Baltimore

From Every Corner of this City

As the story of Freddie Gray’s arrest and subsequent BaltCitybadgedeath continues to unfold, I find myself thinking about another young black man in Baltimore, with whom I crossed paths about a year and a half ago. I was a juror in his trial for multiple murder, drug, and gun charges.

You see, I live in Baltimore — in the city although in a corner that bears little resemblance to the neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived. But Baltimore is called “Smalltimore” for many reasons, among them the fact that traveling just a few blocks in one direction or another connects these very different neighborhoods.  And nothing will bring residents together any more than sitting on a jury together.

Before I go into any more detail about my experience as a juror, let me be frank: as a whole, I don’t like the Baltimore City police. It’s true, I have had some positive experiences with a couple of officers when they have responded to neighborhood calls, but honestly for the most part they have been brutish and non communicative. All the more troubling, since I have a friend who worked with them on trying to improve Community Policing for many years — but among the reasons that didn’t work was former Mayor Martin O’Malley and his “Zero Tolerance policy,” which created an attitude of “arrest first, ask questions later.”  The calls in our neighborhood are usually for break-ins and the occasional drug dealing.  Two notable facts about my neighborhood and police: (1) they do not arrest the prostitutes because they like to keep them on the street so they can get info about the drug dealers who are also often their pimps (really shows you how much they value the lives of these women, eh?) — a fact relayed to me by a female police officer, and (2) because we are the “easy” district, we get the trainees and the newbies, so they get to practice their non-existent communication skills on me and my neighbors before they get shuttled off to the tougher districts such as the Western district where Freddie Gray lived.

So this is my background when I walk into the jury room at the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse with 13 other citizens of Baltimore. I gradually got to know my fellow jurors over the next week — we couldn’t talk about the case, so we talked about jobs, families, television shows. The final 12 who deliberated included a Psychology professor, a housekeeper from a local hospital, an accountant, a retiree, a college student, a hair dresser, and a driver. Our ages ranged from 21 to 61. There were four men and eight women. Ten black, and two white — myself and a middle aged man.

As the case was presented, I felt like I was reading a mystery novel. Two men were brutally shot and killed, and a young woman somehow survived being shot multiple times. The prosecution presented mountains of evidence about the killing — photos of the wounds in all their blood soaked gruesomeness, a ballistics expert spoke about the angle and the caliber. Witnesses were called. And the whole time I kept waiting to hear how the young man sitting before us was connected — because at that point all we had heard was about the arrest of two other young men in connection, one of whom was identified by a witness who saw him stick his head out the door after shots were fired and looking this way and that, and the other was caught moments after the shooting with one of the dead men’s cell phone in his pocket.

But nothing on this guy, until we heard that he had been identified from a photo array by the young woman who had survived the shooting. How did his photo happen to be shown to this woman int he first place, well we never heard that. She was full of pain killers, on a ventilator so she could not speak, and had not given a description to anyone of the men who committed the crime, so how did this guy’s end up in the photo array?

It seems, he was a young black man known to the police for previous drug dealing. Just like Freddie Gray.

You see, in the end, there was nothing connecting this particular man to the crime except for the word of a woman who pointed to his picture from her hospital bed under very sketchy circumstances, and who then recanted that identification on the witness stand. Was the truth when she picked him out? Or was it when she said — on the witness stand — that it was not in fact, him? Either way, it didn’t make her a reliable witness. Not reliable enough on which to send another young black man to jail, for good (based on his prior record, we knew that finding him guilty would put him away for a very, very long time.

When we arrived at the jury room to begin deliberations, it seemed like a no-brainer to me. So I was amazed when we took a straw poll and we came out 8 not guilty and 4 guilty. The breakdown of who voted how was interesting: the not guilty’s were 7 women and one man (the retiree), the guilty’s were 3 men and one woman (the college student). I was a not guilty, the white man was a guilty.

I cannot fully describe how heated the room became over the next several days. It got personal at times, not with me really, but I was very aware of who I was and what my life is like. Several of the women who voted not guilty told stories from their own lives to explain why they viewed the evidence as they did. The woman who left the Courthouse every day and went to her job cleaning hospital rooms talked about how drugs had destroyed members of her family — and how she was “not going to put another young black man into jail for life.”

I will always remember her resolve as she spoke those words. I will also remember the response of the only other white person on the jury, because after he spoke I wanted to become invisible, “I would rather put an innocent man in jail than let a murderer walk the streets. If he is not guilty, he can always appeal.” There was a silence in the room as those horrible words kind of hung out there, so I finally said “The appeals process does not work out real well for young black men. He will be in prison for years before he can get a new trial — and that will only be after he can show there was a problem with this case.”

Towards the end of Day Three of Deliberation (which came after 5 days of hearing evidence), we were down to 10 not guilty, and 2 guilty. The Psychology professor stepped up her game, and said to the two “It seems very unlikely at this point that 10 people are going to change their minds and find him guilty. What can we do for you to be able to change your votes and feel good about it?”  The white man talked himself through the lack of evidence connecting this man to the crime, and then decided that he could see where there could be doubt, so maybe yes, he could say based on that the young man was not guilty. The remaining juror, now standing alone with his guilty vote, said “Well, okay. If he’s voting not guilty, then I am too.”

Did the young man commit the crime? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I left feeling good about my vote, that justice had been done. But I also felt like I had just seen the nasty underbelly of the world in which many citizens of this city live. A city where, based on your past behavior, you can just be picked up and put in jail. A place where police have no answers for why they took certain actions or how they came upon certain evidence. Where the prosecutor responds to juror’s questions about why no one tested the coffee cup or the cigarette butts apparent in the crime photos for DNA, with a mocking “this is not like the movies, people.”

When I see the photos of Freddie Gray before his arrest, I see the face of the young man who stood and shook the hand of every juror as we passed by him on our way out of the courtroom after finding him not guilty.  I see a young man who daily faces impossible odds against a system stacked against him, unless his community comes together and says “No more.” His community, from every corner of this city. From the housekeeper who held his hand for an extra moment and said “Now you behave yourself,” to which he responded “Yes m’am,” before she left for her job. Declining my offer of a ride, she headed off to walk the 4 blocks to the hospital and I pointed my car north to my corner of the city, hoping he knew how much these people valued him and his life. From every corner of this city.

Life in the Big City ….

It’s never a dull moment here at the Jello Manse. Sunday night, Unnamed Partner and I went out to dinner with our friends around the corner. A lovely time was had by all, despite my efforts at being a stick in the mud because it was, after all, Sunday night.  We had a wonderful dinner of carryout Indian — mmmmm, chicken korma! Which was followed by several rounds of Rock Band.  I worked up such a thirst drumming on “Float On” (Modest Mouse)  that I had a third beer! Yes! On a school night!

We played one more song — I think it was something by Jane’s Addiction, I was talked into it — and then decided it was time to head home.

Well. It’s a 5-minute drive, at the most. Except, when we drove 2 blocks to the main road, we saw police cars with lights aflashing to the left and to the right. Uh oh. Unnamed Partner wondered if this was a sobriety checkpoint, but then we remembered that there are normally about 2 patrol cars in our district and no — there’s no way these guys are sitting here doing a checkpoint. As we drove up the main road I saw a yellow police tape across a side street and realized something must have gone down, like a shooting. Unfortunately not as unusual as it should be. We live in the city.

I was about to make the right turn onto our street when I saw a police van parked to block the street. Good thing I saw it — it didn’t have lights on and there was no one in or around it. So we drove on down to the next street.  No van there, so we turned right.

I don’t know if you can picture it, but as soon as we turned right, there is an alley that would connect us back to our street. Well, there was nothing blocking the alley, so I turned right. Of course, it was a sharp right so I had to stop, back up, turn the wheel — it was not a speedy process.  It was clunky enough to disturb a black cat which darted out in front and then turned around and stared at us. Unnamed Partner saying “Sue J, go on!” and me saying “This is not a good sign …”

Well, the cat took off so we proceeded to our street again. I parallel parked, we got out, Unnamed Partner  hustled on up to the porch, and I was just locking the car door when I heard a voice say “How did you get in here?”

I turned to see a police officer approaching me. It was dark, but I could see his uniform and the telltale sign of a radio antenna on his shoulder. He had a limp as he hurried toward me.

Now, here’s where Louis Gates and I differ. I immediately went into “Yes sir” mode. I explained how we came up the alley (all the while trying not breathe into his face, aware of the three beers I’d had). He seemed to accept that explanation, so I asked him what was going on. He was eager to tell me that there had been a shooting up the street, and that the gunman had apparently run down the alley across the street from our house.

At this point, I said “Well, we’ll go inside and lock our doors tight, then!”  And you might think he would be on his way. But you would be wrong. Because the next thing he said was, “Where do you work?”

I told him where I work, and agreed that yes, it is a long drive. The he tilted his head toward the porch where Unnamed Partner was sitting waiting for me and said, “Who’s that?”

In what seemed like an eon of time, I thought to myself, what do I say here? I don’t pretend to know what a black man in American society, feels but I know what a gay woman feels — and it ain’t always great. I have to say, though, I kind of surprised myself by deciding so quickly that the truth was the best answer, so I simply said “That’s my partner.”

Well, now. There’s six ways to Sunday that he might have responded to that statement of mine, but I sure never expected this one: “What’s she do?”

At this point, you might understandably think this was a pleasant exchange and what’s my problem. But I hasten to remind you: there’s an armed gunman running around the neighborhood! So I really was not in the mood for a chat about work! I know, I know. I have wondered whether he was tryiong to surmise whether the person on the proch was in fact the gunman and I was being held hostage or something. But then I think about the fact that he was wandering around our street in the dark, by himself, while all the other officers were up the street.

The name “Barney Fife” has occurred to me …

I guess this is life in the big city. It’s the payoff for having the library, the 7-11, the mechanic — all within walking distance.

But sometimes I wonder …

Greed: The Equal Opportunity Weakness

dixonFor the past few months the news of political and financial corruption has been full of, well, let’s be honest: greedy white men. But lest you think that other demographics cannot be just as boldly (stupidly?) greedy, along comes the Mayor of Baltimore City, Sheila Dixon. Dixon has been indicted on 12 counts that simply reek of an audacious greed. From the Baltimore Sun:

The case stems in part from at least $15,348 in gifts Dixon allegedly received from her former boyfriend, prominent city developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, while she was City Council president. She also is accused of using as much as $3,400 in gift cards, some donated to her office for distribution to “needy families,” to purchase Best Buy electronics and other items for herself and her staff….

One theft charge involves misconduct in December 2007, when Dixon was mayor. According to the indictment, a Baltimore housing employee purchased Toys R Us gift cards to be distributed to underprivileged children during a holiday event. Dixon allegedly gave one of those gift cards to a member of her staff, and five others were discovered at her West Baltimore house when investigators raided it in June.

Among other accusations: In 2004, 2005 and 2006, Dixon solicited gift cards – to Target, Best Buy, Old Navy and Circuit City — from two developers. She then used some of the cards to purchase a PlayStation2 controller, a PlayStation Portable, a Samsung digital camcorder and other items she either kept or gave to staff members as Christmas presents, the indictment said.

Among the charges:

3 separate counts of theft, which if true, just boggle the mind. If you believe in hell, there is a special level for people who do this:

Stealing gift cards worth more than $500 donated to Office of City Council President that she had solicited from Developer B for needy and underprivileged families in Baltimore, and using them for her own benefit, between Dec. 13, 2005, and Jan. 29, 2006.

Or this:

Stealing gift cards worth more than $500 donated to Office of City Council President that she had solicited from Developer A for needy and underprivileged families in Baltimore, and using them for her own benefit, between Dec. 18, 2006, and Dec. 6, 2007.

Or this:

During December 2007, stealing gift cards provided to her from Baltimore City Housing Department to distribute to needy families, and converting them to personal use.

Then there are 3 counts of “Fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary” related to those gift cards, and 2 counts of “Misconduct in office,” again related to those gift cards. Baltimore is a complicated city, and Shelia Dixon oversaw a reduction in violent crime since coming into office (which unfortunately has not continued into 2009). But her business dealings with contractors in the city have been questionable all along, and they should not be some kind of balance in people’s minds against what she has done, if these charges are in fact true.

Consumate politician that she is, Dixon released the following statement. Perhaps I am parsing her words too finely, but to me, she seems to  neatly avoid saying the phrase “I am innocent,” or even a simple “I didn’t do anything wrong”:

“I am being unfairly accused. Time will prove that I have done nothing wrong, and I am confident that I will be found innocent of these charges.”

Time will prove I have done nothing wrong”? Why not just, “I have done nothing wrong”? And “I will be found innocent of these charges” is not really the same thing as saying “I am innocent of these charges.”

Lucky for Dixon, the Baltimore Ravens have pushed her story down the front page a few notches. But that’s only temporary. At some point, she will have to face these charges, and we will have to face this reality of human nature: What makes some people think they are entitled to more than other people?