MINNEAPOLIS — The 13 jurors chosen for the trial of Betty Burns on assault and attempted murder charges here last November were surprised and disturbed by their experiences during the selection process. They did not expect the questions to probe so deeply into their characters and pasts. They felt uncomfortable revealing themselves to strangers in a public courtroom. But they all answered every question posed.
They had their reasons.
"I wanted to be on that trial," explained Wendi Antoun, a financial aid secretary at the University of Minnesota. "I wanted a good one. I wanted to be away from work for two weeks."
"I prayed for a criminal case," said Kay Noren, a housewife. "I didn't want a civil case that would just be about wrangling over money."
"I was glad I got called for jury duty," said Craig Biegert, a potato farmer in suburban Osseo. "I always wanted to see what a criminal trial was like."
When the trial began in a Hennepin County courtroom Nov. 14, the jurors had just what they'd wanted--a glimpse into a world far different from their own.
Here, before them, were the details of the near-fatal stabbing of Sheldon Gershick in a bloody Minneapolis back alley. All of those involved were of American Indian heritage and uncertain address. They had been standing in the alley, dull-eyed and drunk on beer, most of them in need of a bath and fresh clothes, when the cops arrived.
The jurors, from well-furnished houses and carefully led lives, knew little of such affairs. If they had talked at all about the courts before, it usually had been to complain about coddling of defendants, and their first look at the Betty Burns case did nothing to change their thinking. After all, the prosecutor had a statement from the victim accusing Burns, 31, of the assault--and a confession from Burns herself.
As the case began to unfold, though, something seemed wrong.
The details, and the characters before them, did not match the world the jurors thought they understood so well. By the third witness, the jurors were hearing Sheldon's sister, Jude Gershick, talk about someone other than Burns stabbing Sheldon--a man named Beau. They were also studying the defendant. She just didn't fit the story. To them, Burns looked innocent and unaggressive. She also seemed so neat--she'd cry and press a tissue to her eyes, then carefully fold the tissue, finely, geometrically. \o7 Serene \f7 was the word that occurred to more than one juror.
"It didn't add up," said Carla Rohwedder, a contractor and former junior high school science teacher. "It just didn't make sense, because of Betty's general nature, her demeanor. She didn't seem to harbor that kind of angry temper at all."
Not much else made sense to the jurors either. The hospital nurses proudly--too proudly--claimed to have understood Sheldon Gershick accuse Burns, while the pathologist insisted that the victim, with severe head wounds, couldn't clearly communicate just then. Burns had confessed, but what she'd said lacked logic. How could a slightly built woman drive a knife though a big man's skull, then throw the knife atop a three-story building?
The investigating homicide detective, Sgt. Robert Nelson, did not help by sprawling in the witness chair, appearing to the jurors disdainful and arrogant, avoiding their eyes. They took offense at what he said about the Native American crowd Burns drank with--"They stink, their clothes stink, their clothes are messed up, dirty . . ."--and his assumption that Betty must have changed her clothes since the stabbing because she alone among those in the alley didn't smell.
They objected to Nelson's threats to Burns that he had a "white witness"--"I thought, 'Boy, that's sure kind of picking on her (Burns) for the wrong reason,' " Biegert recalled later. They were amazed at the reason Nelson gave for not interviewing other eyewitnesses whose stories did not fit the prosecution case, even after the prosecution's investigator, Warner Bellm, had found them.
"I got other things to do," Nelson testified. "It's the county attorney's problem. It's out of my hands. She's charged. I'll help where I can, but you know, I've got other things. Its out of my hands. Once the person is charged it's not my responsibility . . . ."
When the prosecution rested its case, some of the jurors expected the trial to be stopped right then. "I had kept thinking that the next (prosecution) witness was really going to come on with some hard evidence," said JoAnne Sanford, an accountant. "But there never was anything really having to do with what happened at the crime. By the second day, we realized that it just wasn't there."