Carmella Juarbe will turn on her television tonight [August 11] and watch herself commit the single act she regrets most in her life: signing a guilty verdict in the double-murder trial of Mark Ducic.
Ducic got life in prison. Juarbe, a 39-year-old restaurant promoter and mother, got a conscience that is still shaken two months later. Juarbe's pained expression is the most arresting part of the ABC documentary, In the Jury Room, filmed over three months in Cleveland last spring.
Cameras capture Juarbe, of Mayfield Heights, facing down fellow jurors, who grow frustrated and at times furious with her belief in Ducic's innocence, the one thing that prevents them from leaving a stuffy Justice Center conference room and returning to their lives.
"I knew, deep down, that I was so wrong in signing it," she says of the guilty verdict. "I just gave up."
Her admission adds a new twist to a case that has plenty of them in the first place, all captured by network cameras allowed access not only to the jury room, but to the judge's chambers and attorney-client discussions. The program is a haunting study of the stakes in a death-penalty case, for the accused as well as for those who decide his fate. No one reflects this pressure more visibly than Juarbe.
The camera is not kind to Mark Ducic. He is bald, with a pocked face that protrudes shark-like around a large, crooked nose. Even his smile curls into a sneer.
Ducic was a drug addict, as was his friend, Brad Weiss, who secretly taped a conversation in which Ducic boasted of using a drug cocktail to kill his common-law wife, Barb Davis, and his friend Donald Ehrke. Ducic explains that he killed Davis because he suspected she was a narc bent on sending him back to prison. Ehrke also had to go; he was the lone witness to Davis's death.
Ducic's main defense was his prolific history of spinning lies. When interviewed by Scene last spring ["The Lies That Bind," April 30], Ducic sewed a quilt of tall tales, claiming that he was a Vietnam war hero, that he killed a man in a bar fight, that he did contract killings for the Hell's Angels, and that he served as a hit man for the Cleveland Mafia. None of it was true.
Adding further suspicion to his claims of murder was that both victims were chronic drug addicts and likely candidates for overdoses. (Indeed, coronor Elizabeth Balraj initially ruled the deaths accidental.)
Moreover, Weiss had every reason to frame Ducic -- he was a paid informant who continually needed to trade new information in exchange for getting bailed out of his own string of drug busts.
Juarbe empathized with Ducic. She spent much of her own unstable childhood in foster homes or on the run, and with that came drugs. People who believed in her kept Juarbe from slipping into oblivion. She thinks Ducic lacked this support. "He didn't have somebody to tell him, 'You're going through hard times, but you'll be OK. You're worth something.'"
Juarbe didn't think other jurors understood the drug culture enough to detect when a junkie is embellishing. "I'm instinctual, street-smart," she says. When she heard the tape, "I thought, he's bragging about something after the fact."
The same instincts led her to suspect Weiss. Juarbe says she saw one investigator, Lynn Mudra, giving Weiss signals about how to answer questions during his cross-examination. And when she listened to recorded conversations between Weiss and Ducic, they sounded as if they were edited by Weiss, who controlled the recording device. In Juarbe's view, Weiss's wealthy family and his willingness to betray his friends were the only things keeping him from a defendant's chair.
"There's very little difference," she says. "They're both drug addicts, with different financial backgrounds. One has Daddy to bail him out. The other just tells stories about being in the mob."
The program shows a stark contrast between the case's two camps. Ducic and his attorney, John Luskin, offer grave concentration. One of the more touching scenes is in a conference room, moments before the verdict, when Ducic gives Luskin a look that is both hopeless and grateful. He knows he's doomed, but he thanks Luskin for standing in his corner. "There's something about this fucking guy," Luskin says later, choking up just before he gives his closing statement.
Meanwhile, the prosecutors, police, and Weiss sling jokes. As assistant prosecutor Dan Kasaris types on a laptop, Weiss massages his shoulders. After the conviction, Weiss and the prosecutors embrace joyously. It's a scene you'd expect in a maternity-ward waiting room. (Times are less festive for Weiss these days. He failed to show up for a six-month sentence for drug charges in Geauga County and is now a fugitive.)
Jury foreman Chuck Whitehill, a sales-and-marketing specialist from Pepper Pike, saw Ducic as a man "not taking responsibility for his own actions." It was a simple matter of sentencing Ducic to the crimes he confessed to. Asked whether Ducic ought to be prosecuted for other killings he's claimed, Whitehill pauses. "I guess that's a moot point now."
In the Jury Room shows a red-faced Whitehill becoming indignant, as Juarbe explains her reasons for siding with Ducic. Other jurors are caught rolling their eyes and wearing exasperated frowns.
Told that Juarbe felt pressure from the group, Whitehill snaps, "Did anybody put a gun to Carmella's head?"
In the midst of one particularly tense impasse, Juarbe asked to meet with the judge. She wanted to leave the jury because of exhaustion and chest pains. Juarbe was told that if her mind was sharp and she didn't need to be hospitalized, she ought to stay. Upon returning to the jury room, she decreed Ducic guilty. "When she came back in the room," recalls Whitehill, "she was a different person."
Indeed, Juarbe describes it as an "out-of-body experience," adding that "I regretted it as I was signing it." So when the jury met to consider Ducic's sentence, Juarbe had a new resolve. "I would not go past 30 years. I said, 'Write a note to the judge: It's 30 or nothing.'"
Whitehill says that he was prepared to sentence Ducic to death and believed the rest of the jury was with him. He thinks Juarbe saved Ducic's life. Asked if he has regrets, Whitehill says, "Absolutely not . . . I think justice prevailed."
He seems to be relishing his newfound celebrity. Last night he hosted a viewing party, inviting jury members, the attorneys, the judge, and the bailiff.
Juarbe did not attend. In the two months since the trial ended, she has not been able to get it out of her mind.
"You know what hurts me? The fact that I didn't stand up for my gut." She worries that by "caving" she set a poor example to her children and is fearful that they will feel backlash from her appearance on the show.
While Whitehill says the experience affirmed his faith in the justice system, Juarbe came to the opposite conclusion. "If I were Mark Ducic," she says, "I wouldn't want these jurors deciding my fate -- not even me, because I was too weak."
Had she truly believed that Ducic killed two people, Juarbe would have had no qualms about sentencing him to death. If she saved Ducic's life, it's a small consolation.
"I'm going to hopefully be forgiven by God. I've done some horrible things, but if I could change one thing, I wouldn't put my name on that paper."