Inside the jury room in the Myers Park High Title IX trial
The following story originally appeared in The Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter.
It had been four long days in the courtroom — some stretching to the 6 o’clock dinner hour — in the trial of Jane Doe v. the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, the high-profile sexual assault lawsuit heard last week in federal court.
As the eight members of the jury walked silently into the jury room and the door closed behind them to begin deliberations, the time had come for them to decide whether the second-largest school district in the state had failed in its handling of a student’s report of a sexual assault seven years earlier. In a room that overlooked Mint Street, jurors took their seats around a wooden conference table. Three detailed sketch artist renderings of past court cases hung on the white walls.
The jury members had been friendly toward one another during the week, but most had kept to themselves, staring into their phones during morning and afternoon breaks as they snacked on Kit-Kats, Cheez-Its, M&Ms and coffee from a Keurig machine. A few ate lunches together uptown — reporters spotted three of them one afternoon at a corner table at Green’s Lunch on West 4th Street — but most scattered to eat alone.
They were a diverse bunch: Two were IT workers. There were two who worked in finance, a warehouse supervisor, a retired businessman, one in manufacturing and another in construction. Three were from Gaston County, and five were from Mecklenburg. Six were white men, and two were Black women. All looked to be between their 30s and 60s.
On paper in front of them on the conference room table and projected on a large TV screen mounted to the wall was their challenge: the verdict form, with six questions. A “no” decision for any of the first 5 questions would mean the former student, known in court as “Jane Doe,” had lost her case.
If questions No. 1-5 were “yes” answers, question No. 6 would determine how much money she would receive.
Two of the jurors spoke to The Ledger this week on the condition that their identities be kept secret. Although their identities are not disclosed in publicly available court records, their names and some biographical information were mentioned in court during jury selection, which The Ledger used to track them down via social media profiles and other means. A third juror hung up on a Ledger reporter when she called, one did not reply to an email and four could not be reached.
The two jurors’ accounts paint a picture of how the decision came together in one of the highest profile local trials in recent years — one that would ultimately determine that neither Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools nor the City of Charlotte was legally at fault for how they handled the case of the 17-year-old Myers Park High School junior who said she was sexually assaulted in the woods off campus in 2015.
Some decisions easy, some tortured
The first decisions came easy.
When no one volunteered to serve as jury foreman, jurors looked to the retired businessman to fill the role. Although they hadn’t bonded much as a group, he seemed like the logical leader, one juror said.
He agreed to be the foreman and quickly set the ground rules: The deliberations would be orderly and thorough. There would be no talking over each other. Jurors would vote on each question with a show of hands.
Questions 1 and 2 were easy to agree on: Did Jane Doe prove that Myers Park High was an institution receiving federal funds?
All eight hands raised. Yes.
And did she prove that she suffered sexual harassment? Again, all eight hands went up. Yes.
A decision on Question 3 did not come easily: Has Jane Doe proved that the sexual harassment was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it deprived her of equal access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by CMS?
Below that question was detailed criteria that would need to be considered in making the decision. Those detailed points caused some jurors to wring their hands.
A majority of the jurors said they’d answer “yes” to Question 3, but a few were wrestling with the decision, so the foreman decided to pause and move on to Question 4: Has Plaintiff Jane Doe proved that CMS had actual notice of Doe’s harassment?
Again, there was detailed criteria under the question that they would have to sift through in making the decision. And again, there were differing opinions in the room.
Conversations were serious but never got heated, the jurors said. No voices were raised, no tempers set off.
Unable to come to a swift conclusion on Questions 3 and 4, they skipped ahead to Question 5: Has Plaintiff Jane Doe proved that CMS acted with deliberate indifference?
Again, there were more criteria under the question.
Seven of the eight jurors informally agreed that the answer was “no” — CMS had not acted with deliberate indifference, which meant the school district had not purposefully ignored or failed to act in the case.
But one juror wanted to discuss the point: “Are you sure?” the juror asked, wanting to discuss the response of the assistant principal. There was dead silence before another juror began reasoning with the juror who had been questioning.
They discussed how on the morning of the alleged assault, the Myers Park assistant principal had been taking direction from the school resource officer, who works for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. (The judge dismissed the case against the city on Thursday.)
School officials had made an effort to respond, one juror told the juror who was questioning. The juror who had been questioning considered the argument and the challenge on the verdict form and decided he, too, would vote “no” to Question 5.
By reaching a consensus to answering “no” to one of the first five questions, the jurors at that moment effectively decided the case in CMS’ favor. But their work was not complete, because they still had to wrestle with Questions 3 and 4, which they had previously skipped.
As they returned to those unanswered questions, some jurors paced. One juror sat with their head down, stressed. One asked the group if they should end deliberations for the day and reconvene on Monday.
“No,” was the answer from the other jurors. They were confident they could get to a verdict that night and wanted to issue a decision while the case was still fresh in their minds.
Getting to a verdict
The court-supplied snacks in the jury room remained largely untouched, although dinner time was approaching. Meanwhile, in the courtroom, Judge Robert Conrad asked the lawyers if he should offer the jury a meal. “We have a mechanism to feed these people,” Conrad said. He and the lawyers agreed to wait for the jury to ask.
Back in the jury room, jurors used a computer to pull up several pieces of evidence on a big-screen TV. Repeatedly, they displayed the verdict form on the TV as they picked apart the words and wrestled with what they meant.
They sent a couple of questions to Conrad for clarification, and Conrad’s answer to one of their questions helped them decide on Question 4, which centered on whether CMS had knowledge of Doe’s harassment.
They agreed that Jane Doe had proven that CMS had “actual notice” of her harassment based on the text messages school officials had seen during the alleged assault. They agreed the answer to Question 4 was “yes.”
Question No. 3 was the toughest to decide. For a solid hour, several jurors struggled with the meaning of the detailed points that were written beneath the question. Some stood and stared at the TV monitor bearing the points they were asked to consider.
“I just need to get this right in my mind,” one said.
Was the sexual harassment so severe, pervasive and offensive that it deprived Jane Doe of equal access to educational opportunities?
They discussed how her grades had plummeted after the assault, and the fact that she hadn’t been able to focus enough to study. How she had trouble trusting people of authority.
Finally, they agreed on No. 3, which was the final point they would have to agree on: That the harassment had indeed deprived Doe of equal access to educational opportunities.
After three hours of deliberations, they appeared ready for a final vote.
The jury foreman, who had been making notes on separate sheets of paper, placed the official verdict form in front of him. The jurors sat quietly around the table.
Slowly and deliberately, the foreman read through each of the questions in order and asked for a show of hands on each vote. He scanned around the table to make sure each person was in agreement, and then marked down each of the answers carefully.
When they were done, a juror pushed the call button to notify the court that deliberations were complete.
Silently and with little expression, they were ushered into the courtroom shortly after 7:15 p.m. and took their seats. The clerk of court read the verdict. Conrad thanked them for their service.
Statements went out quickly to the media from lawyers for both the plaintiff and CMS.
“We are grateful the jury reached their decision after hearing all of the evidence,” read the school district’s statement.
“Despite the verdict today, I am grateful that I was able to inspire change and speak up for the survivors. I am disappointed, but I know it's not the end,” said a statement from Jane Doe, sent out through her Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, Laura Dunn.
After Conrad’s thank-you to the jury, the jurors gathered their belongings and were ushered out of the courthouse through a back door. The media and lawyers for both sides were held in the courtroom, with the goal of giving the jurors a head-start out of the building. Court security officers guarded the courtroom doors so no one would leave.
It was enough time for the jurors to get out into the fresh air, climb into their cars and head for home.
Cristina Bolling is The Ledger’s managing editor. Reach her at email@example.com.