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Monday, February 25, 2008

Jurors grew close as trial dragged on

By Mike Heine/The Week

You go to work, or take care of children at home, or maintain a house and a family.

You have a life you live, a routine, a pattern.

Then one day, a letter comes in the mail. Jury duty.

You come to the courthouse as instructed. Your number is called.

Your life has just been changed.

You find out the accusations against one man will take away nearly two months of your life. You'll be in a room with strangers, who on the onset have only a few things in common-you live in the same county, you'll make $20 per day and you're charged with the same task.

You have to determine if someone will ever breathe free again or if they'll spend the rest of their life in prison.

That's the way it was for the jurors who sat through the entirety of the seven-week trial for Mark Jensen, the Kenosha County man accused of poisoning his wife with anti-freeze and smothering her.

"(Jury duty) was supposed to be two weeks," said Caroline Stromich, 44. "It affected my family. I spent my birthday as a juror. I spent my wedding anniversary as a juror.

"I got a new position and I wanted to stay in my new work position. I said, 'This is not happening to me.'"

Stromich wasn't alone at the beginning. Few wanted to be there.

But after a while, the jurors came to the realization that they had a job to do-as unbiased and fair as they could possibly be.

"Nobody was sitting there going, 'You know, having to do this is an inconvenience and I don't know why I have to do it,'" said jury foreman Matthew Smith, 41, of Darien. "Everyone on the panel was OK. This is what we were doing. If we needed a panel, we hoped whoever had to serve on it would be fair and impartial. It was a common-sense group."

The 11 women and eight men who made up the jury panel throughout the trial didn't take long to bond.

"We became a family," said Sandi Schott, 56, of East Troy. "We were able to find commonalities between us. Some of us played cards. Some of us read books. We'd stand around and talk about our own personal lives.

"We started right off the bat. No sense in waiting. You're going to be with these people for a long period of time. They tell you that up front. You might as well get to know them."

Jurors had potluck lunches and together wore red for St. Valentine's Day or Packers gear before the playoffs weekends. They're already planning a reunion of sorts and many went out for a social hour at a local tavern after the gavel fell.

Despite the friendships made, the jurors knew they had a job to do.

"It was a civic duty thing," Smith said. "If I were to be accused of a crime, I would hope that I could find a fair and impartial jury."

And the 12 who decided Jensen's fate stand united.

"It was a serious thing," Schott said. "The right decision was made."

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