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Harold Thompson: Addressing a difficult subject
Harold Thompson's mind reeled on August 15, a hot Friday afternoon, as he sat on a bus, heading west on Interstate 10.
For the previous three months, the bus ride to 79th Avenue, where his motor home was parked, had served as a decompression period for Thompson. He'd sort out all the words, exhibits and behavior he'd observed as a Symington trial juror.
"By the time I got to the motor home and started driving home, I felt just like a limp dishrag. I was so glad to get home," Thompson, 61, says of his daily routine.
But on August 15, getting home provided no respite.
One of the most important weeks in his life had been a disaster. After five full days, jury deliberations were perilously close to collapse. It appeared as though the jury might not reach a verdict on any of the 21 counts against Symington.
"We weren't doing anything. We wasted the whole week," Thompson recalls.
The retired Phoenix firefighter, who bears a striking resemblance to singer Kenny Rogers, rarely took notes during the trial, opting to listen and observe from his front-row seat.
But that weekend, Thompson wrote a note that changed the course of deliberations and helped seal Symington's fate.
"I am not doing right by this trial if I don't say something," Thompson's note begins. "I feel all 12 of us have a duty to do the best we can."
Thompson says he had been troubled all week by the actions and statements of fellow juror Mary Jane Cotey.
On the first day of deliberations, Thompson says, all the jurors expressed general feelings about the case. It was a mixed bag--some leaned toward guilt, others toward innocence, others undecided.
Cotey, however, had not only made up her mind, she indicated she wouldn't participate in deliberations.
Thompson says, "She [Cotey] says, 'You guys can do what you want to do, but I'm just going to vote not guilty and I'm just going to sit here.'"
Jurors asked her to explain her position.
"We could never get her to come out with any specific things on why she felt he was not guilty. She just felt he was a good man, good governor and he wasn't guilty," Thompson says.
The week culminated with the jury sending a note to Judge Roger B. Strand on August 15 stating that Cotey, who was not identified, had already made up her mind before all the counts had been reviewed.
Strand sent a note back to the jurors the same day, telling them to review the jury instructions, which directed jurors to decide the case only after all evidence had been considered and discussed.
Strand's response, Thompson indicates, didn't address the root of the problem. Thompson continued to mull the jury crisis over the weekend and came to a simple conclusion.
"I didn't feel that Mary Jane was able to comprehend and couldn't keep up with what we were doing," Thompson says.
But he was unsure what other jurors thought, because despite the first note to Strand, jurors appeared willing to continue assisting the 74-year-old Cotey. One juror helped Cotey keep track of exhibits, and several others made efforts to draw her into the deliberations.
Thompson worked on his note all weekend, and on Monday, August 18, was prepared to read it to the jury that morning. But as the moment approached, Thompson says he was paralyzed with fear.
"I don't like to talk about people behind their back or in front of their faces or either one," Thompson says.
Finally, Thompson says he slowly raised his hand, his fingers reaching barely to the top of his head, to indicate he had something to say.
"All of us must be able to follow along as we go from count to count and vote on the items on that count. I don't feel that is happening," Thompson told fellow jurors. "When we are talking about a part of the trial, things are talked about that has [sic] nothing to do with the subject," a reference to Cotey's nonsensical responses to questions from other jurors.
Thompson then turned specifically to Cotey.
"MJ, I care about you a great deal, but I wish you would consider what I have said because this is so important that we do the best job that we can. And I don't think you've been able to keep up.
"I don't want you to feel bad, but I just have to say something. I'm sorry. A lot of the time I just can't understand what you've said. I think you have closed your mind to any discussion about it."
The room was silent.
"After I got through reading that, I just, I was so stressed, I really broke down. I just couldn't handle it," Thompson says.
But Thompson's statement broke an emotional logjam. Within minutes, many jurors began relating similar feelings. As the morning progressed, the jurors shifted their deliberations from Symington to Mary Jane Cotey.
"It was a subject, I think, people were uncomfortable with," jury foreman William Carlson says. "There was relief that someone had brought something up about this."