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 …

My version of Spring Break

I’ve mentioned before that I work for a university, and next week we get a couple of days off for Spring Break. It could not be coming at a better time for me. I am just frazzled. Frazzled, I tell you. Things are happening around me that are totally out of my control – and that is something up with which I will not put. (To borrow from Winston Churchill.)

You see, we are having a crime wave in our neighborhood. And while it’s true that I live “in the city,” I live in what has been a fairly crime-free part of the city, an “occasional car broken into when a GPS was left in sight” part of the city. But last month a retired veteran who lived about 6 blocks from us was stabbed to death in his home in the middle of the day. And then the break-ins started all around the neighborhood – last week it was a home down the street from us, and this week it was the house next door to us.

fritzface2And it doesn’t matter if you have an alarm or not – our district is so large that by the time one of the few police cars in our district makes its way to the break-in, the burglars are long gone. They know they have plenty of time to grab the DVD player, camera, laptop, etc. We have Fritz, of course, who does indeed have a badass bark when he hears someone come onto the porch. But I am not wholly convinced that he couldn’t be persuaded with a nice cut of beef or a large wedge of cheese …. Although I can hope he might react the way a German Shepherd belonging to a friend of my neighbor did – the owner came home from work to find the dog choking on something, whereupon it was discovered to be a burglar’s finger.

The feeling of not being safe in your home is just sickening. Coming on the heels of my post earlier this week about my former student it’s almost overwhelming. And when I try to put it out of my mind as I did last evening, I drive past the Sunoco station near our house to see 5 police cars, lights flashing, with two men sitting on the ground. I don’t know what was going on, but it can’t be good.

Last night I woke up from a dream that our house had been broken into. In my dream, the burglars came in through the basement window – which is how most of these break-ins have happened. Only, in my dream, Unnamed Partner and I went down the basement stairs to see — not only the basement window broken,  but the entire side of the house missing!

I know – subtle, eh?

We have really good neighbors, all around, and I know we’ll all be looking out for each other now more than ever. But this sense of helplessness in the midst of crime and violence is so unnerving. I am trying to take a lesson from it, to have more empathy with the many people around the world who live with uncertainty and fear in their lives each and every day. I thought I was pretty empathetic, but apparently someone/something felt I needed a refresher.

Value every day, every moment, every one. And hope your dog is not easily swayed by cheddar ….

“Yer Honor, I had no idea!”

george-bush-sourIt’s pretty much an American tradition that when a President leaves office he pardons a whole lot of people who were convicted of crimes. I don’t have the time today to research the history of this tradition, but since there will be many more pardons to come, perhaps I can pull something together before G.W.’s out of office.

This practice has always reinforced to me the American way of “it’s who you know, and how much you can pay.” I mean, really. Our prison system is full of innocent people, of course. Or people who made one bad decision, or people who were forced into a situation simply because of circumstance. But they don’t get a  pardon.

But every few years a handful of average people do, which makes me wonder about the the backstory of these folks, pardoned late last night by President Bush:

  • Andrew Foster Harley of Falls Church, Virginia, convicted of wrongful use and distribution of marijuana and cocaine during a general court martial at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

I mean, really — during a general court martial?! ” It was a accident, yer Honor! She said her name was Mary Jane!”

  • Obie Gene Helton of Rossville, Georgia, sentenced to two years’ probation in April 1983 for unauthorised acquisition of food stamps.

Two years of probation seems pretty reasonable for this offense. I mean, someone else’s babies could have probably used those food stamps, ya know?

  • Carey C. Hice Sr. of Travelers Rest, South Carolina, convicted 12 years ago of income tax evasion and sentenced to 120 days of home confinement.

Again, no actual prison time. In fact, not paying taxes and spending 120 days at home sounds pretty nice to me. Does crime pay, after all?

  • Paul Julian McCurdy of Sulphur, Oklahoma, who was sentenced to five years’ probation in 1988 of misapplication of $112,000 of bank funds.

“Misapplication?” That’s rich. I’ll have to remember that excuse.

  • Daniel Figh Pue III, a former production superintendant from Conroe Creosoting in Conroe, Texas, convicted of of illegally transporting and dumping more than 1,500 gallons of hazardous creosote sludge in a ditch.

Again, “I swear — it was a accident. I thought I was allowed to dump hazardous waste into a ditch. I promise I’ll never do it again, yer Honor.”

Petty crimes, by probably rather petty people. But now their records are clean and they have been forgiven for their crimes. Good lawyers and political connections — the American way.