At the beginning and end of each day, the judge implored us not to discuss the case with anyone. But when he finally dismissed us from the dusty climes of the Mitchell Courthouse back into our lives, he lifted the ban. In fact, he urged us to tell our friends, neighbors, and families what we had done, because we had performed an essential and noble duty of citizenship.
But what had we done, after all? Nothing to brag about, I’m afraid.
My first service as a juror in Baltimore City, or anywhere for that matter, occurred last week. It involved the case of an alleged crack dealer, a case which the judge believed would take less than a day to conclude. It took three. At which point, even if we had hoped to help out the beleaguered resident of the Douglass Homes projects who called the cops on April 21, 2015, to say two guys were selling drugs right out at the bus stop, we could not.
Though no one on the jury doubted that the defendant — a tall, young, almost nerdy-looking light-skinned black guy who showed up every day in horn-rimmed glasses, shirt and tie — was indeed a drug dealer, we found him not guilty of all three charges: possession, intent to distribute, and conspiracy to distribute cocaine. So said I to the court, as Madam Forelady: Not guilty, three times.
How can that be? Well, as the public defender put it in her opening arguments, “You will find, ladies and gentlemen, that the operation of drug enforcement in the City of Baltimore in this case most reminds you of the operation of snow removal in the City of Baltimore.”
It seems like a pretty good place to be a crack dealer, really.
After all the people who felt they could not be fair because of their beliefs about policemen, race, gender, drugs, etc. were excused, I was the first person selected, Juror #1. Our judge was a well-spoken and considerate fellow named Timothy Doory. It was close to noon when the lawyers, both women, finally agreed on the twelve jurors and two alternates, so Judge Doory sent us home until Monday.
Why was I appointed Madam Forelady? I wondered for a few days what my special gift might be, and how they knew about it. Then I found out the foreperson is always the juror in seat #1 of the twelve numbered seats in the jury box.
We gathered in the jury room, a sort of garret above the courtroom also used for the storage of Christmas decorations and lighting fixtures. Over the next three days, we would spend a great deal of time in this room, gradually becoming more relaxed and friendly though we never introduced ourselves. When I suggested we do so, the sullen, hoodie-clad young Latina, who sat in the seat beside me said, “You can just call me #2,” which scared everyone else into silence.
Aside from #2, there were:
– #s 6, 9, 11, three well-turned-out, statuesque black women of varying ages and sizes. The most fashionably dressed, coiffed and manicured was also the most outgoing; the woman who sat across the table from her could have been her sister. The third, young and quick to laugh, had a mane of multi-colored locks. They formed a kernel of affability that gradually expanded to include almost everyone.
– #3, a petite and rather sour black woman; she’d served on a jury every year for the last four years, so was a big expert on everything.
– #s 5 and 12, two short, skinny black men with cornrows, one younger, one older: indistinguishable to the average white person, as the younger one pointed out. (In fact, I didn’t realize at first that there were two of them.) Both eventually revealed themselves to be quite knowledgeable about the matters before us, thus playing an influential role when the time for deliberations arrived. The younger one was a grocery store manager, the older one seemed to be a drug addict.
– #10, a light-skinned, portly black man. Very polite. A businessman type.
– #4, a weirdly lumpy and extremely pale white woman with short jet-black frizzy hair and black square glasses. Though she looked like a mental patient, she was later revealed to be a logical-minded insurance clerk.
– #7, a tall, chatty, white guy with a skunk stripe in the front of his hair and a big Transformer tattoo on his forearm. He told a story about having his tip jar stolen; I thought of him as “The Barista.”
– #8, a quiet young white girl with beautiful long brown hair, though not as long as #2’s, whose curtain of ebony tresses brushed her show-stopping backside.
-#s 13 and 14, the alternates: both women, both pretty, one white, one black. The white one was allowed to decamp on a scheduled flight to Houston when things dragged on. The other had to stay right up until we went into deliberations.
And then there was me, #1, Madam Forelady, a small, gray-haired white woman, a wisecracker, possibly the oldest person present.
The opening statements of the attorneys seemed to describe two different cases. The prosecutor, a young woman with big dark eyes and tons of wavy black hair, always restrained in a ponytail or bun, introduced the story of the detective who received the complaint, “set up shop” nearby, and watched the defendant sell drugs for 45 minutes. When he and his confederate were apprehended, they had on them 40 purple-top vials of cocaine and $109.
The defense attorney started her speech with the snow-removal analogy, then explained that to prove guilt in a drug case the state you need four things: a buyer, a seller, drugs, and money. “They have trouble with all of them,” she said.
Yeah, right, I thought at the time.
The state put Detective #1 on the stand — a squat, bearded thirty-something with thinning hair who looked so much like a cop it was hard to imagine that he worked undercover. A posterboard-mounted map that would help us understand where it all went down was entered as State’s Exhibit 1. Unfortunately, it ended one full block south of the area in question. But the detective couldn’t say where he was anyway since it was a covert location and had to be protected for future investigations. It couldn’t have been too far from the defendant, because when the detective started his car immediately after witnessing the transaction, the defendant heard it and was spooked. He and the buyer jumped on a bus while Dealer #2 rode off on a bike. When asked, the detective couldn’t say what number bus it was, nor had he noted it in his report.
(As cornrow grocer would later wonder – Why did he start his engine at all? Why not just get out of the car and bust all three of them?)
What Detective #1 did at that point was watch the bus go down the street, and radio another cop in the area to pick them up when they got off. The description he gave the second detective of the dealer was “a black man all in black.”
Detective #2, who looked a little like Serpico, took the stand. He said that the black man all in black got off the bus at the very next stop, Fayette and Aisquith, and rejoined his confederate. Eventually, the two of them approached his car and agreed to a consensual search.
(This was not challenged by the defense attorney but it seemed insane. Why weren’t they trying to escape? What happened to the bike? Several jurors saw the defendant make faces of incredulity and disgust during this testimony.)
Detective #2 found 30 vials on one guy and nine on the other. There was a great deal of description of the packaging of the vials. Ten in one bag, ten in another bag, five in another, five in another, nine in another. This was repeated over and over throughout the trial, and indeed that’s how it was divided up when they showed us the goods.
(According to cornrow addict, this in itself was suspicious. No dealer would have the product divided up this way.)
The $109 was never mentioned again, nor the 40th vial referred to in the police report, nor how they lost track of the buyer, nor why two dealers with either 39 or 40 vials of crack would willingly approach a policeman and be searched.
But wait, there’s more.
In came Detective #3, who was with Detective #2 on the arrest. He was the one black cop involved, and he was also the cutest one, with dimples, sparkly eyes, and a springy hairdo I have since learned is called a “cruddy fade.” He identified the defendant and was asked no further questions. I found this unfortunate on a number of levels.
State called Detective #4, who had not been at the scene, but had received the drugs from the arresting officers. This was a hefty dude with short bangs cut straight across his forehead. He looked like a Green Bay Packers fan. His job was to take the drugs over to Evidence Control so they could be analyzed at the lab.
State called the lab technician, a lanky, attractive black woman dressed in a sweater and slacks, who testified that the purple tops did indeed contain cocaine.
On cross, defense counsel took a closer look at the sheet of paper that follows the evidence through the process and is signed by every person who touches it. “This report says you tested the drugs on September 24, 2015.”
“That’s right,” said the technician.
“In fact,” said counsel, “it also says Detective #3 turned in the drugs on September 22! So where were the drugs since April?”
The lab tech said they were in a vault, but didn’t have any real way of knowing, so the state recalled Detective #3. Now he said, oh yeah, I dropped them off in April, but I made a mistake entering them into the system. Eventually in September, he went in and fixed it. (It was actually even more complicated and shaky sounding than this, but I’m going to spare you.)
A five-month lapse between the arrest and the start of the Evidence Control tracking sheet! The judge asked counsel to approach the bench. After a long conference (they play white noise during these conferences so the jury can’t overhear), Judge Doory turned to us regretfully. “Since it is impossible to go on, I will ask you all to go home and come back tomorrow morning.”
We sat in the jury room until 10:30 or so, at which point they sent us home again.
The state called one more witness – the supervisor of the Evidence Control department, an older black woman. She explained that if the officer had dropped off the drugs but failed to enter them in the system, they would have been held in a special locker devoted to that purpose. He would be sent an email asking him to come in and correct the problem. This email would go out every other week – in this case, ten emails.
The defense attorney asked if she had any direct knowledge of this particular evidence, or if it was just the general procedure. It was the latter.
The state rested.
The defense did not call any witnesses.
The prosecutor struggled through her closing statement. “This is drug prosecution in Baltimore,” she said wearily, though she did not bring up snow removal. “We cannot give you this case on a silver platter.” She went on to say that all the bureaucratic problems, all the arguments about bus routes and covert locations and clerical errors should not distract us from the fact that every detective had identified the defendant as the man from whom they had recovered the cocaine on April 21, 2015.
The defense attorney went over most, but not all, of the holes in the state’s case. She spent little time asserting her client’s innocence. “They are going to have to do better than this” is what she said.
Detective #1 had returned to the courtroom for the closing statements. He was not a super-appealing guy. But you could see he badly wanted that crack dealer in jail.
The judge read us some lengthy instructions about how to make our decision, including the fact that to return a guilty verdict, we had to find the defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
And off we went to pick up some lunch and return to our hidey-hole to deliberate.
A few people got chicken boxes from Royal Farms, which smelled so good I almost fainted. The chubby white lady had a sub and a cupcake. The friendly black woman with the amazing nails delicately nibbled from a bag of dill-pickle-flavor potato chips. The other white girl and I had salads. The hidey-hole, so silent for three days, now buzzed with people excitedly talking over each other.
All the questions and doubts poured out. The cornrow guys, both black men dressed in black, explained their insider views of the situation, making the detectives’ accounts seem even more ludicrous than they already did. I did believe the policemen’s identifications, though, and thought we might, at least, convict the defendant of possession. I said so out loud, and that’s how I learned that everyone agreed that the guy was a dealer. But as we went over all we’d heard, I started doubting that the physical evidence was legit; there was something fishy about every part of the case. Where was the $109, for example? We had a Polaroid picture that was supposed to show all the evidence taken from the defendant and it wasn’t there. We sent down a note to the judge asking if the $109 should have been in the picture.
He wrote back that he couldn’t comment on the evidence, and we should rely on our memories. So we did.
The defendant took off his glasses and wiped away a tear when he heard the verdict. His mother and brother in the back row, identifiable because they looked exactly like him, didn’t show much emotion, at least right then. All the jurors tore off to collect their last $15 daily payment, meant to cover expenses, and that was it. The slingers went back to their slinging, and the undercover cops went back to their unmarked cars and their “binos,” (cop for binoculars), and the prosecutor probably went somewhere to take down her bun and order a double martini.
It seemed a terrible waste of time and money and a very bad message to send to the young crack dealers of Baltimore, and the defense attorney was right: the police are going to have to do better than this. Though we the jury could not conscionably act other than did, there’s no doubt that we failed the people who are raising their children and living their lives beside an open air drug market. It’ll be business as usual at Douglas Homes. That doesn’t sit well.
On the other hand, I have to say I loved jury duty. It was a rite of passage for me as a Baltimorean, a rare opportunity to spend meaningful time with the other kinds of people who live here, to play a role in the serious business of our city and even our nation. It was interesting and important, and I would do it again in a minute. Especially if they call me Madam Forelady.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and other books. Visit marionwinik.com to sign up for a monthly email with links to new installments of this column, other essays and book reviews.