Mark Franklin was fidgety as he sat in the jury deliberation room. They had been sequestered for 4 days now. No matter how much they discussed the case, it always came back to the same vote. 11-1, guilty. Mark was the 1, fighting against the tide.
The windowless room was hot and stuffy. The fluorescent light above the jury table made a constant buzzing noise and threw a yellow pallor against the dingy tan walls. The fan the guard had brought in did little to ease the growing tension. It was no secret Mark was the dissenter and the other jurors did little to mask their displeasure.
They all wanted this to end. They wanted to go home, back to their lives and families, and air-conditioned homes. All Mark had to do was change his vote. The evidence was overwhelming. All the jurors knew that the defendant was guilty of manslaughter. Mark knew it too. Facts were facts.
Fact One: The defendant, Byron Stone, hired the victim, Dillon O’Malley, to tutor his daughter.
Fact Two: Stone’s daughter, Nikki, 15, told her father that Dillon had assaulted her and now Nikki was pregnant.
Fact Three: The victim, O’Malley, was found dead from a gunshot wound, in the defendant’s home.
Fact Four: The gun belonged to the defendant.
Fact Five: The defendant had gunshot residue on his fingers the day of the shooting.
Fact Six: Franklin refused to take the stand.
Mark was a deeply religious man. While he believed in the law, he believed more deeply in the soul. He knew he could not allow this father, who only did what he had to do to protect his daughter, go to jail. More importantly, he knew he could not allow Nikki, who had already lost her mother to cancer, be orphaned because of it. All Nikki had now was her father and if he went to jail, what would happen to her? Did she have other family? Would she go into foster care? The thought made him sick.
Mark knew he could never take a life. His faith wouldn’t allow it. But he could understand how Stone could. Mark was also a single father and could not help but empathize with Stone. Mark’s son, Alex, was just a little older than Nikki. Nothing was more precious than family.
Mark knew he had a choice to make with his one vote. He could vote in favor of the law. Or he could vote in favor of justice. He could not do both. One was in direct conflict with the other. At the end of his life, he needed to know he could meet his maker with a clear conscious.
The decision had been made. The jurors finally agreed on something. They walked back into the courtroom single file, like little ants, dropping into their seats, one after another. Their faces held blank stares. Their heads hung low. They felt defeated.
When the judge announced a mistrial, she asked that each juror stand and state their vote. Mark was able to stand and look Stone in the eye as he let the man know that he, and he alone, was responsible for the man’s freedom. For some reason Mark couldn’t quite understand, he felt a pit in his stomach at the look Stone sent back to him.
Mark drove home in silence, choosing to ponder his decision, rather than listen to the oldies station he usually enjoyed on drives. He decided that he had done the right thing, reuniting a father and his daughter. Nothing was more precious than family.
One thing he wasn’t ready for was the backlash from the community. He began to get phone calls asking how he could let a killer go free. Mr. O’Malley’s father was sitting in his car outside Mark’s house one day. He didn’t get out of the car. He didn’t say anything. He just watched Mike come out of the house, get into his car, and drive away.
Strangers would walk up to him on the street and jeer him. “Hope your happy. You let a killer go free!” He could tolerate all that. After all, he knew there would be some backlash. He expected it to calm down after a couple of weeks.
The one thing he couldn’t tolerate, couldn’t understand, was how his own son could be so upset with him. Since the reading of the verdict, Alex was hostile toward him. He tried to talk to his son about it, but he wouldn’t listen.
Mike knew he couldn’t perjure himself by saying what he had done. He stuck with the speech that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to make him 100% sure of Mr. Stone’s guilt. Again, he felt that it would blow over. He wasn’t sure which gnawed at him more, Alex’s treatment of him, or the guilt he felt for the O’Malley family. He reassured himself that O’Malley got what he deserved if he impregnated a 15-year-old child.
The following month, he ran into Mr. Stone and Nikki in the grocery store. He smiled at them and said hello. Neither of them responded. Mr. Stone glared at him again, as he had that day in the courtroom, sending a shiver through his body. Had he let an evil man go? He hadn’t thought so.
Nikki would not even look up at him. He figured she was probably embarrassed. She was quite far along now. Her swollen belly a reminder of the nightmare they had all gone through.
One night, six weeks after the verdict, Mark was alone in his home. Alex was working on a school assignment at a friend’s house. Mark began to make himself dinner, spaghetti and meat sauce. He boiled the pasta and enjoyed the fragrant smell of tomatoes and garlic rise up from the steam of the pan.
He thought he heard a noise coming from upstairs. He stopped stirring the sauce and listened. Silence. He returned to his sauce, stirred it once more and turned the stove off. He drained the spaghetti and poured it into a colander. He heard a noise again. He tilted his head and listened once more. Nothing.
Probably the wind or Heaven forbid, some mice got into the walls in the upstairs bedroom again. He had to call an exterminator last year to remove a family of mice. He paid the man extra to actually remove them and not kill them. After all, that mouse was one of God’s creatures who was just taking care of his family as well.
Finally, deciding it was nothing to worry about before dinner, he turned on the television and listened to the evening news while he sat down to his meal. He was stunned at what he saw. Byron Stone had been shot in his home. He was reported dead on the scene. There were no witnesses and they were unable to locate his daughter to tell her the news.
He stopped short, his first forkful halfway to his mouth. Who would have done it? Did Mr. O’Malley go after him for the injustice of killing his son? Would he come for Mark next for letting his killer go? He pushed back his plate. He was no longer hungry.
This time the noise was not subtle. He heard someone on the stairs. Someone was in his house. It had to be Mr. O’Malley. He had to run, to hide from him. Maybe he could talk to him. After all, he was grief-stricken over the death of his son. Mark could understand that. Nothing was more precious than family.
He stood and walked into the living room. Relief shot through his body as he saw Nikki Stone standing there facing him.
“You two have no idea how much you scared me. Nikki, the police are looking for you. I’m sorry, but something has happened to your dad. Wait, what are you doing here?”
It was then he saw Alex standing behind Nikki. “Alex? What’s going on?”
Mike didn’t understand why Nikki was in his house. “Are you two friends? Nikki, did you hear what I said about your Dad?”
Neither of them spoke. “Alex?” Mike looked at his son, trying to understand what was going on.
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“Sorry for what?”
Nikki drew a gun out of her purse. “Sorry for this.”
Mike stepped back away from the two. “Alex, what’s happening?”
“We had it all planned, Dad. We framed Nikki’s dad for Mr. O’Malley. It was perfect. He had just come home from target practice. But you let him go. Why couldn’t you vote guilty?”
“What? Why?” His questions were answered as he watched Alex place his hand over Nikki’s belly. “You’re the father of her baby? I didn’t even know you two knew each other. What about Mr. O’Malley?”
Nikki answered. “He was collateral damage. Just like you will be.” She raised the gun and pointed it at him.
“Alex, do something!” Mike pleaded.
“I’m sorry, Dad. But you know too much. And you always taught me one thing. Nothing is more precious than family.”