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©1999 - 2005
Edward D. Reuss
All rights reserved. Including the right of reproduction in whole or part in any form

 

COP IN THE JURY BOX

Like all police officers, I was exempt from jury duty for nearly thirty-one years. No more. When I received my summons this time, I was no longer entitled to that automatic exclusion. Having just retired, I had to report.

Like anyone else, I dreaded the prospect of precious time wasted away from home and responsibilities. There had to be a way out. I figured it would be simple. A hard-line cop to the core, I had ascended to the rank of captain in the largest police agency south of the Mason-Dixon line; Metro-Dade, the sprawling county which surrounds Miami, Florida. A prosecutor’s dream. A defense attorney’s nightmare. I’d be dismissed before the second question was asked.

I reported to the courthouse and flashed my retiree’s badge to the woman in charge. "There’s no chance I’ll be accepted," I pled. "So why waste your time and mine?"

"Sorry, please be seated."

Hmmmm

 I became a number, UR1003, one of more than three hundred exasperated men and women mustered in a huge room listening to speeches about courtroom procedure. Old stuff.

At 2:30 p.m., my number was finally called. Thirty of us were ushered to a small pristine courtroom nestled on the ninth floor of Fort Lauderdale’s courthouse where a handsome blond judge presided. The lawyers, male, immaculate, white, sat at their tables studying our faces. An African American youth clad in a rumpled black shirt and tie sat next to the younger lawyer. No one had to guess who the players were.

My old prejudices began to surface. I’d been there too many times. I figured the defendant was charged with a violent felony. His Public Defender is buried in case load. The prosecutor is pro-cop. The defense lawyer isn’t.

I already tagged the guy as guilty. It’s rare they’re not. He’s just another dirtbag clogging the system. I come by my instincts honestly, a product of thirty years orientation.

I listened carefully. The lawyers questioned each juror and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to qualify the only two blacks in our group. They were both elderly and confused. The composition of this jury was destined to be all-white.

When asked if any of us were related to law enforcement, I seized the moment. "I’m a retired police captain," I announced, figuring I’d be out of there in minute.

The defendant cringed.

Minutes later the gangly young defense lawyer posed a simple question about concepts of weighing evidence and reasonable doubt. Academic. No way this guy will pick me.

The lawyers huddled at side bar with their selections. Moments later, the judge announced, "Juror number one, Mr. Frank."

I would have been less surprised if a dozen dancing porpoises twirled through the courtroom wearing tutus. Here I was, an ex-cop by a few months, being sworn in as a juror.

As the judge rambled through his speech, I peered at the defendant thinking of how often I had arrested punks like him. But now I found myself in a unique position, not of accusing but of final judgement, evaluating only that information which the judge would allow jurors to hear.

Over the years, I often sat in a courtroom surveying a jury, speculating how they’d think, feel, decide. Now, sure enough, sitting there in the fourth row, there he was, a polyester clad detective eyeballing all of us.

I began to feel the metamorphosis which probably takes place anytime a citizen is sworn in as a juror. How fortunate I was playing a new role in another cog of the criminal justice system. My cynicism evolved into enthusiasm.

Four of the six jurors were carved right out of an Archie Bunker script, white, male, over fifty and fed up with crime. The lone woman was a bleached blonde chain smoker in her fifties. Of the two younger fellows, one was a rock musician. The other lived on a houseboat.

The defendant was a dirtbag all right, twenty-four years old, small-time drug pusher charged with robbing another dopehead from the same neighborhood. It was wonderful, lawyers prating before us, eager to win inside this arena of legal combat. The prosecutor’s aim; convict the bastard. The defenses; Get him off, guilty or not.

First witness. A too well-dressed dude wearing gold-rimmed glasses sauntered to the stand and took the oath. His name is Willie. He’s twenty-two. I recognize the attitude. His character seeps through the phony facade. He struggles to speak in middle class, but he’s just another street urchin. A social parasite.

 I caught myself drawing conclusions. Listen to the facts.

Willie was driving through the neighborhood one afternoon when the defendant, Reggie, approached him on a bike. The two grew up together. Old chums.

Willie testified that Reggie pointed an automatic through the driver’s window and demanded his neck chain and money. Reggie allegedly reached in the car and opened the door so Willie could stand up and get the money out of his pocket. Reggie then made an escape pedaling his Schwinn.

 Irate, Willie hurried to a girlfriend’s apartment to get his gun. Why? Of course, to search for a cop to make a report. Why the gun? Uh, that was for self-protection in case he ran into Reggie again. Riiiight.

Before Willie got to a pay phone, a patrol officer came along and noticed the gun lying on Willie’s car seat. Willie not only got a chance to report the robbery, the cop took him to jail on a firearms charge.

While Willie tried in vain to portray him self as "Joe America", the defense lawyer exposed him as a three-time convicted felon for drug dealing.

 My old investigator’s instincts began to kick in. I felt the urge to leap over the jury box and fire off a few dozen questions of my own.

 Next witness: Mongo, an apt sobriquet for the robbery detective.

 An old time cop, Mongo knew the street people better than his own family. He was notified about the robbery that afternoon but never responded. Never said why.

 He waited four days before he took a statement from Willie. Even then, Mongo had probable cause to arrest Reggie, but he didn’t. Never said why.

 Nine days later, Reggie was in a hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. That’s when Mongo made the collar. Never said why.

 I listened to the taped statement Mongo took from Reggie. It was one of the worst I’d ever heard. I once taught the subject.

Finally, one more witness; Willie’s girlfriend. Until trial day, neither attorney had ever met her. Suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of civic duty, she now testified how she stood outside her apartment and witnessed the entire robbery. She pointed to the defendant.

I squirmed in the jury box. Her testimony was holier than Swiss cheese. No way could she have seen it all from her vantage point.

The state rested.

Reggie took the stand in his own defense, admitting he is a small-time drug dealer. He spoke with a glaze in his eyes, almost unintelligible.

"This," he said, "is nothing more than a debt."

Street stuff. Willie owed him money and Reggie took collateral. Perhaps he intimidated Willie, but he didn’t rob him with a gun, not someone he’s known for a lifetime. Who were we to believe?

The trial lasted half a day. We retired to the jury room where, not ironically, I was elected foreman. We tried putting the pieces together. Where was the officer who arrested Willie? How could Reggie hold a gun in one hand and open the car door with the other, from the outside? Why did Mongo wait so long to act? The girlfriend was totally discredited.

Some jurors had trepidations about setting Reggie free, another menace back on the streets. But that wasn’t the issue here. Not only did we have reasonable doubt, we were sure it never happened as portrayed by the prosecution.

We were out in thirty minutes. When the verdict was read, Reggie clutched his lawyer’s hands and wept uncontrollably. I choked a bit myself. For some reason, I felt a pang of sympathy for this dirtbag.

And in the final analysis, the defense attorney wasn’t so stupid after all.

Copyright Ó 2000 Marshall Frank. All rights reserved.

Marshall Frank is a retired Captain from the Metro-Dade Police Department in Miami, Florida after 30 years of service. Although he was born in New York City, he grew up in Miami. He became a police officer at the age of 21. He spent the majority of his career investigating homicides or commanding those who did. He has testified in over one hundred murder investigations. He lives now with his family in North Carolina where he writes of his experiences as a police officer. He is the author of "Beyond the Call" , to Excel Press, Lincoln, NE (1999).

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