I've lost my faith in jury system

Case: A juror in a recent murder trial says some of her colleagues appeared guilty of an alarming indifference to justice.

March 12, 2000|By Barbara Frye

I FEAR THAT somewhere in Southwest Baltimore, there's a woman I owe an apology. Her son was murdered, and there's a real chance that I let the killer go free.

In January, I was a juror in the trial of a young man accused in the shooting death of another young man a year earlier, after the two had fought over the rights to a drug sale.

About the only facts we had were that the victim had been shot at very close range five times in the face and once in the back of the head. He was found lying on the sidewalk, clutching two $5 bills but with more than $250 in his pockets.

The prosecution provided two eyewitnesses who, like most eyewitnesses you're likely to find on a drug corner, weren't the most trustworthy types. The defense provided a possible alternative suspect, who, conveniently, had been shot and killed the day after the murder in question.

What the jurors brought to the equation was almost as troubling. While some struggled honestly with the evidence, others went into deliberations with their arms crossed, literally, and their minds closed. I had seen this a few years before, as a juror in a drug trial. It is the reason, more than inconvenience or boredom, that I dread the annual calls for jury duty that seem to come with life in Baltimore. It's also the reason why I have lost faith in the jury system.

To be sure, it wasn't an easy case. One eyewitness was facing his third felony drug conviction; the defense attorney insisted that his testimony was part of a deal with the prosecution. The prosecutor denied it.

The other eyewitness had told police in May that he had recognized the alleged assailant. Then, in October, the uncle of the defendant paid him a visit. By January, he was recanting everything he had told police. With relatives of the accused sitting in the back of the courtroom, this witness took up an afternoon not remembering anything on the transcript of his police interview, as the prosecutor read it to him line by line.

Neither witness said he had seen the face of the assailant, only parts of it, and different parts at that. Both agreed he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, with the hood pulled up, and a bandanna. Both also agreed that they knew the accused by the way he walked, on the balls of his feet.

A search of the house of the accused turned up a black bandanna tied as a mask, and a police detective testified that she had noticed the accused walking on the balls of his feet when she interviewed him during the investigation.

Meanwhile, during all five days of the trial, a woman who we all came to believe was the victim's mother sat and listened, on the opposite side of the courtroom from the defendant's family. Sometimes she was alone, sometimes she came with a young boy, presumably another son. She sat there as we were shown pictures of the dead man's naked body, the face marked with bullet holes. She sat there, as witnesses told of the defendant stepping onto the sidewalk and shooting the victim in the face. She didn't openly consult with the prosecutor, and she didn't cry.

There were reasons to doubt the guilt of the accused; the other potential suspect, a friend of the defendant's, had been acting particularly suspicious. But so might you, if your friend had just killed someone.

The first poll of the jury showed a majority of undecideds, a handful voting not guilty and one or two voting for conviction. I was one of the undecideds.

It was the walk, the eyewitnesses and the detective's testimony that stuck with me. I'm married to a man with a distinctive walk, and I can spot him in the dark a half-block away. Other jurors didn't think that kind of identification possible. I chalk that up to honest disagreement. But if they didn't believe that, then it would be nearly impossible for them to convict.

Negative view of police

I suspect other areas of disagreement weren't so honest. When I offered the detective's observations of the defendant's walk, one woman suggested that, because the detective had first interviewed the eyewitnesses, perhaps she had been influenced to believe that the defendant walked oddly.

I thought this highly unlikely, because, I said, police are trained to observe. No, the woman corrected me, police are trained to lie.

As wide and troubling as that gulf between us was, I could have accepted it more readily had I believed that the woman was speaking from her experiences with police officers, which, after all, were bound to be different from mine. I'm white and live in Charles Village. She is African-American and had talked freely about living in a succession of drug-infested neighborhoods.

Still, in all our discussions about street crime, over the course of five days in the jury room -- and we had many such discussions -- she never evinced a mistrust of the police. The truth, I fear, is that the detective's observations didn't jibe with her gut feeling that the defendant was innocent. She chose to believe that the detective was either impressionable or lying.

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