I was Juror No. 1
In the spring of 2018 John McRae went on trial for the grisly murder of his own son
Thousands of Canadians are called upon each year to serve on juries at trials ranging from civil suits to murders. Rarely do we get a glimpse inside the jury rooms where they make their decisions. While jurors are forbidden by law to discuss the deliberations that led to a verdict, the CBC's Ryan Garland recently served on the jury in a high-profile case of an Ottawa man accused of killing his adult son, and has decided to share his account of the sometimes agonizing six weeks he spent as Juror No. 1.
I knew the words I had to say would change his life forever. I felt sick to my stomach as I listened to his daughter weep in the courtroom. This 73-year old-man, who had already lost his son, was about to lose his freedom, too, and it was my job to tell him.
I had received a notice in the the mail informing me I was required by law to show up for jury selection at 9 a.m. on May 7. I didn't think too much of it. If anything, I thought it would be an easy way to get a morning off work. I was wrong.
I arrived at the Ottawa Courthouse on Elgin Street where some 200 potential jurors were herded like cattle into a room with only about 150 seats. Many leaned against walls or sat on the carpeted floor.
A court officer told us we were chosen for a second-degree murder trial. My stomach began to feel uneasy.
The judge turned to the accused and told him to look into my eyes. I was instructed to look back.
After the selection process was explained to us, we were moved into a courtroom. The judge sat perched on his platform at the front of the room while below him a court registrar tumbled a raffle drum filled with our assigned numbers. Nearby, the accused man sat at a table with his lawyer.
The very first number read aloud was mine. My heart pounded as I made my way up the aisle to face the judge.
He asked me one question: "Is there any reason you cannot be a juror?"
I knew there were three surefire answers that would get me out of jury duty: I have a trip booked and the paperwork to prove it; I have a medical condition that prevents me from serving; or serving would cause undue financial hardship, a common excuse for people who are self-employed.
None of these applied to me. "No, sir," I told the judge.
The judge turned to the accused and told him to look into my eyes. I was instructed to look back. I stared at this man — a man I'd never met, but who I was about to spend the next six weeks getting to know very intimately. In that moment, there were just the two of us in that crowded courtroom.
His name was John McRae. He was short and stocky with grey hair. He looked like he could be someone's grandpa, and it turned out he is.
"Content," McRae said. Both his lawyer and the Crown counsel repeated the word. Just like that, I became Juror No. 1.
After another 11 jurors were chosen, we were told we'd be sitting Monday to Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. From opening arguments to the verdict, this would become our full-time job.
We were expected in court the very next day. The anxiousness I had begun feeling the day before was growing.
When we arrived we were led through a maze of meandering hallways to the room where we would spend countless hours over the next month-and-a-half. The room was tiny — about seven metres long by four metres wide, with men's and women's bathrooms at one end. It was dominated by a long table surrounded by 12 rolling office chairs.
As we awaited the trial's start in our jury room, the group dynamic began to take shape. We were eight women and four men. There were the boisterous ones, the control freaks and the quiet types. We came from different walks of life, but we shared one thing in common: none of us had ever been asked to decide the fate of a man accused of murder.
In the courtroom, the Crown laid out the shocking details of the case against McRae. His son, Michael, had been killed in his sleep in the two-bedroom apartment the men shared with a roommate. He'd been stabbed twice and his throat was cut. The grisly, minute-by-minute account of that horrific act occupied the next couple days. It was hard to listen to.
There was a parade of witnesses. We heard from police officers, toxicologists, coroners, neighbours and friends. We were shown gruesome photographs of the victim's body. We saw the couch where Michael had been sleeping, the centre cushion stained almost black, and the gory purple T-shirt he'd been wearing when he died. The long, serrated knife that was used to stab him to death was held in front of us like some macabre show-and-tell.
We were left to sort out which version of the story was true. It felt like an awful responsibility. It still does.
At times we heard that John McRae killed Michael out of revenge. At others he was cast as the victim of his stronger, alcoholic son. We were left to sort out which version of the story was true. It felt like an awful responsibility. It still does.
As the witness testimony unfolded, I began to get a sense of how that heinous act — though unjustifiable — was perhaps just as unavoidable. I learned John McRae's own father would beat him whenever he showed emotion. I learned that McRae only made it to Grade 5, and that he worked as a roofer in Alberta, where he earned $18 per hour at a time when that was really good money. He had three children, got divorced and battled drug and alcohol addiction most of his life.
This was also a man who, at 60, had mostly beaten his demons and eschewed crime. Though he had faults, and still possessed a mean temper, he wasn't devoid of goodness. Though he and Michael constantly fought, he would always take his son back in after he had messed up.
I began to feel empathy toward John McRae. The judge warned us against permitting such emotions to cloud our understanding of the facts, a message I tried my best to take to heart.
About a month before the murder, McRae went back to the bottle. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," he told his worried daughter, referring to Michael.
Then came the night Michael was killed. We watched a video of John McRae defecating himself at the police station after he was arrested for the crime. Police officers stood around him, one of them dropping sheets of paper towel on the floor to clean up the mess.
Later we watched another video in which McRae admitted to his interrogator that he'd stabbed his son. He said he'd acted out of revenge. He said he was fed up.
We'd been told when the trial began to avoid deciding McRae's guilt or innocence until we'd heard all the evidence. Nevertheless, when we returned to our room there was always discussion about what we'd just heard.
When McRae took the witness stand in his own defence, his temper often got the better of him. He was combative, and seemed at times to forget he was testifying at his own trial. He flip-flopped on key details, and at one point invited the Crown to "f--k off."
His testimony lasted three days. Then his daughter took the stand. She described McRae as a caring grandfather — when he was sober. She explained how he'd tried to get Michael to kick booze and drugs several times. Her testimony was powerful, at times moving jurors to tears. After everything I'd heard and seen about McRae the killer, this was a sobering reminder that he was more than that.
Some of my fellow jurors said they felt peace after we delivered our verdict. I was an emotional wreck. I believe we made the right decision, but I took little comfort from that.
As the trial neared its end, the jury was reminded to start thinking about appointing a foreperson to lead our deliberations and ultimately deliver our verdict. We took this task very seriously, and I was chosen.
I felt honoured, but the tremendous responsibility added to my anxiety. That feeling in the pit of my stomach returned. I wasn't yet convinced I could handle the role.
With closing arguments finished, the judge instructed the jury. It took three hours, and I tried to listen as carefully as I could. After all, I, someone with no legal background whatsoever, was in charge of guiding 11 other people toward a unanimous decision.
We spent the next three days sequestered in our jury room or in our hotel rooms, with no access to our phones and no contact with family or friends. I've never felt so isolated, even though I was nearly always surrounded by others.
We arrived at our decision. Consensus achieved, I pushed myself away from the table. It was an emotional moment for me.
Thirty minutes later we filed back into the courtroom for the final time. It was packed. The judge instructed the court officer to collect the verdict sheet from me. I handed it over and was asked to stand. I could feel every eye in the courtroom fixed on me, awaiting the decision.
I stared ahead, struggling to trying hold back tears. "Guilty," I heard myself say. McRae's daughter began to cry. The judge explained that a second-degree murder conviction comes with a mandatory life sentence. I hung my head, feeling incredibly sorry for the man we'd just convicted, and for his daughter.
The majority of us recommended McRae become eligible for parole after the minimum 10 years. Our job was done. I left the courtroom with my head down, avoiding eye contact with anyone. It had been the most profound experience of my life, and I was utterly exhausted.
Some of my fellow jurors said they felt peace after we delivered our verdict. I was an emotional wreck. I believe we made the right decision, but I took little comfort from that. I felt like I'd gotten to know John McRae, and even though he'd committed this terrible crime, I didn't want to see him die in jail. I learned he spent his final days of freedom with his grandkids. For that, I am grateful.
On Wednesday, June 20, John McRae was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 12 years.