Author Archives: liltraveler

By a Jury of His Peers…

Standing in a single file line with 150 or so other prospective jurors, I made small talk with the woman standing behind me. We shared elaborate schemes for what we’d say or do to get out of serving; ideas ranged from faking Tourette’s syndrome and shouting profanities to standing up and shouting “HE’S GUILTY!” pointing at the accused. After about ten minutes, we were ushered in by the courthouse clerk, and I took my seat in the front row of the church pew-style seats that lined the back of the enormous courtroom. The judge’s large leather seat at the elevated bench in the front of the room was empty. Some jurors were taking off heavy winter coats; others sat stern faced, arms crossed in front of them, almost defiantly; others slouched in their seats, heads back, seemingly dozing in the overheated courtroom. A young man and an older woman sat directly in front of me at a table on the other side of the metal bar that divided the room in half. I assumed (correctly) that this was the defendant and his attorney. Seated at the other table was a late 30-something Asian woman in a black and white houndstooth dress, black blazer, and sensible black wedge shoes. Head bowed reviewing a thick stack of documents, she didn’t look up when we entered.

The grandeur of the courtroom—with its high vaulted ceilings, elaborate woodwork from eras when architects still cared about such detail, and beautiful, enormous arched windows—was a stark contrast to the dingy waiting rooms where 1200 of us with a January 5 summons date had been awaiting our fate to decide the fate of another—the irony! I wondered how many people had passed through these doors, sat on these same benches on which we were seated, or occupied the defendant’s chair for that matter? How many horrific crimes had been discussed within these four walls? How many people’s lives were touched in ways I could not even imagine?

“All rise!”  the African American clerk with neat cornrow braids announced as our judge—also an African American man with salt and pepper hair—took his seat at the elevated bench. He introduced himself, thanked us for our time, and went over how the morning would unfold.

For the next three hours, we went through an endless amount of roll calls and questions designed to rule out those of us who might not be eligible to serve. Had we been the victim of a violent crime? Did we have family members who were police officers? Were we morally opposed to judging someone else’s fate?  Under the threat of perjury, I decided to forego faking Tourette’s.

As the judge went through the relentless litany of questions, I found myself staring at the back of the defendant seated directly in front of me. He looked (and is, as I later learned) Hispanic. We were told he was accused of murdering another young Hispanic man at a bar in the city.

He had a tiny man bun, thick black glasses, and was dressed in conservative khaki pants and a red, button down shirt with white stripes that was somehow incongruent with the large, red lip tattoo on his neck, peeking out from under the collar. Who gave him this shirt to wear? Would his mother or other family members show up at the trial? What kind of family did he come from?

As the judge read off the name of the man who had been murdered, I also found myself thinking about him and his family. And about how what I imagined must have likely started out as any other normal night ended up going so terribly awry.

One of the overhead light bulbs flickered throughout the day, somehow adding to the surrealness of that day.  “Do any of you have a problem with crimes committed with a handgun?” the judge asked at one point. “If so, please rise.” I thought it an odd way to phrase the question—who wouldn’t have a problem with this? But as I glanced around the room, only a handful of the 150 people stood up.

Several times throughout the day, the legal counsel on both sides approached the bench. Shifting back and forth on her feet, I noticed for the first time that the prosecutor was about six months pregnant. After what was likely the 10th time they approached the judge’s bench, the pregnant attorney slipped her feet in and out of her shoes, rubbing the back of her heel with the other foot.

The judge then separated the jurors into two groups, releasing my group for a half hour break. Grateful for the break and hopeful that this was a sign I’d be released early, I headed straight to the Dunkin’ Donuts, where the strangeness of this day continued.

“Can I help you?” the ponytailed girl with a nose ring asked as I approached the register.

“Medium coffee, please.”

“Sure, you got it.” She dropped something and looked up saying, “I’m sorry—I’m a little out of it because my mom just died on Tuesday from complications from AIDS.”

“Oh, that’s terrible. I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, not sure how to respond or how I was going to segue from that into asking for another creamer.

“It’s ok. She brought it on herself. She was a drug user. I’ll be over it by next week,” she responded, snapping the register shut and handing me my change.

I drank my coffee as quickly as possible while she and the other girls behind the counter then debated the virtues of gel versus normal manicures and waxing versus threading eyebrows. My mind wandered to the young man across the streets whose fate would soon be decided by a jury of his peers.

After returning from lunch and feeling grateful for the time away from the incessant flickering light and questions, I was confident I would be released to go home. After all, after lunch they’d brought a second group of 150 people into the room; the odds of my being selected out of 300 people were remote. I was shocked, however, when I heard 6043—my number—called to stand by the bar that separated the room. One by one, we were brought in front of the defense and prosecution teams, who were asked by the judge if we were deemed “acceptable.” Standing there awkwardly holding my winter coat and bags, shifting my weight from side to side, I did my best to conjure up a look that screamed UNacceptable. No such luck, however, as both lawyers announced I was indeed “acceptable.” Told to take seat #11, I wondered if it was too late to start screaming profanities or do one of the other inappropriate behaviors I’d discussed in line with that female juror hours earlier.

I took my seat, carefully avoiding eye contact with the defendant, though I could feel his eyes boring into me. I kept hoping and praying they would say they made a mistake and I could be excused. They didn’t. The other fifteen people selected (including alternates), to whom I’d be closely connected for at least the next several days all seemed to have the same stunned look on their faces that I’m sure I did.

The trial was very intense. We learned over the course of five days through witness testimonies, video footage, and more that the defendant was a 25-year old man originally from Guatemala, who, because of a series of very bad decisions in February of 2016, wound up sitting before us now at this trial. His first mistake was stealing his boss’ BB gun that day in early February. His next poor decision was getting together with two friends after work, smoking some pot, and showing them his new “acquisition.” They decided they would head out for a night on the town, purportedly to rob people in Fells Point. Another critical mistake was choosing to head out with these particular two friends, one of whom he knew to be a contract killer for a notorious gang, who announced before they went out that he was feeling like he wanted to “kill someone” that night.

After an unsuccessful night of robbing, they ended up at a bar named after a saint. They ordered a bucket of beer, and what would have possibly just been a normal night out with friends took a very, very bad turn. Seated just behind them was a table of four other young Hispanic men eating dinner, drinking beer, and playing pool. Apparently, the defendant and his two friends perceived the men at that table to be making fun of them for putting limes in their beer. Contract Killer would not have it, and he told the defendant and their friend that these men at the table would become “victims” that night. The three of them then planned out how they would carry this out. The defendant danced at the bar, smiling—not the face or demeanor of a man who was afraid of Contract Killer as he had testified he was. They had a ‘V for Vendetta’ mask with them as well as a bandana, and along with the BB gun, Contract Killer had brought along his .45 caliber handgun. While their friend went out to confirm the taxi they’d ordered had arrived, the defendant and Contract Killer put their masks on, pulled their guns out, walked over to the table and shot two of the men point blank in the head. The other two men at the table scattered, one running towards the door and the other towards kitchen. Other patrons in the bar fell to the floor or also ran for cover in sheer terror. The two defendants then headed out of the bar and took the taxi waiting outside to one of their homes. They disposed of their clothes, hid the gun and the mask, drank more beer, and smoked more pot until they were arrested later that morning.

I know all this because of the testimonies from all—including the survivors, which included the man who was shot in the face—as well as the graphic video footage from the bar that night of this horrific crime being played out, which we unfortunately had to watch three times. It was surreal, seeing the normalcy of that night—patrons eating, drinking beer, talking, playing pool, and realizing that merely by their choice of seats, one man would wind up dead with a bullet between his eyes, one forever marred by a bullet through the side of his face, and numerous others who were in the bar that night maybe not physically maimed, but certainly emotionally scarred for life.

I’d watched the defendant throughout the trial, wearing the same red shirt and khaki pants each day, whispering into the ear of his lawyer or translator. I heard him testify on the stand and in the police interrogation video, describing in his own words the events of that night. In some weird way, I felt like I’d gotten to know him. I had many thoughts throughout that week about what led him to this point and about the son he mentioned he had. I’d also looked over at the family members of the man who had been murdered each day of the trial, feeling their eyes pressing us on, willing us to see this for what it was, pleading for an outcome favorable to their dead son, brother, friend.

After five days of testimony and discussion, we ended up deliberating for just one hour about the 12 pending counts against this young man before reaching our verdict. I could see that most of us felt very uncomfortable and sad about this. He was carrying a toy gun that fateful evening and did not seem like a cold-blooded killer, but instead a man who made a series of immensely bad choices. We had the law read back to us twice to make sure we thoroughly understood, I think all of us secretly hoping for a way out. But the evidence against him was just too compelling.

We were brought out to the courtroom in a single file, filling our seats and waiting for the judge to ask us if we had reached a verdict.

“We have, your Honor.”

“Will the defendant please rise and face the jury.”

“We find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree, attempted murder in the first degree, and first-degree assault.”

I avoided looking at him as the charges and verdicts were read, one by one. I wasn’t sure what I would do if he started to cry. He didn’t. He just bowed his head as four uniformed police officers came to take him away to what I knew was likely to be a lifetime sentence behind bars. Though I know the verdict was the right one based on the law, I couldn’t help but think about the ripple effect of our decision as jurors and of the decisions he had made back in February. One 19-year-old man will never come back to his friends and family, another will never be able to use the right side of his face; countless others will carry emotional scars from being at the bar that night, and a little boy will be raised without his father. And I am hit with immense waves of sadness. . .

We, the jury of his peers, had spoken.

 

an early christmas gift

Last night I drove to the drug store to refill a prescription. As I rushed out of the pharmacy, anxious to get home because my favorite show was about to start, I noticed a man standing to the side of the door. He was wearing a hoodie, doing what I call the “winter hunch”—that hunched-over look people in the north have when they are trying to stave off the cold—and at his feet were two small pieces of luggage. As I pulled out of the lot, something compelled me to turn back. There are many homeless in Baltimore, yet something about his demeanor struck me. Seeing him gave you the feeling you get when watching someone who’s really uncomfortable in his own skin… and who feels like he doesn’t belong and who’s almost trying to make himself invisible. I’ve felt this way myself at times throughout my own life, which is probably why I recognized it in him.

I was nervous about going back. I mean, what if he wasn’t really homeless, and what if I insulted him by asking if he would like a meal or a cup of coffee? What if he was a heroin addict or a schizophrenic—could he possibly hurt or rob me? All these thoughts raced through my mind as I turned the car around.

By the time I had parked again, he was walking towards the main road. I felt a wave of relief wash over me, thinking, maybe he did have somewhere to go! Or maybe someone was coming to pick him up! But I knew that was just my fear talking. . .  it was pretty clear he had nowhere to go.

I grabbed my credit card and followed him to the street, stopping him and asking if I could buy him dinner. He said no initially, and I could see his mind racing, probably thinking, who is this crazy white woman, and why is she asking to buy me dinner? But he eventually agreed.

He ordered a hamburger sub. No mayo. We waited. The guy behind the counter was eying us curiously—I imagine we probably did look a little odd standing there together. I tried to make some small talk while we waited, but was a little lost because my normal stand bys just didn’t work. Where do you live? What do you do for a living? Do you have a family? What do you do in your spare time? all felt wildly inappropriate.

I asked if he wanted company while he ate. He said he did, so we sat down and I watched while he salted his burger and sipped the Sprite he’d ordered, seeming to truly relish the taste.

His name is John, I discovered. From Detroit originally, he moved to Maryland when he was just 12, after both his parents had died. As he ate, I found a few “safe” subjects: sports and music. Turns out he’s a huge hockey fan (Red Wings, of course), and he loves jazz, too. He talked about wanting to turn a corner with his life. And about how difficult life on the streets—three years now and counting—has been. There were awkward moments of silence at times, and at others, I felt he wanted to talk more, but I was afraid to ask the hard questions, such as  how did he get into this situation? Is he trying to get off the streets? Why didn’t he live with his children?

He ate the sandwich very slowly, which I now realize was probably to extend his stay inside in the warmth. And at one point during our time together, he motioned towards the sandwich and said quietly, “this is really a wonderful Christmas present. . .  I’m so grateful.” And I could see he really meant it. It took everything in me not to burst into tears at that moment. Tears of sadness for this man sitting across from me, who truly felt that these two pieces of bread and a small slice of overcooked meat were a gift. And tears of gratitude for all that I have, and that I so often take for granted.

As I was leaving, I asked if I could give him a hug, and he smiled broadly, nodding yes. And we stood there hugging each other hard for about a minute or so. [I'm sure the guy behind the counter in the restaurant was really curious at that point!]

I felt so terrible pulling away in my car, knowing that I was heading home to my warm bed while he was heading to another uncertain, cold night on the streets. But I was grateful for this moment and for the gifts that this homeless man named John gave to me: a wonderful hug and some much-needed perspective.

the “hasty exit” weave

On a walk during lunch this past week, we stumbled upon this. . .

As I may have mentioned in previous posts, I don’t work in the best of neighborhoods, but this was definitely a first.

It appears whoever wore this appendage must have made a hasty exit from the building above. Hopefully she didn’t lose more than her weave.

 

spud

I had to put my sweet dog Spud to sleep this past week. I realize how much I hate that term “put to sleep” because it implies that he’s going to wake up, meaning  he would still be with me right now. And he most assuredly is not. This is abundantly clear every night when I wake up, hoping to hear his sweet pug snores on the other side of the bed. Instead, I am greeted by silence. Or when walking through the front door each day—never again will I be greeted by his sweet smooshy face, soft puppy kisses, and that crooked little tail, wagging in pure joy and excitement, as if it had been a year since he’d last seen me instead of just a few hours.

Though I have always liked dogs, I had not grown up around them and never really considered myself a dog person. In fact, I resisted getting any sort of pet because I travel a lot—and I thought a pet would tie me down. That all changed four years ago when my sister, who owns a doggie daycare in Atlanta, sent this photo, explaining that this dog was about to be put to death—and asking did I want him? He looked so lost and so scared. It broke my heart. And when I saw those big, brown eyes,  I melted. It was love at first sight.

We made quite a pair. He, bloodied, full of mange, and half starved after sitting in a shelter waiting to be put to death. Me, still reeling and mending a broken heart after being dumped by a guy I’d been dating. We found each other when we needed each other most. And though he was only with me four short years, he saw me through a lot—the death of a close friend, a couple more breakups, and so much more. He has been the one constant in my life these past few years, and I’m so grateful to have had him in my life for even this short while.

He was about the most patient dog on the planet, enduring things like being dressed up for my yearly Christmas card and each Halloween for the annual Pagapalooza Halloween parties (he won best costume the year he went as a Chippen-pug dancer). He was also an integral part of my “unbeweavable” blog, sitting patiently as I posed him next to whatever random weave I happened to find to photograph that day. He’d just look at me with those big, brown eyes, sighing as if to say, “OK, I can’t believe you’re making me do this, but I’ll do it for you.”

And through our daily walks, I met many of my neighbors, people I probably never would have gotten to know had he not been in my life. I even became friends with a guy in England, also named Spud Duncan, because of Spud. He affectionately called my Spud “Spud Junior.” He and his wife may come to the States next year and we will hopefully meet in person for the first time. Sadly, they won’t have the chance to meet “Junior,” the reason we met.

No matter how bad my mood might have been, it was always lifted after being around Spud. He brought joy to so many people—people who knew him well, or even random people he’d meet on the street, immediately rolling over for a belly rub. From the outpouring I received on Facebook, I realized he’s even brought joy to those he’s never met, some of whom have been following his adventures on the site. He touched many people’s lives, and most of all, he touched mine.

I will miss you terribly, buddy. I already do. Thank you for the joy, the laughter, the sweetness that you brought into my life. I hope wherever you are, you’re happy—running free, and getting all the belly scratches and treats a dog could ask for. The world—my world—will be a little less bright without you in it.

 

Weird fuzz

I’m not entirely sure this could even be classified as a “weave,” but it was certainly some form of fake hair.

Exactly where and how this “hair” might be applied is a mystery—not one I necessarily want or need to solve, however.