You know, when I was on the bus coming downtown for jury selection two weeks ago, we came through a sort of sketchy section of New Haven. (One of the many sketchy areas.) And I was looking at the houses and little businesses and thinking, you know, I pass through these areas all the time, but I'll never really know anything about what life is like in these areas.
I still don't know first-hand what it's like to live in an inner-city housing project, but I've at least gotten a glimpse of it over the past week and a half of jury duty (seven days of court, not counting selection, plus the weekend!). The gist of the case is this: a year ago, the Black Diamond deli on Valley Street was robbed at gunpoint by two men wearing black clothes and masks. (This store, I've found out, is half a mile from my house, though it's in an area that I never go through. I've probably passed it, but I don't remember it.) The store owner called 911 and said, "I know who they are." When officers got to the scene, Pedro (the store owner) told police that he recognized the taller of the two robbers as "Lucky's stepson," a young man who lived across the street and just down the block in a housing project and who came in the store a couple of times every day. In fact, he had been in the store around an hour before the robbery and told Pedro that he would be back before closing time (9 p.m., the time of the robbery) to get a sub. While police were talking to him, Pedro saw Lucky's stepson (also known as Bungee) across the street and pointed him out to the police, who apprehended him and put him in the car. Two police officers went down to Lucky's house and told him that Bungee was being held in connection with the robbery; Lucky told them that his stepson couldn't have done it because he was home at the time of the robbery and had just left the house at around 9:25. However, the cops took Bungee on to the station and booked him.
So that was basically it. The police apparently performed very little further investigation. They dusted for prints on the cash register, but couldn't come up with any that were usable. They didn't search the suspect's house, and apparently didn't even ask to. And Pedro's identification of the robber was very suspect. He stated that night to police that he was 80-100% sure that he had the right person. Yet he sat in court and said he was 100% positive. How did he make up that difference? It sounds like someone convincing himself of what he's said. And his story varied significantly during the times he spoke to officers at the scene, gave a statement at the station, and testified in court. It just didn't add up to enough of a positive identification--and given that there was no other evidence, and the witness had an alibi that was verified by several people (family members, yes, but I did not get the sense that they were all sticking to some story that they'd made up; in particular, the suspect's 12-year-old brother, who was very articulate, polite, and intelligent, seemed very believable), we couldn't convict. (How's THAT for a fucking sentence?)
So we found him not guilty. And I feel 100% OK with that. I don't know for sure that he didn't do it, but I certainly don't know for sure that he did do it, so there ya go. The judge brought us back into the courtroom after everyone else had been dismissed, and he thanked us and told us that he thought our verdict was very reasonable. So it sounded like he agreed with us.
I also ran into the defendant, his family, and the defense attorney downstairs--which I had really hoped wouldn't happen. I had utter contempt for him in the courtroom--he's a big, skulking dude named Larry Herman, with slicked-back hair and '50s-style glasses. Probably 6'5", 300 pounds, and he moved around the courtroom with a permanent scowl like a . . . paramilitary orangutan. OK, I dunno what it was like, but it wasn't good. And he came across like such a sleazeball. But he stopped me on the way out to thank me and shake my hand, and he actually came off much nicer out of the courtroom. I asked him about something he'd mentioned about his having taken the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Dominican Republic, and it turns out that he was involved with philanthropic ventures in Latin America, and it was tied in with that. And he'd once worked for a district attorney's office, prosecuting corruption. So anyway, maybe he's not a total sleaze, and maybe he's not defending only drug lords in Bogota, Colombia. He did tell me that Bungee did not in fact commit the robbery--that they knew the tall robber was actually a guy named Brown who is already in jail on another offense. Now of course, I have no idea if that's true, but I don't see why he would have told me that otherwise; the case was settled and he didn't have to prove anything anymore.
Anyway, given everything, I think "not guilty" was the correct verdict.
Now to the other witnesses. It turns out that Bungee's stepfather isn't just nicknamed Lucky. He IS Lucky. His real name is Lucky. PEJAY Lucky. He has at least . . . seven? children or stepchildren living with him and his wife in a three-bedroom apartment. There's Keith, Lashonda, Sherice, Sheronda, Shenae, Dontae, one other kid, and a new grandbaby. Pejay admitted to several instances of domestic violence and once letting the air out of all his wife's car's tires. And he claimed that there had been an argument between himself and Pedro sometime before the robbery. He said that Pedro had always sold everyone from the neighborhood stuff on credit, but one day he wouldn't give him a dollar's worth of credit for some cigarettes, and a big scene ensued. He said that Pedro told him to get the fuck out of his store and waved a MACHETE at him. So he told Pedro that he would park his car in front of his store and drive every motherfucker who tried to go in the store to Stop and Shop, even if it were just for a piece of bubble gum.
Other people mentioned in the trial were Mookie, the guy who reportedly found and returned the coin drawer, and Mop-Mop, the alleged "intellectual mastermind" of the robbery.
Then there were the character witnesses who testified in support of the defendant's honesty and peacefulness. One was Keith's math professor from a local community college. This guy is 60 years old and looks like he's in his mid-40s. He grew up in Oklahoma, moved to Washington state, became a Black Panther, was convicted of robbery in the mid-'60s, jumped bail, moved to Connecticut, became a legislative aide to the governor, moved back to Washington after 20 years on the lam and served his sentence, came back to the east coast, got a master's degree in education from Harvard, and is now working on a doctorate at Columbia. Another character witness became addicted to heroin in Vietnam, moved back home and kept the habit for twenty years, was involved with numerous acts of larceny, finally cleaned up, went to college, and ultimately became the head of an economic development organization helping the inner city of New Haven. How weird is that? Twenty years ago, I was in middle school in Mississippi, the defendant was about 3, one of the character witnesses was in jail in Washington, and another was strung out and in trouble with the law. How did we all end up in the same courtroom with the two older guys attesting to the defendant's character? That stuff fascinates me.
So yeah, I'm done. That is not an experience I'll soon forget. And as uncomfortable as the whole thing was, I know that I performed an important service. Furthermore, the experience gives me a new respect for the court system. It's much disparaged (and, I'm sure, it often warrants it), but it does work--probably in the vast majority of cases. And it made me feel good about society as a whole to see how seriously my fellow jurors took the concepts of presumed innocence and reasonable doubt. It may be a flawed system, but in this case it worked pretty well (ignoring the issue of whether this case should have been brought to trial at all).
Gah. Well, I've done my duty for at least three years. Now I'll just hope I don't get called for a federal case. Sorry for not LJ-cutting, but I'm not real into that for text. I will, however, cut this e-mail I got from the alternate juror, who was excused for deliberation; I let her know the results of the case right after I got out.
You are wonderful! Thank you so much for this e-mail!
I'm back at work, too. But between wondering what you'all (spoken with a Yankee accent) are doing and coping with how behind I am at work...it's rough!
I absolutely agree with your decision! The state did not prove their case. In fact, one of the remaining mysteries for me is why did they think they had a case? No weapon, no physical evidence, not even a motive, one unstable witness—what were they thinking? Not to mention that it would take severe mental retardation or nerves of steel for the robber to return to the scene and hang around. There's more to this than we know; I'm convinced of that.
It's an awesome resonsibility. Each one of us felt and expressed it throughout the trial. I can certainly see why (at the dramatic conclusion) you were nervous. I'm certain that I would have been, too!
Serving as an alternate was a most unsatifying experience! It felt so unfair and unresolved. On the other hand, I remain profoundly impressed how the random selection of a jury resulted in our little band of caring, conscientious people. This experience has reaffirmed my faith in humanity and in our flawed but noble justice system. Although it seemed so wrong for Kevin and me to leave you folks, I felt confident that the outcome was in good hands. And it was!
I will call Nick tonight and welcome any chance to talk with any of you at any time. My contact information follows.
edit: Oh, I forgot the minister! Another character witness was a 22-year-old kid who waltzed into court with his shirttail out, a GANG of cologne that almost choked me even as I sat in the jury box, and a very philosophical manner. When the prosecutor asked him if Bungee's prior drug arrest affected his opinion of his honesty, he went into a whole dissertation on the subjective nature of honesty. Very postmodern. But my favorite thing about him was his description of what he did for a living: "I am a licensed, ordained minister. That is my LIFESTYLE."
I also realized that I forgot to go back and finish the stuff about Pejay, so that's done now.
edit #2: Heh, check out #2 on this list.