My previous experience with jury duty consisted of sitting in a vast room in the state court building for a few days with hundreds of other potential jurors, watching a video about civic duty, reading, texting, trying to get work done, and waiting for lunchtime. Until this year, I’d never even gotten as far the voir dire, meaning “to speak the truth” and dating back to French law, when lawyers question potential jurists, to secure either the friendliest possible jury in the case of the defense or the most punitive in the case of the prosecution.
But Federal court is far more serious. All electronic devices are confiscated at the entrance when you pass through a security apparatus, similar to that of an airport, though less efficient. Until you leave the building, you are no longer accessible to the outside world. Nor is the outside world accessible to you. Jury selection is quick, exemptions are limited, and I was chosen to serve.
Among twelve people and two alternates for a trial expected to last three days, I was juror #3. Since we had to line up in numbered order before entering the courtroom, I got to know Juror #1, a young real estate lawyer from Westchester who might have been hard of hearing because he shouted, rather than talked; and Juror #2, a pretty young woman, also from Westchester, who couldn’t comprehend that if she had not been chosen, she would have been required to return to the big room to be called for another voir dire somewhere else in the courthouse. “What? No!” she said. A lot.
The first morning, we seated ourselves randomly around the table in the jury room. Every morning thereafter, we sat in the same place, as if it had been assigned. One of the alternates positioned himself in the center seat, spread out his Daily News, drank his coffee, and expounded on the baseball steroid trial. That jury selection was underway in another building, attracting crowds of reporters and cameras. He knew A-Rod was guilty as hell and he knew with equal conviction that A-Rod would get away with it. The same with Chris Christie and the bridge scandal. Of the missing autistic boy, Avonte Oquendo, whose picture was plastered everywhere, he claimed, They’ll never find him, sorry to say. Not limiting himself to current events he also pontificated about city traffic, the extortionist cost of parking garages, gardening in Westchester, New York architecture and weather patterns. Some of other jurors indulged him. What? No! cried Juror #2. You sure do know a lot, said another, without apparent sarcasm.
I felt lucky to have landed far away from him, next to a secretary from the Bronx because she, like me, was a listener. Her gold hoop earrings had set off the metal detector, causing her to be late the first day. After that, she wore leather hoop earrings with fringe. We commiserated about the long line at the security, and about being without our phones.
On my other side sat an art collector who lived in Manhattan. He purchased his objets d’art—mid 1800s was his era—at auctions. “The modern stuff, you can have it!” he said. “I tried to present myself as such a well-heeled snob they’d never pick me for a jury but I failed. So here I am.”
In the courtroom, we were silent. The lawyer for the prosecution assured us that the state would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant conspired with friends to rob several AT&T and T-Mobile stores in various Manhattan locations, and that he used threat and intimidation to do so.
Later, a couple of the younger women jurors gossiped about this lawyer: What’s up with that hair? She needs a damn makeover. And that suit? What? No!
The lawyer’s assistant frequently motioned to her from the prosecutor’s table as she questioned witnesses from the podium. Calling for pauses, they conferred in whispers, consulting thick binders tabbed with yellow post-it notes. Also at the prosecutor’s table sat a paralegal who cued up videos, organized the voluminous binders, and presented the hard evidence–the alarm triggers and wire cutters–to the witnesses.
The defendant had used these wire cutters to cut smartphones from the store displays. He and his team had slipped the phones into their pockets and walked out of the store. The crimes occurred quickly: In one day, they robbed three stores. They knew where the “good” phones were. One store in Chelsea, they robbed twice in a month. All of it was captured on soundless video.
In every video, as the lawyer for the prosecution pointed out, we saw the defendant, wearing the same black “leather or leather-like” jacket, with chest pockets and shoulder epaulets. The term “leather or leather-like” was used so often it developed an energy of its own, with its alliteration and rhythm: Leather or leather like. Leather or leather like. Leather or leather like, the hard ‘k’ punctuating the lullaby circularity of the phrase.
In the jury room, I asked the young woman from the Bronx, “What do you think? Was the jacket leather, or was it leather-like?”
“Ain’t no chest pockets on a real leather jacket,” she said.
At one of the AT&T stores, a manager was shoved to the floor as the men escaped. At the twice-robbed T-Mobile store, an employee testified that she remembered the defendant because his skin was “ashy.” At another store, when approached by a security guard, the defendant warned, “Don’t be a hero, old man.”
In the jury room, not only was the idiocy of the crimes discussed at length but also the concept of ashy skin and what that meant, and much analysis from the talkative alternate about the subway routes the perpetrators must have taken in order to rob a store on lower Broadway, followed by a store in Chelsea, followed by a store on the upper east side. Trains must have been running pretty good that day!
A “law officer” that the defendant had met with regularly for over a year, testified with a dignified sadness that she had seen the footage on local television, recognized the defendant as her client and contacted the police. Before the videos went public, he’d never missed a meeting. Afterwards, he disappeared.
The question of why the defendant met weekly with this parole officer went unaddressed until the last day of the trial.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defendant went into hiding,” said the lawyer with the bad hair. “He went off the grid because he knew he was guilty. He knew his time was up.”
The defendant’s lawyer, a well-dressed but hapless, dispassionate man, called no character witnesses, presented no alibis, and spent interminable afternoon hours questioning the store’s security director and the police sergeant about the procedures of copying and tracking videos. Did you sign a tracking sheet and date it? he asked the sergeant. Is there a record showing when you gave that copy of the video to the police? he asked the security director. It’s not the actual video footage but a copy, am I right? When was that copy made? This sort of questioning caused the eyelids to shut and the brain to soften.
The defendant, a youngish black man in a short-sleeved white, button-down shirt, slept through it, his head flung back, as if we were all a bad dream.
One member of the jury, a white-bearded man with rosy cheeks, coughed through the proceedings so vehemently that the judge stopped the trial several times to instruct his clerk to bring the man a glass of water. Later, in the jury room, I offered him a zinc lozenge.
“No thanks, I’ve got everything,” he said. “Cough drops, juice, water. It’s bacterial. It’ll have to take its course.”
Luckily, I was not sitting next to him either.
On the third morning of the trial, menus at each seat offered modest choices of sandwiches and wraps. We were expected to deliberate through lunch. Of course, this was the day I’d made lunch plans with a friend working nearby and I had no way of contacting her to say I couldn’t make it.
The last witness to take the stand, a short cop from Queens, seemed irrelevant to the present case. This cop talked about an event that had occurred five years earlier when T-Mobile employees came running from their store on Northern Boulevard to flag him down. They’d just been robbed by men with wire cutters. He turned his scooter around in pursuit, then chased the three young black men down the subway steps, radioing ahead to the transit police to hold the train in the station. In the last subway car, he arrested the three, and retrieved several cell phones from under the seats. One of the three was Raymond, aka Ray-Ray, the current defendant. He had used up his chance.
Ladies, and gentlemen, the defendant had a history. This was his M.O., said the lawyer for the prosecution. When his nickname came to light, I envisioned a young boy smiling for school pictures. At what point in his life, I wondered, did trouble take over? The crimes were so stupid. Did that mean he was, too? His mother came to the courtroom every day, looking weary and furious. She glowered at us in the jury box. We all lamented for the suffering mother.
It was true that the prosecution vastly out-resourced the defense. It was also true that the cost of convicting this defendant seemed to far outweigh the actual crime. Yet the outcome seemed unequivocal. There was no arguing with the video evidence.
But, in the jury room when Juror #1 shouted, Ray-Ray is so fucking guilty! He’s guilty as shit! I wanted him to shut up. Juror #4 insisted we re-watch one of the videos. He also contended that one of the witnesses had obviously been coached by the prosecution, and wanted to read her section of the transcript again.
Filing back into the courtroom, it was like returning to a play after the intermission. The characters re-assembled onstage: judge, clerk, lawyer for the prosecution, assistant lawyer for the prosecution, paralegal for the prosecution, defense lawyer, defendant, and mother in the spectator’s row.
In the two-minute clip, Raymond, in his leather-like jacket, marched into the store with four other men, cut all the phones off the display and marched out. Were they intimidating? Absolutely.
In the jury room, waiting for copies of the transcript pages, talk turned to mothers and sons, the school system, and, again, Avonte Oquendo. The talkative man, being an alternate, had been dismissed from deliberations, which I considered a blessing. But my relief was premature.
Avonte? He’s dead, said the rosy-cheeked bearded man, miraculously cured of his cough. He knew this because, as a former principal, he’d seen what could happen to kids like that. Talking louder and louder until his bellow prevented any ancillary conversation, he ranted about the public school system, its corruptness and inefficiency, and about the money suctioned out of public schools into private companies and charters. The whole system was fucked. As for Raymond, he probably started getting into trouble in middle school. He’s done now. He’ll be going to jail for a long time.
I passed a note to the young woman from the Bronx. Strange how he’s not coughing anymore.
“Uh huh,” she said. “You know I was thinking the same thing.”
The clerk brought in twelve sets of photocopied, collated pages from the store manager’s transcript. One of the jurors read it aloud. The manager had recognized the defendant when he robbed the store the second time, not from his leather-like jacket but from his ashy skin, and that she was frightened. Whether she’d been coached or not, nothing she said in the transcript cast Raymond’s culpability in doubt. Juror #4 conceded. We filed back into the courtroom for the final act.
While the defendant’s mother glared, the judge read the verdict aloud: Guilty of robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery. The defendant, wakeful now and stone-faced, stared straight ahead except for once when he turned to look at the jury. I met his gaze, across the vast expanse between our divergent lives. I was sorry for him, sorry for his situation.
Afterwards, the judge came into the jury room, which is highly unusual, I’m told. “Jurists often begin a trial with a kind of lightheartedness,” he said. “You can see it. By the end, they are somber with responsibility.” In thanking us, he said we were an exceptional jury. I’m sure he tells everyone that, said Juror #1. Without a doubt, said the rosy-cheeked bearded man. What? No! cried Juror #2.
Maybe this judge really does tell every jury how exceptional they are. Maybe it’s true, even though some jurists sit around talking shit in the jury room, and saying things like he’s so fucking guilty. Maybe, with some juries, discretion prevails and nobody says insensitive things. Or maybe, it’s just human to vent, as long as you behave appropriately in the courtroom. This intersection of lives, this responsibility we bear in our community and our society, does feel, to me, quite extraordinary. Exceptional, too, to ponder the unfortunate fate of the defendant, the ongoing ordeal for his mother, and the disparate daily existences of all these people I will probably never see again.