Sitting in Judgment 

Jury duty gives a view of the ugly side of life

Many are called, but few are chosen. Over the years, that has been my experience when I was called for jury duty. In the selection process, as soon as it was learned that I am a journalist, nobody wanted anything to do with me.

So imagine my surprise when I was summoned to Charleston County Courthouse two weeks ago. I guess someone wasn't paying attention when the vetting process was going on, because I actually found myself seated in the jury box and hearing a case.

The jury was composed of eight women and four men; 10 whites and two blacks. We were presented with the case of Nicole Natasha Taylor, 19, charged with assault and battery with intent to kill, conspiracy, and discharging a firearm into a dwelling.

I had read about the case in The Post and Courier when it occurred. (And I did reveal this before I was selected for the case, as did several other jury members.) Three men approached the front of a townhouse in Collins Park Villas, off Dorchester Road, on a March night in 2006. One of them fired three blasts of buckshot into the apartment from a 12-gauge shotgun. One of the blasts struck 7-year-old Adryanna Stone as she sat at her computer listening to hip-hop music on earphones. On the way to MUSC hospital, she stopped breathing and a paramedic kept her alive by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She ultimately underwent seven surgeries, losing half her stomach, half her intestine and suffering other organ damage.

In the days that followed, North Charleston police arrested several men — and Nicole Taylor, the older sister of Adryanna Stone. The story that came out in a day of testimony was a sordid tale of domestic breakdown, violence, drugs, and a total lack of personal restraint or responsibility. It was a picture of a household with three generations living under one roof, including small children, a pregnant teenager, and two boyfriends. Of the young people who were on trial or were called as witnesses, most were high school dropouts, rotating between jobs at McDonald's and Burger King. Nicole already had three children and was expecting her fourth as she sat in the docket that week.

The prosecution held that she had organized the conspiracy that resulted in the buckshot being fired into the townhouse; she was motivated by anger with her mother and her mother's boyfriend. She argued that she had ridden with the gunman and his two confederates to the apartment complex and had ridden back with them after the shooting, but knew nothing of any conspiracy or shotgun. The trial featured weeping family members testifying against one another and Chief Deputy Solicitor Bruce Durant brandishing the shotgun in the defendant's face as he described the shooting of her sister. The silent presence which haunted the courtroom that week was one Chris Brown, the 20-year-old alleged triggerman. He had killed himself the night before the trial began.

I went into the proceedings wanting to give Nicole Taylor the benefit of the doubt. I guess this is what the law calls the presumption of innocence. For me, it came from the knowledge of South Carolina's and Charleston County's history of judicial misconduct. Some prosecutors will do anything for a conviction.

After three days of listening to attorneys argue and Judge Danny Pieper call balls and strikes from the bench, I came out of the courthouse with more respect for the law than I had going in. I was struck by the commitment of all the attorneys involved to the process and to their respective roles. I was also struck by the commitment and sincerity of jurors, who — like me — sat scribbling pages of notes throughout the proceedings.

We got the case after lunch on Friday and were fortunate to have attorney Mark McKnight as foreman. He helped us sort out the charges and comb through some points of testimony. At the end of the day, the defendant's story simply did not hold up. We had no choice but to convict her on all three charges, including assault and battery with intent to kill. Under South Carolina law, "the hand of one is the hand of all." Regardless of the intent, there was clearly a conspiracy to act, and a child was grievously injured by that action. We felt the evidence demonstrated her involvement in that conspiracy.

The judge sentenced Nicole on all three charges, to be served concurrently, for a total of eight years. She will be in state prison in December when her fourth child is born. The jury's job was done that day, but I left the courthouse thinking that the drama of this broken family will probably continue for at least another generation.

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