Could you sit in a room with 11 other people and decide to strap Dzohkhar Tsarnaev to a gurney inside a federal prison where nameless technicians would inject him with a deadly poison?
You probably have a snap answer for that question. Damn straight, perhaps. Or, maybe: Better to let him rot in a steel cage until time slowly does over decades what that needle would have done in minutes.
It’s a theoretical exercise, for now. But soon, 12 people will be selected who may face the question that only a handful of people have answered in Massachusetts in modern history: Should we send someone to a government-imposed death?
Those who have been in a death penalty jury room, anguishing over that decision, use words like profound, wrenching, traumatic, and exhausting to describe the duty and burden.
“I remember breaking down and crying because it was really hitting me,’’ said Holly A. Belisle.
“Holy cow, that knocked the starch out of everybody,’’ said Howard Darnley, Belisle’s fellow juror.
“You’re not watching a movie,” said Hilda Colon, another jury member. “It became real world. And on the survey, you answered that question that you would be able to impose the death penalty.’’
A survey like that is now circulating among hundreds of potential jurors summoned to the gleaming federal courthouse with sweeping vistas of Boston’s waterfront.
When Belisle, Darnley, and Colon were summoned for federal jury duty in Springfield in the fall of 2000, they could not have imagined the toll about to be imposed by the trial of serial-killing nurse Kristen Gilbert.
Gilbert was convicted in March 2001 of murdering four of her patients in their hospital beds by injecting them with an overdose of a stimulant that triggered cardiac arrest.
Gilbert, who carried out her murders on federal property at a veterans’ hospital in Northampton, was trying to impress her lover, a hospital security guard who responded and watched as she tried to revive her victims.
I was in the courtroom, a Globe reporter packing a pen and notebook, when Belisle, Darnley, Colon and nine other jurors returned with their guilty verdict, a moment of high drama nearly impossible to surpass and impossible to forget.
The jurors were stone-faced as the verdicts were read. Victims’ families held hands and wept.
Gilbert dabbed at her eyes and nose with tissues. Her parents, seated behind her, wrapped their arms around each other for support.
And then the jury was sent away again, this time to decide whether Gilbert should be the first Massachusetts resident ordered executed since 1947.
They deliberated five hours over two days, a Friday and a Monday, ultimately splitting 8-4 opposed to execution, according to an account at the time. Only a unanimous verdict could have condemned Gilbert to death.
Belisle said when she walked out of court on Friday she was ready to support Gilbert’s execution. Then she thought about Gilbert’s sons and her parents. And then changed her mind.
Gilbert is currently serving life without parole in a Texas prison.
“Other jurors said to me that whatever decision you make, you have to know that you can look yourself in the mirror a day from now and years from now,’’ she said. “It was a pretty horrible thing that she did. It was just evil. But I took into consideration her family and her children. If they did want to have a relationship with her, I wasn’t able to take that away from them.’’
During jury selection, Darnley had written something about imposing a death sentence that, he said, the judge later read aloud: “I’d have to be awful damn sure before I did it.’’ He was and supported a death sentence.
“I didn’t see how else so many times guys all of a sudden were dead that shouldn't have been dead,’’ he said.
Colon would only discuss the enormity of her vote, not its substance.
“There’s someone’s life I have to make a decision on,’’ she said. “It was just an emotional drain. It was very profound not only holding that person’s life in your hands but being responsible for justice in regard to those veterans and their families.’’
She does not envy those headed for the federal jury box in Boston, who doubtlessly will be urged to consider whether Tsarnaev was under the evil spell of his older brother, and asked to take under consideration his age at the time of the Marathon bombings, which killed three and injured more than 260.
“Those jurors are going to have a larger audience because this was taken as a terrorist act, a violation of America,’’ Colon said. “There were a lot of people who were hurt. One of the things we had to wrestle with was: Did this person plan this thing out? It’s very strange to realize that there are people who think that way.’’
Colon said her fellow jurors broke down — some got physically ill — when they concluded after 12 days of deliberations that Gilbert, then a 33-year-old mother of two, was guilty.
“But then in the back of your mind, you’re like, ‘Is this really over?’
“No. We had one more thing to do.’’