By David Miller
Debra Marshall knows what you’re thinking.
She can sense if you’re apprehensive, skeptical or uncomfortable, and with good reason – Marshall must interpret correctly the cues that signal these emotions while in the courtroom, where she has helped seat juries for criminal trials in Tuscaloosa.
“To eliminate prospective jurors that may harm a case, we look at internet footprint and background,” Marshall said, “but there are little things that other people might not notice. For instance, the color of clothing can signal how people think. If someone is wearing red tennis shoes, then they likely don’t conform.”
Marshall, who will complete her master’s degree in criminology and criminal justice at The University of Alabama in this month, has a unique career history that aids in her graduate work: professional wrestling. She was a top-billed performer in World Championship Wrestling and World Wrestling Entertainment and was WWE Women’s Champion in 1999 before leaving the business in 2003.
During her career in sports entertainment, Marshall learned that choreography of ring performances required non-verbal cues and an understanding of how to trigger the desired emotions of the audience, which translates well into vetting jurors. She was aided, too, by her time studying method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute in New York.
“Being in wrestling, you watch body language and adjust to it,” Marshall said. “Acting is the same way. All that ties together when I’m working with juries.”
Marshall earned an undergraduate interdisciplinary degree (cum laude) with a concentration in community relations in August 2013. She had re-enrolled at UA in 2011 after withdrawing in the early 1980s to purse a career in acting.
Marshall was living in Colorado when she broke the news to her friends that she planned to move to Alabama to finish school.
“They were shocked,” said Marshall, a native of Holt. “But I’d always told everyone that if I went back to school, it would be where I started: The University of Alabama.”
“Every class I’ve taken and professor I’ve had the chance to work with at UA has helped open so many doors to opportunities I didn’t know I’d have. One opportunity continues to lead to another.” Debra Marshall
Marshall was inspired to work in courts through various research projects with UA faculty, including a juror research project at a local courthouse led by former UA criminal justice professor Dr. Liana Pennington. She said her immersion into the court system has molded a new perspective of how families are affected by the criminal justice system, which later influenced her decision to volunteer at the Tuscaloosa County Public Defender Office.
Marshall plans to work as a jury consultant and eventually as part of an environmental crime task force.
“I love this community and want to see it continue to grow. I used to be all about me when I was younger. Now, being worldly, traveling and being in entertainment, I can apply all of my knowledge here to help this community,” she said.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.