Sunday, April 16, 2006

I Tainted a Jury

Little me! I tainted a jury! Well, I wasn't alone.

It happened on Wednesday and I'm finally recovered enough to discuss it. I was selected for a jury on a drug sale case. Crack. In my beloved Brooklyn. I suppose I knew it was here, but to have to make a choice on it, involving two young men who may have been guilty of WWB (Walking While Black), and risk sending innocent guys to jail to get a drug I loathe off of the streets? This presented a dilemma for many jurors. The evidence was there, but in the form of police observation (from a 14-floor rooftop), and very little physical proof. Who to believe, the honest-looking police officer or the thug-looking kids, who may simply be wearing the latest fashion? Especially when only 3 generic packets of crack were found on one of them?

Adding to the complexity was the fact that it was two defendants allegedly "acting in concert," but we were supposed to consider them separately. Fairly simple, except Defendant A took the stand and accidentally put Defendant B at the scene a full hour before they were arrested. We learned later that they are allowed to do the trial together (defendant's choice) but only if they don't incriminate each other. They would have been better off keeping quiet and letting us give them the benefit of the doubt.

So, the judge gives us the case, and we go into the jury room at about 3PM Monday. All twelve of us were shocked to realize that we did not agree on the facts of the case, and that the deliberations were not going to be fast. The only way to move forward was to look hard at the little physical evidence we had, and to have transcripts read back, which involves delays while attorneys approve the text. A couple jurors changed their mind, in the direction of acquittal. I was for acquittal for all charges except basic possession, since the description of the defendant holding the drugs (and this is from a rooftop observation four long blocks away) was "male black, dark jacket, dark jeans, baseball cap." Right there they just described half of the entire high school on my block. The only thing we knew he was doing was holding. Buyer, seller, I was not 100% convinced they had the right guy. And he only had three "twists" on him.

Skip through another long day of deliberations in which we stopped trying to bully each other and actually started listening with open minds. The jury was a good group of people: opinionated, funny, candid, diverse. We went home Tuesday night determined to get it right, knowing it might take awhile.

The next morning, in security, I noticed Defendant B (the one about to be found guilty of possession, I believe) and what appeared to be his girlfriend having an argument with the guys at the metal detectors. I tried not to listen. She was holding something of his. It may have been an item not allowed in the building, I don't know. I was freaking out a little, thinking, I'm not supposed to be seeing this! The girlfriend stormed out of the building, and a guard followed her. There was a scuffle outside. The defendant wanted to follow her, but they held him back. "They got my girl!" he shouted, or something like that. Next thing you know, girlfriend is coming back in handcuffed. As I pass to the elevators, the defendant is talking to the guards, trying to recover the item she was holding, or trying to figure out where they took her, I couldn't tell. He seemed stressed and angry, and maybe rightfully so. He came to the elevator bank and we were the only two people there. I let him take the elevator, and waited for the next one.

On the next elevator, another member of my jury and I made eye contact. She had seen it all too. We agreed not to discuss it but to tell the bailiff what we had seen.

So, we told the court officer, separately, in case our accounts were not the same. I was relieved at his response: "Yeah, I heard about that. That's important. Thanks for telling us." The judge brought us in individually to say what we had seen in front of the attorneys, defendants, and public audience. I was nervous as hell, thinking, what if I got him mixed up with someone else, and all of this is for nothing? But the questions from the judge and defense attorneys indicated that what I saw might have been much more serious than I thought. I have no idea. Again, the attorney for the other defendant subtly incriminated him: "What profanity did you hear out of Mr. ____?" I had said nothing about profanity, and I honestly don't know if I heard any or not. Maybe profanity doesn't register with me any more. Regardless, I hope Defendant B is able to sever himself from Defendant A when they retry the case. I also hope he does not take matters into his own hands, if you know what I mean. Defendant B is a tough cookie, that much I gathered from the altercation downstairs.

The judge asked me repeatedly if the situation would bias me. I told her it was a separate situation, but hesitated too much in my response. I think they misread my hesitation as fear of the defendant. He is a scary looking guy. But my hesitation was more wondering if I would be able to continue discussing the case in deliberations as candidly as I had before. In then end, I admitted that I should probably be removed from the jury.

They told us to cease deliberations and we bitched about the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina for another hour instead. Very hard not to talk about the case at this point! But as I suspected, and told the judge, other jurors had seen enough of the scuffle with police and guards to put two and two together about why they took me and the other juror in for a private discussion. We were all called in to the jury box again (very used to lining up by now) and the judge told us the trial was over.

Afterward, the ADA came to the big jury pool room to discuss the case with us while we waited for our letters of dismissal. There are so many things I wish I asked her! Like what happened during all those hours we were waiting in the jury room? They were fighting over admissibility of evidence, but what evidence? And what happens to the defendant whose girlfriend got arrested? Will he be blamed for her outburst? Will she be charged with contempt of court? Is she some kind of operatic hero, risking her own freedom to buy him the right to walk out of the courtroom that day? Buying him some time? Did they plan the disruption together? Is there a name for this strategy? Or, was it just what it looked like, two stressed-out kids convinced (they had both heard the judge read back the definition of possession in the 3rd degree and 7th degree) that he would be locked up again that night, a basic powder keg of emotions?

I'll probably never know. I rarely go to the corner where it all went down...maybe pass by occasionally on my way to the Jackie Robinson. I'll keep my eye on the papers for their names, though crimes like this are, sadly, not news.

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