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The Life Sentence


“Disagreement can be both intelligent and honorable.”

I have just emerged from three weeks as a juror in a trial to impose a sentence–either life imprisonment or the death penalty–on a man convicted of murder. The victim was Deputy James McGrane, who was murdered in Tijeras, New Mexico, on March 22, 2006, while he was on duty. The defendant was Michael Astorga, who was convicted of the crime in 2010. Serving as juror in this matter has been the most intense and grueling experience of my life.

The salient facts are that, minutes after calling in a license plate that was traced to Astorga, Deputy McGrane was killed by a bullet from a 10 millimeter Glock. The bullet entered his jaw and severed his spine, and he died instantly. It was traumatic seeing all the photographs of the murder scene, and the horror deepened as the jurors learned more about how dedicated and well-liked McGrane had been. We repeatedly saw so many photographs of him in death; but finally at the end of the trial, his parents and sister shared pictures of how attractive and appealing he had been in life. Their testimony was heart-breaking.

During the course of two weeks, the jurors had gotten a major review of evidence from the previous trial, but additional material was brought in. The incriminating testimony that was presented from Astorga’s friends and acquaintances provided a glimpse of a reality that must have been pretty alien to all of us. His community was basically completely dysfunctional. Who can say all the reasons–poor parenting, lack of intelligence and education, psychological disorders, and poverty–but his circle seemed to be a collection of people living disordered lives based on mistakes that continually multiplied. They made matters worse by begetting children who would inevitably extend the reach of the disorder.

They did so many stupid things, and the first and foremost was to get involved in drugs in any way, shape, or form. The undertow of misdeeds included criminal records in some cases, tax evasion, irresponsible parenting, possible infidelity, drug running, and keeping drugs and equipment in the home. It all resulted in panic and vulnerability to police inquiry. Those who testified repeatedly contradicted themselves, compromising their credibility; and they all paid a price for even knowing Astorga. The undertow of misdeeds will get you.

When the jury retired to deliberate, we reviewed day by day all of the testimony. I have been told that we were selected from a population of several thousand. As the days went on, I acquired great respect for my fellow jurors. They were all enormously intelligent and articulate, and we came from a wide range of life  and professional experiences. It was a revelation, however, to discover that, in spite of our individual gifts of analysis and observation and the passionate commitment to do the right thing, we would not all end up in the exact same place. The debate took me to depths I’ve never visited before.

In the absence of a unanimous vote on the death penalty, we emerged with a sentence to life imprisonment. We had done our absolute best, and I think we were all ultimately at peace with the outcome. One of our instructions was to allow each other to exercise individual judgment without interference, and the moment came when we had to recognize an amazing fact: Disagreement can be both intelligent and honorable.

As I retired last night, my mind turned to Deputy McGrane. I thought about how powerful he has been in death, how many lives he has touched as deeply as he has touched my own. The attorneys were fully extended in both prosecution and defense in an historic case, and the forensic and crime scene experts invested their professional reputations in the effort correctly to interpret evidence. On the witness stand, those whose lives could bear so little scrutiny got in touch with the undertow of bad decisions, and perhaps it gave them a second chance. Even the police may have registered the painful lesson that the relentless pursuit of a suspect must be balanced by a meticulous collection of evidence. I think it would be safe to say that Michael Astorga’s life was going nowhere, and even he got a second chance. It will be interesting to see what he does with it.

All of us have been profoundly affected by the murder of Deputy James McGrane. There is no telling how much good could come of everything that we have learned through him and all they ways in which we have been challenged to do better, to find some way, like his family, to resist the undertow of tragedy. I will never forget the photograph of his open and smiling young face, and James McGrane now lives in my consciousness. His friends knew him fondly as “Jimmy.” As I closed my eyes on the threshold of sleep, my mind reached out to him: “Good night, Jimmy.”



2 Responses to “The Life Sentence”

  1. Michelle Mosser

    Thank you Ellen…for your service and for sharing a piece of your experience with us.
    I can imagine the depth of your feelings right now…the journey which you’ve been on.

    I believe, we can only make progress toward a “better life for all”, when we’re willing to come face to face with its darkest expression. When statistics become human.

    When I was younger I supported the death penalty, seeing the world through a much more black and white lens. And now, due to more life experiences and spiritual explorations, I find myself leaning toward the principle: of how taking another life as payment for the gruesome act of murder, on some level makes us one step closer to that dark act.

    If our actions and thoughts do indeed lay an “energetic groundwork” for what will come next, then your courageous service has moved us one more step toward the light.

  2. Elizabeth Robechek

    I feel relieved to know that you can again choose how to spend your days, Ellen. Your testimony here is moving, a unexpected, and thankfully brief, chapter in your life.