I didn’t expect. Being a juror can be mentally, even physically, exhausting. Because there’s no way to know what will be important during deliberation, and because misunderstanding the testimony could unfairly send the defendant to prison for the rest of his life, every detail invites obsession. And I can’t talk about the case with the people who are as obsessed with these details as I am — the other jurors.
Under that restriction, people find ways to talk about the case without actually talking about the case. “Did you see the defense attorney’s Mickey Mouse tie?” someone asks. “What a disrespectful thing to wear in a case like this.” A few of the women talk about the woman prosecutor, rating her pearls and commenting how cute she’d be if she tried a little harder.
Then there’s the stress of a dozen strangers packed together into a small room for two weeks. This has nothing to do with how friendly or interesting each of us is, and the group gets along well. There’s Jack, a retiree who teaches physical fitness at a YMCA and has definite opinions about long-distance runners in their 80s and 90s. Dee wants to be a writer and covers hip-hop for an underground publication available only at 7th Heaven. A Mary Kay rep becomes foreman on a coin toss. Another woman tells us that she was legally emancipated and married at age 15, divorced at 25 with two children, and now worries that her baggage keeps men away. It’s like being seated at a wedding-reception table where no one knows anyone else, except there’s no open bar and the small talk lasts two weeks.
We know that two of us are alternates, but we don’t know who. For most of us, the idea of being dismissed after the trial without being able to talk about it together is legal blue balls, a punishment on the order of a film reel breaking just before the killer is revealed. Cell-phone numbers are exchanged so that the dismissed can find out what happens.
Not everyone wants to know the ending, though.
“I don’t want to be here. I want to be an alternate,” says Michael, who spends his two weeks playing games on his laptop and bringing in a Superman comic the day after he overhears a discussion about superhero movies. “I’m afraid of karma. It could be the universe is using me as a tool to dispense karma, but I don’t know that. And if it’s not me acting on the universe’s wishes, that will come back on me threefold.”
At the end of the trial, the universe lets Michael get back to being Michael. He’s one of the alternates, dismissed along with a blond woman with a yin-yang tattoo over her right breast. Someone promises to call her when the verdict is reached. She won’t hear from us.
The first vote finally releases us to talk about everything we’ve seen and heard, and it’s that moment when we realize just how much we’ve assumed about one another in all that small talk. We’ve been together five days a week, eight hours a day, yet it’s as if I’m now meeting entirely new people.
“Self-defense. Not guilty. Self-defense. I’m done. I don’t need to hear anything else, and you can’t convince me otherwise. Not guilty.” These are the first words out of Jessica’s mouth when she sits down at the jury’s table.
Before deliberation started, Jack had told me that he was having dreams about the case. Now he’s shouting. “Not guilty! I think it’s self-defense, and if they’d threatened me with an assault rifle, you better believe I’d do the exact same thing!”
I vote guilty. Sisco shot a wounded man in the back.
We’re split: Five vote guilty; seven vote for acquittal. The first day of deliberation is a mess.
Pam, a woman I figure to be in her mid-50s, is one of the oldest women on the jury. Her eyeglasses dominate her face, and she wears a metal brace on her left foot. She waits for others to move ahead of her on the staircase, knowing she’ll need more time. On her cell phone, she keeps portraits of friends and family whom she has carefully rendered in oil and acrylic, along with her other paintings: of empty forests with trees soaked in champagne-colored sunshine.
“If he was so afraid of that AR-15, why’d he invite his girlfriend to have a drink at the bar?” Pam says. “If it was so scary, why didn’t he just leave?”
“They weren’t fighting then,” Dee answers. “When it did start going down, I don’t think he wanted to shoot. He’s trying to talk his way out of it. He ain’t going to turn his back and run — they’ll shoot him.” She’s convinced that what happened is a drug deal gone bad. The Siscos, she says, probably owed Higgs money. “Do you think he deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison?” She asks me.
We watch the video again and argue like this for another hour before we agree to break for the day.
“All these people are treating me like I’m this old white woman, and I just don’t get black culture and they need to explain things to me,” Pam tells me as we go to our cars. I don’t think she’s wrong. “My ex-husband is black, OK? I have four black children. I’m not going to say that. I shouldn’t have to tell them that to justify myself.”
A night away changes one vote.
“I was watching the Casey Anthony verdict on the news yesterday, and one of the jurors was on,” Nancy says. Her words come slow and even, as though she’s been rehearsing them. “The juror said she didn’t like the decision, but she had to go with the law as she was instructed and not her heart. I think if you look at it that way, our decision is clear.”
“So are you changing your vote?” the Mary Kay saleswoman asks.
“Yes. I think under the instructions, it’s not guilty.”
That initiates a reread of the jury instructions, which everyone seems to agree on, and then an examination of the coroner’s report. I don’t understand how the trajectory of the bullet proves or dispels intent, but I don’t want to say anything. Talking hasn’t gotten easier on day two, and we’ve decided to raise our hands to be called on by the foreman to keep the discussion civil. It’s clear that we’ll have to call the clerk to set up the video yet again.
It’s during our second viewing of the day that I realize I’ve been watching the wrong part of the video, concentrating on Vess’ point of view.
I stand up. “If we were trying Vess, I think we might have a different story. But I think it’s fair to say Tony didn’t see the shooting start, and if there’s an assault rifle in the room, it’s reasonable to assume he could’ve thought his brother was reacting to that. So if that’s the case, I’m going to have to say not guilty.”
“How can you say that?” Anne hisses.
“I think it’s like Nancy said. I have to go with the instructions I have.”
We play the video again. And again. And again. It takes the afternoon for everyone to agree about what’s happening and when.
One by one, the rest of the guilty votes start to turn. By the time we’re eating the deli sandwiches ordered for us by the court, Pam is the lone holdout.
“Those boys were someone’s children. Higgs is somebody’s baby, and it shouldn’t be OK to just shoot him in the back and walk on with your life like nothing ever happened,” Pam tells me outside the jury room.
“I don’t like it, either,” I say. “But I think we have to go with the instructions they gave us.”
The next hour, we talk in circles. “I’ll just vote the way you all want me to,” Pam says. “Nobody cares what I think.”
Jessica opens the jury instructions. “Instruction 17,” she tells Pam. “See, if you just read that, you’ll get it. Instruction 17: self-defense. That’s what I tell my boys — you have to watch out for each other. You should read Instruction 17.”
“I’ve read it, Jessica,” Pam says, and retreats to the coffeepot.
“I’m just trying to figure this out, because maybe you’re seeing something I’m not seeing,” I say to Pam. “It’s absolutely possible. So if Sisco and Higgs are talking, like you and I are, do you think he can see what Vess is doing behind him?”
She considers this. “No,” she says.
“OK, we agree on that. In Sisco’s mind, what do you think the last threat he saw was?”
“Probably the AR-15.”
“OK, we agree on that, too. So if we agree he’s seen the rifle brandished like a threat, is it reasonable to think that when he hears gunfire, he might think it’s the rifle being pointed at him, or that his brother started shooting because the rifle was being pointed at him?”
I realize that we are the only two people in the room talking.
“I guess that’s reasonable,” she finally says.
We take votes on every count — there are eight in all, including battery and a possible second-degree murder charge if we don’t like first-degree. We vote with a show of hands. Pam is the only person whose palm never goes higher than her shoulder. Then the foreman presses the buzzer three times.
The smokers go out to smoke when it’s done. Pam and Anne head to the women’s restroom, where there is a couch. I sit at the top of the stairs leading back to the courtroom, put my head in my hands, and stay there until I can hear the smokers coming back.
Jacob Higgs was homicide No. 78 in 2006. There would be 25 more before that year ended. In 2010, 19 homicide cases were tried in Jackson County Court — not even one-fifth of the murders reported in the same county over the same time period. (Most homicide charges here, and in most cities, are resolved via plea bargain.) Of those cases, 14 resulted in guilty verdicts, two defendants were acquitted, and three ended in mistrials. If every case starts with roughly the same pool of registered voters, the county sifts through about 1,000 potential jurors every year.
As we wait for Pam’s decision, the television-news trucks have parked outside. They aren’t waiting on our verdict. There’s another crop of potential jurors, this time for the trial of accused “Waldo rapist” Bernard Jackson that began on our first day of deliberation.
The Jackson case has been covered constantly in print and on TV. A serial rapist terrifies people. The day after we hand down our verdict, I search newspapers, blogs and TV-station websites for mention of the Tony Sisco case. There is none.
We tried not to watch the courtroom gallery during the trial. Thinking too much about who’s there — family and friends of the accused, of the victim — might have affected our judgment. When we assemble in the courtroom to render our verdict, the room is fuller than at any other time during the trial. Police who testified are here, along with young professional-looking people in suits.
The foreman hands over the verdict, and the judge reads it aloud. Tony puts his head down and starts to cry. The people behind him, on the defense side of the room, smile and grip one another, trying not to shout. Spectators on the other half of the room look numbly at the floor. “It’s not right,” I hear a voice say behind the prosecutors’ table.
The defense attorney is waiting for us, a warm smile on his face. “So, did you all become friends?” he asks. “Come on back here with me. I’ll answer any questions you might have.”
I look for Pam, but she’s already gone.
Peters leads us to a room only slightly bigger than the one we worked in and takes a chair in the corner. Of course, everyone wants to know: Why us?
“There’s no real art to jury selection,”
Peters says. “You walk in the courtroom, and, based on how I feel about you when I see you, I write down a letter grade, A to F. Tony writes one down, too, and then we compare. I might change your grade based on what you say, but most of it’s gut feeling.”
What happened to Vess?
“He was tried separately. I wasn’t his attorney. He’s serving life in prison right now.”
“So Tony goes home now?” Anne asks.
“Tony’s serving 40 years on a drug charge,” Peters says. “It wasn’t related to this. It was a totally different thing. He was caught selling crack cocaine. Didn’t you guys know that? I thought the guards were a dead giveaway.”
Two days later, Peters issues a press release to announce the verdict. The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office doesn’t want to advertise the loss and refrains from sending its own media alert.
In his statement, Peters questions the police department’s choice not to include pictures of the assault rifle in the stills presented to the grand jury before Tony’s case went to trial. According to Peters, no one saw the gun until a week before the trial’s opening statements. No attorney had gone all the way through the footage before.
Ten days after our verdict, rumors circulate that attorneys involved with the case have been suspended. Michael Mansur, public information officer for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, confirms that two employees have been placed on leave, pending an investigation, but he won’t comment further.
Our decision, then, might be used in Vess’ appeal.
That afternoon, a check comes in the mail, payment for every day I was there, plus mileage: $86.02. It’s folded inside a certificate of appreciation. I don’t take it to the bank for a few days.