Thursday, December 15, 2005

Jurors in Hargon trial tell their stories

Staff Writer

Some Marshall County people who sat on the jury for the Yazoo County murder trial two weeks ago shared their experiences.

Juror Sharon Holloway said on a spiritual level she believed she would be impanelled on the jury that heard the case of Earnest Lee Hargon when she got her letter of summons.

But during the impanelling process a part of her believed she would be skipped over, she said.

She said the abruptness of the process and being away from her family for nearly a week were the worst part of the ordeal. Being sequestered was also hard but not impossible to deal with, she said.

It was her first time to serve on a jury and “one I’ll never forget,” Holloway said. “We couldn’t watch television news or read the newspaper. I had a lot of time to meditate.”

Perhaps the most challenging part of the trial for Holloway was when the jury went into deliberation to decide on the sentencing for Hargon.

“We voted about four times and looked at the mitigating and aggravating factors,” she said.

On the first vote, eight jurors voted for life imprisonment for the death of the mother, Rebecca Hargon, and four wanted to give the defendant the death penalty, Holloway said.

It was at that point that the jury finally concluded it had to put personal feelings aside, she said.

“One juror became emotional, and I said we have to be able to set aside our personal feelings.”

Giving the death penalty was not an easy task, Holloway said.

“It is not something I want to do again (sit on a jury in a capital murder case).”

Holloway said some of the evidence was shocking for her to look at - a little bit overwhelming.

“For me, I need a good night’s rest,” she said.

She didn’t rest well the first night after the sentencing phase, she said.

“It was quite an experience, a good experience, and one I will never forget.”

Juror Terri Lynn Smithwick had served on a jury in the early 1990s in Atlanta, Ga., but this was the first capital murder trial she has seen from the jury box.

She described the trial as “very emotional.”

“There are two sides to every story and you have to listen to both,” Smithwick said. “It’s bad in any situation.”

This trial was more difficult emotionally because it involved the breaking of trust in a family, she said.

Smithwick is one juror who believed that crystal methamphetamine addiction played a big part in Hargon’s actions.

The prosecuting attorneys and some jurors did not believe the crystal meth addiction played a key role in Hargon’s troubles, she said.

Smithwick believed Hargon was a decent guy before he started using drugs and underwent a personality change after taking drugs.

“His ex-wife testified about his personality changes after he got on crystal meth,” Smithwick said. “I want these kids to know how important it is not to do it the first time because it is a very addictive drug and it changed this man’s life forever. Not only this man’s life but the lives of a lot of other people.

“This is a fact brought out (at trial) not an excuse for his actions,” she said.

Smithwick said all jurors underwent hardships to serve but they were treated wonderfully by Yazoo County people.

“All of us felt like it was our civic duty,” she said. “But they fed us real good and everybody gained five pounds.”

Jurors had separate rooms and the telephones were disconnected and the televisions were cut off.

They were instructed not to discuss the trial with anyone, not even fellow jurors during the trial. The first time jurors were allowed to discuss the case with each other was before returning verdicts and again while deliberating the sentencing.

They were required to have a bailiff with them whenever they went anywhere.

Jurors were allowed to play cards or bingo and to watch movies or sports videos in the banquet room at Comfort Inn. Bailiffs accompanied them at all times.

Smithwick said she hopes she never has to serve on a murder trial again.

“We hear about murder all the time, but when you see evidence up close like that, you see the lives it has hurt,” she said.

For her, the decision on the verdict was not as difficult as the sentencing phase of the trial.

All of it was made easier by the instructions given throughout the jury selection trial and by the instructions from Circuit Court Judge Jannie Lewis prior to the deliberations on the verdict and sentencing, she said.

“Judge Lewis was wonderful,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for Judge Lewis.

She was kind, but firm enough to do her job.

“She is right on top of everything,” Smithwick said.

Juror Jo Fleming didn’t mind serving at all.

“That’s because I feel like that is my duty,” she said. “It was an experience.”

Fleming said she did not mind the questioning of jurors during the selection part of the trial. She had served on one other murder trial, one in the 1970s involving someone who killed a man who owned Carbon Copy, a racehorse.

Fleming said being sequestered at night alone in a hotel room with no television or newspaper was not easy.

“I got a little lonely at night,” she said.

But the bailiffs took up all the newspapers at the motel in the morning before jurors left their rooms and saved them for after the trial. Fleming liked that.

She described the trial as “very, very graphic - sort of a cut and dried case.”

But during sentencing, Fleming said she had “no qualms at all” about giving Hargon the death penalty.

She believes the death penalty would be a deterrent to crime if it were given more often.

“I think people like that deserve the death penalty because he (Hargon) did this knowing it,” she said.

She called the case cut and dried because the prosecution put on evidence of Hargon confessing the murders to authorities.

“I don’t believe drugs had anything to do with it,” she said. “He (Hargon) had to be able to plan it out and he had a clear-thinking head.”

Fleming said the worst part of the ordeal was being cooped up.

“I was glad to get back home,” she said. “I went to Ripley Monday and went to church Wednesday night (November 7). It was the second time I’ve been out and it felt good.”

It was juror Eleanor Crawford's second time to serve on a jury, the first in the 1980s in a second degree murder case. But no death penalty was involved in that trial and the process was totally different, she said.

This trial was very different because sentencing involved a possibility of giving the death penalty, she said.

“It was an experience I probably will never forget,” she said. “I learned a lot as far as sentencing.”

In Crawford’s case, jury service was optional because of her age.

“I felt it was my duty,” she said. “But I probably won’t do it again.”

Crawford said the bailiffs did everything possible to make jurors comfortable. They ate most of their meals out, but pizza was brought in one night and hamburgers on another occasion. The jury room was kept well stocked with snacks at all times, she said.

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