guilty

When I said ‘guilty’ out loud, it pained me. I didn’t expect it to. The jury, sitting around a long table, gave a voice vote and I was the last one to speak. I was also the last holdout, and held out several hours (11 guilty, one undecided) till I felt comfortable with the verdict. (Two people thanked me later for holding out.) Decisions aren’t easy for me — especially life-changing ones. I don’t take commitment lightly, and this was something I had to commit to so I didn’t feel burdened by it — or regret my decision — later.

When I walked out of the courthouse, I fought back the tears that burned my eyes. The minimum this 20-something faced was 30 years in prison. I saw him countless days in court. He always wore a dapper suit and glasses and stood up every time we walked into the jury box. I can’t describe why I felt so sad — I felt sad that there was nothing I could do about the situation, that I looked at him as if he was innocent until the end, that I don’t particularly like our prison system, that this young man’s life would be spent behind bars, that his family wasn’t in court, that his cousin and best friend who came into the court in shackles had testified against him. But I weighed the facts at hand, minus emotion (also hard for me to do) and the government had proved to me, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant had murdered a 17-year-old boy with a shot to the back of the head. All because he lived in a rival neighborhood.

It was bitterly cold, sunny day on January 19, 2004. A guy named “Crunchy” was driving a brown Chrysler Lebaron down a street in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington D.C. Two other boys were in the car, including “Jiggy” and they were all smoking a “jay” as one of them said on the jury stand. A cream compact car with Maryland tags was parked on the street, and a guy who wore a navy blue large coat, an open-faced black mask and gloves stood in the middle of the street, and fired seven shots with a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol. He hit “Crunchy” in the back of the head and killed him. He hit the other two kids, too, one of whom took bullets to his shoulder and arm. The LeBaron crashed into a tree on the next block. The shooter got back into the passenger seat of the car and his cousin drove away.

Where this case gets complicated is his cousin, who was a key witness for the prosecution, got a plea deal to testify that he was the getaway driver. With the plea, he wouldn’t face first-degree murder, rather, he would face three counts of accessory after the fact and one count of perjury. The cousin had lied before. Another key witness, also in prison for selling heroin, was also not a credible witness and described a shootout scene that none of the 12 jurors believed. As for physical evidence, we didn’t have any direct DNA or fingerprints. The guns, that matched the ballistics of the casings left in the street, were found in the trunk of a car. On a plastic bag in the trunk were the defendant’s fingerprints. But they weren’t on the gun. The car belonged to another guy, who allegedly handed the defendant the gun while it was fully loaded.

Ultimately, we found the defendant guilty of seven of 12 counts, including two counts of assault with intent to kill. There was one count I was sure the government had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt (though I thought maybe it happened), related to the obstruction of justice. The jury was split 6-6 on this count, so I and another juror (who I later found out was a lawyer for 25 years) turned the other six to “not guilty” one by one. Had I felt that strongly about the first-degree murder charge, I would have tirelessly turned the jurors that way. But I didn’t.

I was shaking when the forewoman read the verdict in the courtroom full of people. The defendant shook his head and looked down at the table, his arms spread out on the table in front of him. The defense asked that the judge poll the jury, so each one of us had to say that we heard the verdicts and that we agreed with them. My voice was soft and timid when I said, “Yes your honor,” and “Yes, I do.”

After we delivered the verdict, we had the choice of whether to stay and chat with the lawyers on both sides. I was emotionally distraught and not ready to leave, so I sat in the juror’s room, waiting for the lawyers. Several of the other jurors left, saying they wanted to put the experience behind them as soon as possible. I’m so thankful I waited. The lawyers were amiable and open to all questions. I found out several things I would not have known otherwise, including that the defendant is already serving an 11-year sentence for armed robbery, and why the government dropped the case against a different suspect.

The defendant faces sentencing on Sept. 12. I exchanged phone numbers with another juror who plans to call the prosecuting lawyers so I can hear the defendant’s fate. And I’m sure I’ll feel sad about it then, too.

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