A Chain, Some Crack and No Smoking Guns

scales.gifI recently sat on a jury trial, and this is my account of the experience.

 

Shortly after 8 pm on November 30, 2005, Terrance Daniels was walking to a deli on 2nd Avenue and 123th Street in Manhattan when he was accosted on the street corner by two black men. While one stood aside, the other told Mr. Daniels he was going to “run” his chain — translation: “steal your necklace” — a long, thick silver-colored piece with an outsized medallion in the shape of a Jesus head.

Mr. Daniels had just finished making payments on it to an East Harlem jewelry store, $500 in total — the first robbery, as we jurors later joked. Struggling with the robber who had grabbed his shirt and the chain, he indignantly refused to give it up – until a gun was brandished.

Whether 21 year-old Michael Johnson committed this robbery was just one of several charges that a Manhattan jury recently decided in a case that was, by any measure, just another sad tale of ordinary street crime, mixed up with drugs, to be resolved by a criminal justice system that is anything but an exact science and chock full of unfortunate clichés.

Stage right was the young prosecuting attorney a little too eager to test his mettle. Stage left was the bumbling middle-aged public defender who kept referring to “nickel bags and dime bags” circa 1979. Holding court was Judge A. Goldberg peering over the top of her reading glasses with a permanent “no fools suffered here” expression. For comic relief was the court reporter, a beautiful black woman with a tangle of braids swept up into clip on the top of her head, which bobbed up and down like a rooster pecking out the courtroom testimony.

As for the defendant, he sat motionless day after day, doing his best to look as innocent as a choirboy in understated gold-rimmed glasses and earth-tone polo shirts and khakis. The only emotion he expressed during the trial was to slowly shake his head with resignation as one police officer testified to finding crack in Mr. Johnson’s coat pocket. How come the first officer who found the gun didn’t find the drugs, asked the public defender? Because he was looking for weapons, not drugs, replied the officer. Mr. Johnson shook his head a second time before looking down at his neatly folded hands.

So it was nothing short of a Perry Mason moment when the victim, Mr. Daniels, stated matter of factly that the perpetrator of the robbery was not in the courtroom. He didn’t just waffle on whether or not he recognized Mr. Johnson, but flat out refused to finger him. The jury would later learn that the man arrested with Mr. Johnson had an iron-clad alibi at the time of the robbery, and that the gun found on Mr. Johnson was inoperable.

With no gun charge and the robbery all but invalidated, the drug indictments were the only charges in play. The public defender did his Columbo best to confuse the forensic lab technician about how much was in the bag (more than a half-ounce, which carries a heavy sentence). He even questioned whether it was in fact crack, and asked the court’s permission to open up the evidence bag, leading one juror to quip in a stage whisper, “Fire it up and let’s find out.”

The wrangling eventually came to an unceremonious end, and the jury went into deliberation. Surprisingly, it was three women of widely disparate ages who wanted to convict Mr. Johnson across the board. And it was a conservative looking investment banker who was the most reticent to convict at all. In fact, it was his argument against the “intent to sell” indictment that flipped more than half the jury to vote not guilty on that particular charge.

But at the end of the day, the jury was faced with having to vote on possession of crack cocaine. Given the amount, it was a third degree felony that, because of New York’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws, could mean up to 25 years in jail. If he had any prior convictions, it could be 25 years to life. To vote not guilty, however, would be the equivalent of calling the police officers out-and-out liars without a shred of evidence to support that conclusion.

Jurors are instructed not to take consequences into consideration when reaching a verdict, so the investment banker and a few others, including myself, shook our heads in resignation – and voted guilty.

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