Sheritha Jones was surrounded by 11 peers — intelligent, kind, well-meaning people.
Yet, in many ways, she had never felt so alone.
Jones was the sole holdout — the one and only not-guilty vote — after three days of deliberations over whether 22-year-old Marqus Patton was guilty of first-degree murder in the July 2011 slaying of Kristopher Winters.
Not only that, she couldn't talk about the case with anyone outside the jury — including her husband, Justin.
Couldn't speak. Couldn't sleep.
After two days of hopelessly deadlocked deliberations, a judge told Jones and her fellow jurors that they'd have to come back the next morning for another round.
At that, a well-meaning juror turned to Jones and said: “You know, the onus is on you.”
Only Jones would know how much of an onus it was.
Jones — a 38-year-old mother of three who works as a researcher for The World-Herald — provided a rare glimpse into the most-hidden part of the justice system: jury deliberations.
Put simply, no one outside the jury knows what goes on inside a jury room. Fewer still know what it's like to be the lone voice, the lone vote that literally decides a man's fate.
A day after Patton's trial ended last week, Jones took The World-Herald inside the jury room — and inside the stress, angst and thought process of a woman of conviction who wouldn't convict.
* * *
Jones didn't want to serve on a jury, and she figured she wouldn't last long. During jury selection, she told prosecutors she thought there probably should be forensic evidence of a defendant's presence at a murder scene. She invoked the name of a World-Herald colleague who covers the courts. She even mentioned that she recognized Patton from having read and researched the case as part of her job.
At another point, Jones, who is black, mentioned that very few people in the jury pool were black, as Patton is. “I said, I don't really think any of these people are a jury of his peers.”
Sitting in the front row, Jones said she glanced at the list of jurors in front of the prosecutor closest to her. She thought she saw him cross her name off. Thought she was free.
No such luck. After two days of questioning, Jones filed into the jury box, alongside seven women and four men. She and one other black person were among the 12.
And she thought: “Holy ----. I now have somebody's life in my hands.”
* * *
That somebody: Marqus Patton.
Prosecutors had charged the 22-year-old with first-degree murder under a law that holds accomplices accountable if someone dies during a robbery.
They offered this account: Patton, three men and a 15-year-old girl had gone to the South Omaha home of Winters, a 25-year-old pot dealer, to rob him of marijuana and money.
When Winters resisted, one of the men shot him. The bullet went through the back of his head and hit his carotid artery. Winters staggered up a few stairs, then collapsed. Blood soaked the stairs and a large pool circled his body.
“My stomach hurt,” Jones said of viewing the crime scene photos. “His life was on those stairs.”
Prosecutors Steph Shearer and Matt Kuhse told jurors that two co-defendants placed Patton alongside the gunman in the house. And their account would be corroborated, the prosecutors said, by the fact that Patton kept lifting his shirt and showing off the graze wound he said he suffered during the robbery.
On the other side, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley told the jurors the only evidence linking Patton to the crime would come from the “lying mouths” of the co-defendants.
He asked jurors to closely scrutinize whether prosecutors were offering deals for the co-defendants' testimony. He equated the plea bargains to paying witnesses — not with money but with freedom.
“If I told you I had paid a witness $1,000 to testify, would you have a problem with that?” Riley asked.
* * *
Over five days of trial, Jones would have problems with a few parts of prosecutors' case:
» The co-defendants. Drake Northrop testified for the state that he drove the robbers to the scene, that Patton sat in the passenger seat and that all five of them entered Winters' house.
With Northrop's felony record and his smooth “yes, sir” and “no, sir” replies, Jones said, she got the feeling that Northrop was nothing more than a “professional testifier” — and liar.
She said she found Emily Gusman — whose testimony was dominated by “I don't know” and “I can't remember” — equally incredible.
» The shrouded deals given to Northrop and Gusman. Both testified for the state, but prosecutors did not disclose the deals they may be getting. Northrop said he's hoping for an accessory charge. Gusman said she's hoping for juvenile court.
“It was all mysterious,” Jones said. “I didn't like that at all. And that girl — she put this whole thing in motion. For her to get juvenile court? That's disgusting.”
» The lack of scientific evidence. Jones said Patton may have been in the robbers' car that day. However, she said, nothing put him in Winters' house — except Northrop's testimony.
After deliberations began about noon Tuesday, Jones pointed out all those concerns.
Her fellow jurors countered her arguments.
One major thing they pointed to: Patton's apparent graze wound.
Northrop had testified that Patton was freaking out after the robbery — saying he had been shot and lifting up his shirt to show a red blemish near his navel. Plus, a friend of the group testified that Patton was doing the same thing when the defendants went swimming after the robbery.
Jones said she doubted the credibility of the friend, who is a parolee and admitted meth user.
Further, she wondered whether police had shown photos of the purported graze wound to Northrop, thus planting that information in Northrop's mind.
A juror asked Jones if she could believe some of Northrop's testimony.
“I either find you credible or I don't,” Jones said. “And I don't find him credible at all.”
* * *
Jones quickly realized she was in the minority, though not by much.
The jury's initial vote Tuesday: Six guilty, four not guilty, two undecided.
All four men on the jury — including a young black man — voted to convict Patton right away. Those men never wavered.
As Tuesday dragged on and the jury debated the evidence, a couple of the men started looking at the clock. “Doesn't look like we're getting out of here today,” one said.
By the end of the day Tuesday, one juror switched her vote to guilty — making the tally seven guilty, three not guilty and two undecided.
The jury decided to sleep on it.
When they returned Wednesday morning, three more jurors had joined the guilty camp. The vote was now 10 guilty, two not guilty.
Eyes were fixed on Jones, in part because the other holdout, Sandy, didn't say much beyond her belief that the co-defendants were liars.
By 11:10 a.m. Wednesday, the jury sent a note declaring that it was at a standstill.
The judge told the jury to deliberate some more and refer to their jury instructions if they needed to.
One of those instructions: “Approach this task with open minds. … Do not hesitate to re-examine your views but do not surrender your honest conviction … for the mere purpose of returning verdicts.”
Jones said her fellow jurors lived up to that edict.
This was far from a jury in fury, she said. No one snapped, raised a voice or got remotely huffy, but Jones said she could sense her fellow jurors' frustration.
One juror, a college student, told another how mad she was going to be if she had to drop a $500 class she was enrolled in. Another juror said her kids were sick and she had severe “mommy guilt.”
Still another speculated that the jurors could be deliberating for weeks if they didn't return a verdict — a contention Jones quickly refuted.
Then there was the young man who told Jones the onus was on her.
As time dragged on, Jones said, the deliberations began to feel like a car sale, as if a few jurors were asking Jones: “What do we have to do to get you into the guilty car?”
By day's end Wednesday, the jurors asked Jones if she would think about it some more.
“Everything in me was saying, ‘No,'” Jones recalled, “but I said yes.”
In turn, the jury forewoman told the judge there was a “slim chance” the holdouts would change their minds. Judge Michael Coffey ordered them to return the next morning.
After the last 10-2 vote Wednesday, Sandy confided in Jones.
“Are you thinking about switching?” she asked.
“No. I'm looking at the evidence,” Jones said.
The next morning, the forewoman asked who was voting guilty. Ten hands shot up. Then Sandy meekly raised her hand.
“I'll say, ‘Guilty,'” she said.
* * *
Jones said she could see why jurors sometimes cave. After viewing the bloodbath that was Winters' death, Jones would go home every night and squeeze her 4-year-old twins and her 12-year-old daughter a little tighter.
There was pressure. Stress. Lost sleep. Lost appetite.
“Giving birth to twins was the hardest thing I've had to do,” she said, “but this was the most horrible thing.”
As horrible as it was, Jones was sure of one thing: The state hadn't convinced her that Patton was in that basement.
Within an hour of Sandy's switch, Jones and her fellow jurors let the judge know: The vote would forever remain 11-1.
The judge declared a mistrial, and prosecutors will re-try Patton in October.
Jones said her fellow jurors were remarkably kind, despite the conflict. Afterward, they exchanged emails — and Jones sent jurors an email of the newspaper stories they weren't allowed to read during the trial. “Hey 11,” she wrote, “this is the 1.”
In the end, Jones said, she stood firm on a simple thought.
“Everyone who set foot in that basement had such a disregard for Kristopher Winters' life,” she said. “I wasn't going to do the same thing with Marqus Patton's life.”
Contact the writer: