Chicken Soup for the Crackhead's Soul
By Mike White
Ever since I saw 12 ANGRY MEN, I’ve wanted to be on a jury. It’s a dumb goal, I know, but Henry Fonda’s heart wrenching performance whetted my sense of civic duty. I had gotten the call to come downtown for jury duty once before and had even been selected to serve. However, the case was thrown out before the plaintiff could even finish her dodgy testimony.
Years later, I was summoned again. With my second case, I moved up in the world of crime from a statutory rape case to second degree murder. The trial took four days – five if you count the day that I and my thirteen fellow jury members were dismissed after sitting in the jury room for three hours while the lawyers presented evidentiary arguments before the court. The next day we thought it’d be more of the same but we finally got started after another four hours of twiddling our thumbs in the cramped jury room. In all, I probably spent twice as much time waiting to be called in to the courtroom than listening to testimony. I managed to read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Ubik in the jury room while trying to ignore the rest of the jury.
My favorite jury member had to be the lady who just gotten off parole in two months prior for a domestic violence charge. This toothless, tattooed, tall, blonde African American lady showed up hours late on the first day of the trial and never showed up at all on the final day (risking a mistrial for all of us). She fell asleep during opening arguments and stayed that way through most of the trial. If she wasn’t sleeping she was eating candy or snorting. It was pretty awful. One of her fellow jurors was convinced that she really needed to find Jesus. I didn’t know he was lost.
The other guy I found interesting (albeit annoying) I liked to call Herman Munster as he bore an uncanny resemblance to Fred Gwynne. He was on a diet and couldn’t stop talking about food. He was reading Chicken Soup for the Sports Fan’s Soul or, rather, he would carry that book with him. I never saw him read – he was too busy talking. I think silence made him uncomfortable.
The reality of court is a far cry from “Law & Order.” For one thing, the actual courtroom was something of a shambles. The judge’s area was stacked full of file cabinets and papers. Meanwhile, the actual real estate of the courtroom was about a third of the vast area that Sam Waterson can prowl.
The defendant was accused of murder in the second degree. The crime took place back in 1990 but he skipped bail in 1991 and it took the cops (and the FBI) twelve years to track him down. Since then he committed a string of crimes in Tennessee, Ohio, Florida, and Georgia (that they know of). Of course, the jury wasn’t made privy to these things as they might influence our decision about the case before us. Ironically, several of the “good Christian women” of the jury thought that the murder charge might have stemmed from a “youthful indiscretion” and that he could now be a pillar of society.
The nitty gritty of the case boils down to a simple matter of economics. One crack dealer was “slinging rock” for seven dollars a pop while another was undercutting costs at five dollars. The seven dollar crack dealer came by the five dollar crack dealer’s house and shot the place up (while no one was home). The defendant was the five dollar crack dealer. After his abode was vandalized by gunfire, he was instructed by his superiors to locate the person or persons who had committed the property damage. With the help of a customer/neighbor who described the car, he was able to find the seven dollar dealer and inform his bosses of the good news. These men then paid the seven dollar dealer a visit, shooting up his house while he and several other people were inside, including a seventeen year old girl who took a bullet to the head and died instantly.
After all of the years between the crime and the trial, many of the people involved had retired or died. Luckily, we were able to hear from the seven dollar crack dealer who talked about his collection of “AKs” (which the prosecutor had to keep asking about, “Is that a high caliber or low caliber weapon?”) and from the neighbor who identified his car to the defendant. Quite an interesting group of people.
The trial took four days and deliberation took two – not full days – two half days. I ended up being the foreman since I had a pad of paper – that was the reason I was given anyway. It was good, though, as that old instinct of running a group was in full effect. I have a streak of “bossiness” that can really come out.
Deliberations were relatively simple at first. I took my fellow jury members through little “arguments” set up as true/false questions. I had to keep them on track about what we were there for. A lot of them were trying to judge other aspects of the case. Our job was to decide whether a guy who told his bosses where another guy lived was guilty or not of “knowingly creating a situation in which great bodily harm or death could occur.”
In retrospect, it was pretty open and shut. Did the guy tell his bosses? Sure enough—we even had his sworn statement from 1990 wherein he admitted to this readily. Did they go and shoot up the house where the other crack dealer lived? Sure as shit, yes. Was that a situation in which “grave bodily harm” could occur? Yes.
The deliberations boiled down to the word “knowingly”. One woman thought that there was a difference between defendants having “an idea” and “being sure.” We had to get the court to give us a definition of “knowingly” upon which both the Defense and Prosecution agreed. Then there was one…
We had one lady who just refused to go along with us. Calling upon 12 ANGRY MEN, I was hoping she’d be Henry Fonda to my Martin Balsam, giving us an impassioned speech to convince us all we were wrong. Nope. She just sat doodling on her newspaper and not telling us why she felt that this kid (he was 18 at the time) didn’t know that his bosses were going to do something bad to the other crack dealer. “We can really never know what he thought,” she insisted.
“We have to make a judgment here. We’re adults. We have to make an adult decision lest we be remiss in our duty to this court and to the United States,” was my retort. I swear that I was actually that pretentious. She was pissing me off. Finally, I took the opposite approach and agreed with her. “Okay, he has no idea. He told his bosses where this guy was and that was the end of it. He didn’t think anything would happen. He just knew that they wanted to know. They were probably just curious. ‘Whew, okay, that’s a load off my mind!’ said the crack kingpin.” She wasn’t really happy about my sarcasm. I think a lot of it boiled down to her being afraid of coming down too harshly on this “poor troubled lad.” She was the one who advised our now-missing juror to find Jesus. Maybe the candy lady was out looking for him when she should have shown up for court.
The lone juror finally just gave up, more to appease us than to stand for her principles.
When you hear of a case where someone is obviously guilty but the jury still finds them not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, you can count on people like her being on the jury. I still wonder what went through her head when the judge and the prosecutor came back after the trial and thanked us for delivering a guilty verdict, relating all of the mean nasty things that this guy has done in the last twelve years. Was the holdout juror the least bit embarrassed for being such a nitwit?
More than the police officers, crack dealers and crack heads or the lawyers, judge, and bailiffs, the real drama all took place in that tiny jury room. It was a terrific microcosm of some of the folks to be found around Metro Detroit. After I announced our decision to the court and we gathered up our belongings, I went home; stopping by the video store first to pick up a copy of 12 ANGRY MEN so I could appreciate the handy work of Henry Fonda yet again.