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Published Sep. 10, 2005

Terry Mitchell had never served on a jury before.

By the morning of Sept. 11, he found himself deep into a murder trial at the Hillsborough County courthouse. For two days, he sat in a jury box with 11 other people called to jury duty.

He had seen crime scene photos of Eduardo Natal, a 23-year-old Windy City Pizza delivery man shot dead in a robbery. He had seen Natal's parents sitting quietly in the tiny courtroom. And he had looked into the face of the accused, 22-year-old Earl Hinson, who was "E.J." to his friends.

"You look across the courtroom, and he just looks like a young man," said Mitchell, a Carrollwood husband and father who is a partner in a video surveillance business. "He just looked like a clean-cut, average kid. And you're (potentially) going to send him to prison for life."

It didn't seem there could be anything more important happening in the world than this: a young man dead for no good reason, and another who would die in prison if convicted.

"One life lost," Mitchell said. "And another one potentially."

On the morning of this last day of trial, as jurors waited in the jury room for court to begin again, a bailiff mentioned something he'd just seen on the news. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

Then they headed back into the courtroom.

At lunchtime, Mitchell and several others walked downtown to a sandwich shop on the first floor of a mirrored skyscraper. In the lobby, they saw people gathered around a TV. A few jurors stopped to watch.

Mitchell caught a glimpse of something unbelievable: a heavy-bellied jet on a deliberate path into a tall building.

"I said, "You know what? I can't watch this right now.' They were just showing us pictures of a guy who was killed, and now this," Mitchell said. "It was just too much."

"I can't watch this or I won't be able to go back," he remembered thinking.

He turned and walked into the restaurant, got his turkey sandwich and settled at a table with his back to another TV. But everyone was talking about it. Fifty thousand people worked in those buildings, they were hearing. Who could do this? Why?

Suddenly, no one was grousing about the inconvenience of jury duty. Suddenly, it didn't seem important.

One juror said she was worried about someone she knew in New York. Mitchell offered his cell phone, with its free long-distance minutes. On her third try, she learned the person was okay. Everyone at the table was relieved.

Mitchell talked to his wife, a stay-at-home mom. She wanted to pull the kids out of school, have lunch with them, keep them close to her. But maybe she shouldn't disrupt their routine. What did he think?

"If it gives you peace of mind," he told her, "just do it."

Then they were back in the courtroom for closing arguments. They didn't know that prosecutor Curt Allen, about to argue the biggest case of his career, had spent his break on the phone frantically trying to find his parents, who were supposed to be flying that morning. Just before court convened, he learned that their flight had been canceled.

Finally, the jury trooped into the small windowless room to deliberate.

"Everyone did a real good job of staying focused on what was in front of us," Mitchell said. The evidence was strong. They took less than an hour to decide Hinson was guilty. They didn't talk about what was happening in the rest of the world until they had signed the verdict form.

Afterward, he thought about the two young men for awhile. Then CNN and the stunning news of the world took over "24-seven," he said.

"When I think of Sept. 11," he said, "I'll think of the World Trade Center bombings."