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 where 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 intermittently, 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 bent over to pick up something she had 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 addict. 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 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 incessantly flickering overhead light and questions, I was confident I’d 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 the attorneys 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 thought 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 family and friends, 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.