“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” — E.B. White, Here is New York

 

 

A while ago, I served as a juror on a five-day criminal trial at the Brooklyn Supreme Court. It was great. To start, here is some sample elevator conversation:

Attorney: “I’m on three murder cases.”
Other man: “You got three?”
Attorney: “Yeah—like I need a hole in my head.”

On the jury with me were two MTA workers, a fashion designer, a mortgage specialist, an office manager, and a retired nurse, among others. One of the MTA workers drove an overnight bus in Queens and the other, and older woman with purple-tinted braids, had manned the booth at the Franklin Avenue subway stop. People kept recognizing her. “I KNOW you from somewhere!” She just laughed. “I used to be at Franklin Ave!”

Our deliberation room on the 18th floor of the court building looked out over downtown Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Ebo, the retired nurse, took the lead of the group as foreperson. “We are all family now,” she said the first time we gathered. During our two-hour lunch breaks she slept with her head on the deliberation table.

The case was armed robbery. Shequan, a 21-year-old black man, stood accused of robbing Slava, a 21-year-old white man, at gunpoint in 2008. Slava had been walking home from friend’s house where he had been watching a movie, when he was accosted by two men, one of whom held a gun to his head. Slava had been unable to get a good look at either man. Both them, he said, were wearing hoodies and one was wearing a do-rag. It was 11:30 at night. Slava had called 911 and spoken to a detective; the detective put out a neighborhood notice for black men in their 20s. Two months later, Slava was called to a police station to view two suspect lineups. He didn’t recognize anyone in either of them. Three months after that, he was called again. In the new lineup were six black men, ages 17 to 25, wearing mustard-colored beanies. Slava chose suspect number three: Shequan. Slava said seeing Shequan on that day had given him an adrenaline rush.

We heard three full days of testimony, though in jury-land, a full day is only four to six hours with a hearty lunch break in the middle. Besides Slava, we heard from the detective who arranged the lineups, two 911 dispatchers who processed Slava’s calls, and a memory expert from Stony Brook University, called by the defense. The expert spoke about how our ability to remember is terrible, how it’s especially difficult for a person of one race to identify a person of another.

Shequan had waived his right to testify.

The lawyers on both sides were trying really hard, too hard. The attorney for the defense was tall, tan man whose large frame made his glasses seem tiny. For the prosecution was a woman with long blonde hair and a thin-lipped, frowning mouth. Her nails were silver. She was accompanied by a youngish man in Prada glasses. Each of the three lawyers tried several different tactics during their time before the jury. They pantomimed the robbery. They varied the volume of their voices. They waved their hands and spoke in lawyerese. The female prosecutor was especially fond of the phrase “I submit to you.” “I submit to you, jury, that this defendant is guilty. I submit to you!” she said.

The judge, an older man with a thick New York accent, implored us to keep open minds. “Do not discuss this case, do not even think about this case, and keep an open mind,” he said before our lunch breaks and before dismissing us each day. We wanted nothing more than to talk about the case with each other. At the end of day five, he sent us off to deliberate with a heady warning: “There are very few things in this life we can be absolutely certain of.”

The jury found Shequan not guilty on all charges. Because I was an alternate juror, I was not allowed to deliberate; I was instead sequestered in a small room by myself for three hours. After the verdict was announced, I was allowed to rejoin the jury. I gravitated toward Katrina, the first juror I had met, five days earlier. “We found him not guilty,” she whispered. Katrina never whispered. “Do you agree?”

I nodded. We took the elevator down together and split off into the gray afternoon. We said goodbye as if we would see each other again.

I couldn’t think of a thing to do with the rest of my day.