Credit: Illustrations by Robert Ullman

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No. 5238 was among the prospective jurors in the 2002 trial U.S. v. Kevin Gray et al. This was a death penalty case, with the defendants ultimately convicted of multiple murders. No. 5238 was asked his feelings on the ultimate sanction. The prospective juror wrote, “I am against the death penalty because only God can raise the dead.”

It took more than two months to choose the jury in the Gray case. No. 5238 was bounced in a matter of seconds.

Jurors eventually spared the Gray defendants the death penalty and gave them life sentences instead. The same thing happened a year earlier in U.S. v. Tommy Edelin, an accused drug kingpin facing a 103-count indictment that included seven murders.

The reluctance of D.C. jurors to embrace death hasn’t deterred federal prosecutors from recruiting them to play Texas hangmen. In January of this year, the latest death penalty trial began, this time against alleged gang enforcer Larry Gooch.

In each case, the jury selection is murder. In the Gray proceedings, 6,500 people were summoned. Of those, almost 2,500 did not respond, another 1,038 were excused, and 591 were disqualified, leaving 694 potential jurors.

No. 5238 was one of those 694—people who actually showed up at the courthouse for service. These included citizens who refused to give the court their unlisted phone numbers, folks who attached copies of airline tickets to establish their absentee credentials, and others who undermined the ideal of an anonymous jury by signing their questionnaires.

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The prospect of filling 12 seats—plus alternates—with jurors who are willing to take notes for possibly 32 weeks on a brutal, complex gang conspiracy and murder case has a self-cleansing effect on the selections. It’s a process that leaves judges asking about a person’s savings, mental-health history, or leaky bladder. If you admit to extreme financial hardship, a cloudy mind, or a pee issue, you’re dismissed.

During the Gray case, Judge Royce C. Lamberth asked a potential juror, “Tell me a little bit more, if you would, about the hardship and how the babysitting would affect your ability to serve as a juror.”

Those who don’t have personal reasons for ducking out may have moral ones. Then there are the people who profess several different views on the death penalty at one time. Or they haven’t asked themselves how they feel on perhaps the most debated topic in the history of civics. One man, when asked his views on the death penalty, wrote on his juror’s questionnaire, “not applicable.” In death cases, the secret to selecting a jury is learning to love the wafflers.

It’s hard to blame District residents for dissembling a bit when grilled about the death penalty. After all, they don’t particularly expect such a morbid line of inquiry when they arrive at the courthouse: In a 1992 referendum, District voters rejected the sanction by a 2-to-1 radio. Federal prosecutors bring death cases to D.C. anyhow.

So there are a lot of reasons for D.C. residents to bluster and blather when they’re questioned about serving on a death penalty case. Religious reasons, personal reasons, political reasons. A defense attorney put the following understatement to Lamberth during the Gray selection process: “Any person of conscience or any person of substance approaching a question of this gravity has to honestly equivocate.”

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