Some tales can be told in 400 words. Not this one. I hope you’re rewarded if you hang with me.
The envelope came one recent afternoon and I knew as soon as I saw the Forsyth Superior Court return address—report for jury duty on June 20.
I immediately flashed back to my long-haired 21-year-old self, newly graduated from New York University and getting ready to move to Southern California to start life as a journalist.
Three weeks before I was to depart, I was mandatory invited to Queens Supreme Court as a juror. After a couple of days of waiting around in a cavernous basement room with several hundred other juror candidates, my name was called among a cohort of 40 potential jurors. Upstairs we went to stand around in a hallway just outside a courtroom where jury selection was under way for an attempted murder trial. Two men were accused of shooting at a merchant one evening outside of the man’s business in Jamaica, Queens. No one had been hurt.
Another day later, the attorneys for both sides had ruled out enough jurors that half of our cohort was called inside the courtroom. A big wheel with all of our names—call it courtoom jury bingo—was turned and a bailiff announced the name of the juror candidate to be questioned. Each of the two defense attorneys took turns inquiring about the candidate’s background, lots of different kinds of personal and general questions. Eventually, they each got around to asking whether the candidate would be prejudiced against someone brought into the courtroom in prison garb. I didn’t get why both men performed this function when they were seeking the same answers.
Then came the prosecutor. He spent his time working up to asking if the potential juror would be prejudiced if someone who was a prisoner testified against the accused. But my how long it took each of the three to get to those “magic” questions, after which, inevitably one of the three men would ask the judge to dismiss that juror! Mind you, each potential juror was being quizzed for about an hour all told, some even longer. At the time in New York, defense attorneys had unlimited voir dire; they could eliminate as many potential jurors as they wanted to. The results have since been changed to limit juror challenges.
At the time I had trooped inside, all but one of the 12 jurors had been seated. I had to put the book(s) I brought aside; you can’t read in a courtroom. Although interesting at first, the tedium of the routine became excruciating. Just ask the damn magic question, I screamed inside my head!
Another day passed and they brought in 20 more potential jurors inside. Suddenly, in the afternoon of my second day inside the courtroom, my name was called.
In my post-NYU outfit (actually, it was my NYU outfit, too) of jeans, t-shirt and sneakers, I was far younger than anyone else on the jury. The first defense attorney asked if I was in college, and I told him I’d recently graduated. He asked where? As I recall, he was impressed. He asked what I hoped to be in life. I told him journalist and it didn’t scare him off. Then he asked if I would be prejudiced against someone who appeared in prison garb. I told him no. “I have no problems with this juror, judge,” the defense attorney said. It had been about three minutes.
A minor buzz as those who’d sat through this jury selection hell looked up to see who’d passed muster with one of the attorneys so quickly.
The second defense attorney rose. “This juror is acceptable, judge,” the second defense attorney said. This time the buzz was louder.
The prosecutor, a small, 40-ish man in rumpled tan suit (yes, I remember the detail 37 years later; he also had rumpled navy and gray suits in his repertoire, and though I can’t remember which color was pinstriped, I am positive one of them was) stood and immediately asked his key question. No, I told him, I would not have a problem believing a witness who was already doing time. “I have no problem with this juror.”
This time there really was a buzz. The process to seat me had taken five minutes. As the newly empaneled were shepherded to a back jury room, I could feel my fellow jurors’ eyes on me. Who the hell was this kid who made it through so quick?
Today, with a fair knowledge of criminal justice issues and a lifetime of observation skills, I think I know my attraction to the defense. My youth and my education stood up to the defense for fairness and a lack of world-weariness or prejudice. As to the prosecutor, well, maybe he just wanted to get on with it. He also might have thought that as someone 10 years younger than the other jurors, I might have been more inclined to go along with the majority. Yeah, he didn’t know me very well.
The summer of ’81 was a time of unrest in the city. Four years earlier, during the great blackout of ’77, looting had opened a racial rift that hadn’t healed. In Brooklyn, a judge named Bruce Wright had earned a nickname of “Turn ‘Em Loose Bruce’’ based on, according to the conservative New York Post, an affinity for giving light sentences to black defendants accused of crimes against white citizens based on his sense of injustice in the system.
Our trial was conducted in the courtroom of another black judge, who, coincidentally in the immediate trial before ours had similarly given what was deemed a light sentence to a black defendant found guilt of murdering a white suspect (the black suspect had been confronted by members of a white gang and claimed the crime was self-defense; the jury found him guilty).
We didn’t know it at the time, but threats against our judge led to many delays and slowdowns during our trial. One day we didn’t convene until the afternoon because of a bomb threat, which we learned about in the newspaper. This trial was of less interest in tabloid world, however, likely because all four people involved were black.
The two young men on trial had been identified by the “witness,” the man now in jail on different charges. He said they tried to rob the merchant as he left his business late at night. The merchant had defended himself by pulling out a gun and firing several shots as the culprits fled. The only shell casings recovered at the scene came from the merchant’s gun.
Two things became the centerpiece of the trial:
- The witness, when he finally made his appearance on the third day of the trial, did not testify that he saw the suspects running from the scene as had been expected. In fact, the prosecutor was clearly surprised by the witness’s about face. Try as he might, over the course of 15 minutes, he couldn’t get the jailhouse snitch, as it appears the “witness” was, to cooperate.
- Given the witness’s inability to identify the suspects, the prosecutor seized on what the merchant said he’d heard from one of the suspects as he locked his door that night: “Stop. Freeze, you m—–f—–.” From the time the merchant first used that phrase, the prosecutor, who was of Filipino descent, seized on it. I mean, it became a talisman to the prosecutor. In his sing-song accent, it came out as “Stop, uh, freeze, you muddahf—ah.”
Whenever there were breaks during the trial—and they were frequent—we would retire to the jury room. Though we weren’t allowed to talk about the trial, we couldn’t help but amuse ourselves with the characters, in particular the prosecutor. “Stop, uh, freeze, you muddahf—ah” became our go-to phrase. So much so that whenever it was repeated after that in the courtroom, we had to bite our lips to keep from laughing out loud.
In the end, without his star witness, the prosecutor had no case.
When we opened our jury discussion, I recall being the first person to say, “Well, this shouldn’t take long.” In fact, the only thing that had been proven during the four days of trial was that a merchant had fired his weapon wildly in the street late at night.
Yet our first jury vote was 10-2 to acquit. The two holdouts expressed the attitude that, “well, something had to be going on that night.” In other words, this trial hadn’t happened just because some jailhouse snitch had made up a story; the police and prosecutors wouldn’t have gone after these two guys if they were totally innocent.
I’ve thought about our jury, and juries in general, a lot in the years since. How even when there was not a shred of evidence against our two black suspects, a percentage thought they had to be guilty of something.
We wound up having some testimony reread to us, spent another half day in deliberations and eventually the two holdouts came around.
The judge stopped by the jury room before we were released. He congratulated us for serving and told us he believed we’d made the right call. There was only one thing he wanted to know: “What took you so long?”
My favorite part of this jury tale came a week later. I was shopping in Flushing, picking up some last-minute stuff I needed for my journey to California. As I walked down the street, I looked up and saw a 40-something red-haired woman approaching me, and she caught my eye and smiled.
I had a momentary blank moment, the kind where you simply can’t recognize someone’s face out of context. And as I looked up, I saw her recognize my blank moment and she smiled even wider. As we were about to pass each other, she said, very low, so only I could hear, but in exactly the correct accent,
“Stop, uh, freeze, you muddahf—ah.”
The thrill of our shared jury experience has made me smile for 37 years.
Though I’ve gotten those envelopes beckoning me to duty many times during my years in California, Connecticut and North Carolina, the trial in Queens is still the only time I’ve sat on a jury.
I don’t know whether I’ll get picked for a trial when June 20 comes along. I do know I consider it a privilege to be called.
Coming next blog: More thoughts on our justice system.