The sandstone courthouse stood high above the street, its doorway a yawning mouth framed by towering columns that reached from the landing at the top of steep brick steps. Inside, steam heat blasted, radiators clanked and high heels clattered over worn black linoleum. As prospective jurors, we were herded like sheep into the courtroom where we gazed at the brown tinged windows filtering light high overhead; looking out we could only see sky. Bailiffs hollered names and numbers; we sat as directed on wooden benches while two opposing attorneys selected the jury.
It was a murder trial, I was elected a juror, and without going into grisly details, it was the time I first learned the meaning of the word nuance.
For five days we listened to testimony while the suspect sat across from us, his face an expressionless profile, arms folded across his chest, legs shackled in silver chains. I couldn’t help thinking that, once this man was a baby who likely cooed and laughed; now he stood accused of murder. Later the prosecuting attorney provoked a similar sentiment when he circulated the high school picture of the seventeen-year-old victim. That photo replaced the horror pictures we had already seen with the vision of a lovely high school student--turning her into the girl next door--you know, the one your brother has a crush on.
After the closing statements, the jury sat around a dark stained table--a stocky white haired man slamming his hand down, convinced of guilt at the offset, the rest of us determined to use all manner of fairness before reaching any conclusion. If we were to convict, there were three statutes under which the suspect could be found guilty. Two were obvious, one, more obscure; as we analyzed evidence, we sought clarification on the third statute from the judge. Tearing a sheet of paper from a yellow legal pad, our foreman jotted: “Can we get a copy of the statute for Felony Murder?” and handed it to the bailiff to deliver to the judge. Shortly, the bailiff knocked on our door and instructed us to return to the courtroom.
Winding our way single file down a dimly lit hallway, we entered the courtroom, slid into squeaking wooden seats and gazed toward the bench. The judge spoke:
“The jury has requested a copy of the statute of Felony Murder. This building has no copy machine therefore I cannot fulfill the request. The jury may return to the deliberation room.”
Nuance. Twelve members of the jury sat back at the rectangular table, flabbergasted that the antiquated courtroom didn’t house a copy machine, and by the meticulous requirement of our legal system that meant the judge could do nothing more than respond to our request the way it was written. As a group, we were irritated. We used the wrong word and we couldn’t move forward.
That experience, which occurred many years ago, reminds me of writing. The law leaves no room for leeway, and yes, perhaps writing offers more. But in the end, it’s in the details, the fine distinction, the exactness in which you form a sentence that leads the reader on, convinces them, and tantalizes. The wrong words shut a reader down just as one wrong word stopped the jury cold. “He walked down the hallway” provokes a yawn of boredom, whereas a sentence like “Scuffing his feet, he ran his ruler across the bead board paneling; we could hear him getting closer with each click” engages the reader, make the reader ask who “he” is and where is he going.
As a jury, we spent several more careful hours discussing the case. Like a writer, when that word copy derailed us, we moved to another part piece of testimony. We knew that the one word was an issue, but rather than waste time on it, we worked together to draw a clearer picture of other details related to the case, the same way a writer moves on to a different part of the story.
When we were close to a verdict we returned to the word copy, sending a second note back to the judge: “Could you please read us the statute on Felony Murder?" Once again the bailiff knocked on the door and escorted us down the hallway. Again we took our assigned seats and waited expectantly for the judge. After reading our question out loud, the judge opened a thick, leather bound book and read the statute. The jury returned to the deliberation room. Within an hour, we had a verdict.
The right words will bring you home. When has a single word or scene stumped you?