Wednesday, October 29, 2008
I’ve lived in the city limits of Baltimore for nearly 8 years, yet earlier this month was the very first time I have ever been called for Jury Duty, which I hear from other city-dwellers is really abnormal.
Not thinking they’d get to my number during jury selection and seeing the respectful decline of all immediate potential white jurors immediately preceding me, I thought I was in the clear – that I wouldn’t be called. But I was called, and I became Juror 11, seated on a jury to determine the outcome of trail in which the defendant was being charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder.
The trial, from beginning to end, opening statements to verdict, was supposed to take no longer than 4 days, but we wound up being there for 6 – deliberating 2 days longer than intended.
During those 6 days, I became half-way accustomed to the life of someone involved in the court system on a regular basis (think, Professional Juror). I knew where to park in which garage that was closest to the courthouse, I established a regular coffee joint and developed a fleeting relationship with the two people who worked there, and I knew what door to enter into the courthouse in order to not be hassled about throwing away my coffee in the mornings. I had developed quite a routine in a surprisingly short amount of time.
When in the jury room, I sat in the same seat for all 6 days – between a chatty girl who couldn’t stop asking me questions and a woman my mother’s age who was a director at the city school department. Across from me sat the woman who actually fell asleep while we were voting by a raise of hands for various counts against the defendant. On the second to last day, the security guards downstairs confiscated her pepper spray, which sent her into fit in the jury room when she wasn’t asleep and thought about it.
The other jurors accompanying me were a random selection of people from all over the city, but we all had one thing in common: none of us were “peers” of the defendant.
We sat through a trial that was somewhat rushed by the judge. We heard the 1st witness admit to having smoked crack prior to the incident, we heard both the first and second witnesses commit perjury on the stand after they were caught talking to each other about the case and their stories in the hallway during a court recess. We heard the next two witnesses completely recant their prior statements to the police while on the stand, and we also heard them and another witness, all currently living in separate facilities for having committed crimes themselves, tell similar stories about the same detective feeding them information on a person they did not know in order to solidify the case for a “deal” – all but one “deal” never having transpired. We heard the last of those witnesses cry on the stand – apologizing to the defendant, judge, lawyers, jury, and court for wasting their time by making up a story in order to try and help himself. According to this witness, he would be facing similar charges next week, and apparently someone went and did to him what he did to our defendant. “I guess it’s karma,” he said. “I deserve it for helping to ruin this man I don’t know’s life. Apparently this is common.”
We saw evidence that was questionable – police line-ups, 6-packs, about five of them in which the person ID’d had by far the largest-sized head and the lightest, clearest picture. We saw bullet casings, one of which was collected that night but was likely left over from another separate shooting incident.
We saw the detective in question’s partner bring up the rear as far as witnesses went, and in less than 5 minutes she discredited her partner’s work and ethical behavior when processing and following this case.
As I walked in the final two mornings, I saw a line of white Blue Bird busses – the kind I remember from being a kid, the old kind. Only these weren’t used to take students on field trips – they were used to transport prisoners in shackles to and from the courthouses. And although I had never seen a bus like this before, I knew from a glance and the bus’ position next to the court house that the metal pieces over each window were not for shade on a sunny day. It was sad and beautiful at the same time, and I still can’t tell you why.
On that last day, as we finalized the verdict, we broke out of the confines of “look only at the evidence” and “reasonable doubt” and lamented about segments of our city that may reside in Baltimore but that are a million miles away from any life any of us had ever known. Little pockets, a street here, a block there, where generations have grown up in the midst of violence, of various family members and neighbors having been in and out of jail, of addiction that’s more common than making it to 10th grade before you drop out, and of guns replacing fist fights or even harsh words.
One man spoke about wanting to send a message that just because this type of behavior is the norm in some parts of our city, it’s not right. I spoke of not wanting to reward a dirty cop who could be just as sloppy and ill-intended with my case should I become a victim of a crime.
How will the root of these problems ever get solved if both sides keep doing what we were privy to?
I took my position on the jury seriously, and we delivered our verdict – one that I felt good about. Regardless, I left the courthouse that day feeling completely defeated, sickened, and depressed.
How can we let this go on in our city? “If we all just banded together,” I thought… And then I realized that was the problem. We may all live together in the city, but we’re segregated by neighborhood, block, side of the street, and individual house. Most people have compartmentalized themselves, so they don’t have to care about what exists outside their own individual world. I guess the only difference is that some made the choice to box themselves in, while others had that choice made for them.
It’s my opinion that without the joined effort of neighbors, community members, city dwellers, and police, I’ll likely be called to serve on another jury like this one sooner than I would like.