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Wednesday
Jun302010

A life changing, bittersweet symphony

Dear readers,

I couldn't leave town tomorrow (for the July 4th holiday weekend) without sharing a recent experience that, without a doubt, changed my life.  While this has nothing to do with food or restaurants, it does have everything to do with my other passion, social justice. 

I still remember the conversation I had with a childhood friend who had just given birth to her first baby.  "Congratulations," I gasped, "was labor as miserable as everyone claims?"  Her response shocked me, as Lauren was weak and frequently got sick when we were younger.  "No, it was not miserable at all," she said calmly.  "Labor was amazing and I can't wait to experience it again."  Not only had I never heard anyone use "labor" and "amazing" in the same sentence, but I still couldn't get over that the fact that this came from Lauren's, of all people, mouth.  Like her story above, I seemed to be the first person to ever exclaim being "thrilled" about the prospect of serving as a juror on a trial.  On Wednesday afternoon, June 16th, after having sat in jury duty all day, I learned that I was one of twelve individuals chosen to serve on a criminal case.  "I expect this trial to run through the week of June 28th," the judge stated.  As my eyes met the brass "In God We Trust" letters perfectly centered above her (the judge's) elevated chamber, I silently thanked fate, luck, and the man upstairs for giving me this opportunity. 

The trial began on Friday, June 18th at 10:30a.m.  The defendant was a young black man facing four criminal charges, including possession of a chuka stick (or nunchakus) and a loaded 40-caliber Glock.  His living situation and employment status was all too stereotypical: he shared a 3-bedroom apartment in an East Harlem housing project with his mother and brother; he didn't have a job due to an illness, but received disability money from the government; his days consisted of waking up around 10:30a.m., where he would then go and "hang out" and drink with his buddies in the complex's central courtyard. 

In February 2009, a search warrant was issued for the defendant's apartment.  Interestingly enough, the warrant listed his two brothers, not the defendant.  A snitch tipped off the cops to a 9mm handgun and a stash of marijuana, which was said to be housed inside of the apartment.  During the warrant, the marijuana was confiscated, but the only firearm recovered in the search was a loaded 40-caliber Glock hidden inside of a computer printer in the defendant's bedroom...not the 9mm, which was listed on the search warrant.    

The state of New York was represented by two assistant district attorneys who, over the course of the week-long trial, called various witnesses to the stand; the majority being cops and detectives who were present and/or participated in the warrant.  During the search, the arresting officer did not take the precautionary measure of wearing latex gloves and, when asked to submit his DNA for elimination purposes, refused.  Additionally, there was not one cop or detective who was able to retrieve their memo book (which is supposed to be saved for evidence, pending the case goes to trial), used to jot down important information at crime scenes, from the day in question.  Furthermore, when the prosecution's witness from the County Medical Examiner's Office DNA lab took the stand, she concluded that the finger prints and DNA retrieved were inconclusive.

During the last day of testimony, the defense called the defendant's troubled young brother to the stand, who testified that the gun recovered during the search warrant was his.  Needless to say, this was a very interesting turn of events.  Why had the young brother waited sixteen-months to confess?

We, the jurors, began deliberations on Thursday, June 24th, and by 4:45pm on Friday afternoon, we had reached a unanimous verdict on all four charges.  I can't even begin to describe the flood of emotions that had completely taken over my body in the moments leading up to the verdict readings.  I wondered what the defendant was/wasn't thinking, whether or not he was praying, and what he assumed would be the outcome.  I looked over at his mother and brother, standing in the courtroom pews, with their eyes staring at the floor.  How nervous they must have been.  Each of the court officers was standing up, ready to take the defendant in to custody, should he be found guilty.  Finally, after what seemed like an awkward eternity, the verdict for each count was read: "not guilty on count one"..."not guilty on count two"..."not guilty on count three"..."not guilty on count four."  The heavy sound of the exhales that filled the courtroom was one of the most beautiful songs that I have ever heard.

We based our verdicts on the lack of evidence: aside from the fact that the 40-caliber Glock was found in the defendant's room, there was not enough (evidence) to support the charges of possession and intent, beyond a reasonable doubt.  No fingerprints.  No DNA.  His bedroom was open to the those in his apartment - his girlfriend, friends and family came and went, and the list of "what if it was so and so's gun" scenarios is endless. 

Before we were excused from the court room, the judge thanked us for our service and advised that we were free to speak with any member of the defense or prosecution.  We, the jurors, went back to the deliberation room to retrieve our belongings and go home.  Instead of leaving the building, most of us chose to stay behind for an opportunity to speak with the lawyers and the defendant.  It was so nice to finally hear the young man's voice, shake his hand, and watch him leave the courthouse with his family in tow.  "Thank you so much," he said.  I can still see the sincere, overwhelmed look in his big, brown eyes. 

On my journey home, I recounted the bittersweet events of my week.  Sweet, because the defendant was found not-guilty.  Bitter, because despite the fact that it's 2010 in New York City, there is still so much racial stereotyping and profiling.  The public, including law enforcement, can be so quick to judge or assume that, just because someone is black and lives in the projects, for example, they are automatically guilty of the crime at hand.  Why else would an arresting officer not wear latex gloves during a search warrant?  I can't seem to come up with any other reasoning.  As a nation, we've come so far in terms of equality, but obviously, we still have a ridiculously long way to go.

Emotionally, I'm still having a very hard time dealing with the fact that I had this young man's fate in my hands-set him free-and now, I will probably never see him again.  I want to know where his newfound freedom takes him, and how this whole experience, from start to end, will impact his life.  I'm not good at confronting situations that end so abruptly. 

The morning after, I took the train to meet some friends in the Hamptons.  As I looked around at my fellow passengers, I couldn't help but notice how homogenous everyone was.  White.  Immaculately dressed and polished.  Wealthy.  And as day turned to night in this beautiful summer oasis, I struggled to enjoy myself, for my mind was elsewhere.  I called my mother on the phone and fell to my knees, sobbing.  "What is wrong with me," I yelped, "why do I care so much?  I should be ecstatic that this man has his life back!"  This was the last place I wanted to be when my emotions were running so high.  I could not get out of this elitist summer playground quickly enough.      

Now, I could elaborate at arm's length about how I've always had a deep concern and fascination by urban studies and "how the other half lives."  And by that, I mean the folks who are not as monetarily fortunate (don't get it twisted, I'm hardly well-off), or accessible to an endless bouquet of opportunity.  Having personally experienced anti-Semitism, I have always been more sympathetic and open-minded to people of different cultures, religions, and races, in comparison to many of my peers.  One of the best compliments that I have ever received, and will eternally cherish, was from a former boss-an animated black woman from Harlem-who told me that I was "color blind."

After having read two of my favorite books about urban studies/sociology, "There Are No Children Here" and "Gang Leader For A Day," I recently picked up "American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto" and "Behind Ghetto Walls: Black Families in a Federal Slum."  I look forward to finishing at least one of these books during my upcoming vacation.  I'm also toying with the idea of returning to school to pursue a Master's in Urban Studies, or Criminal Sociology.  I can't think of a better campus than New York City.

I'm so thankful for my experience as a juror.  Although my emotions still run high, this will always be one of the most rewarding and sobering weeks of my life.

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