As the story of Freddie Gray’s arrest and subsequent death 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.