The World According to Me

The World According to Me is a play on one of my favorite novels, "The World According to Garp," by one of my favorite authors, John Irving. While I am not nearly the writer Irving is, I hope that my musings will offer a unique perspective on life. If nothing else, I have something to look back on when dementia kicks in.

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Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Monday, July 16, 2007

I'm Back, Baby!

I can cite a number of reasons why I have neglected to submit an entry for nearly a year. None of them, however, justify my absence. This is particularly true since this past year has been so eventful. For example, Mrs. E is currently "housing" our first child, set to make his or her appearance in just a few short weeks. I could poetically pen a thousand words expressing my joy and pride at bringing life into the world; and it wouldn’t do justice to my emotions.

My triumphant return to blogging, though, corresponds to a most remarkable episode I have just experienced. After nearly a week of service I have concluded my journey as a juror in the New York criminal court system. I must admit that my enthusiasm to serve was tempered by a scheduled trip to Maine, which was subsequently cancelled. When the court official announced the impending murder trial for which the voir dire process was about to commence, I instinctively knew I would be selected. I am a benign-looking male whose job doesn’t automatically disqualify me. Furthermore, I refused to concoct some lame story about being unable to conduct myself in an objective manner, unlike many of my fellow jury candidates. The first of many noteworthy moments occurred during that inventory of potential jurors. I am amazed at how many people in New York have been the victims of crime—particularly of the violent variety. It seems that I am the only person (poo poo poo) not to have found his way into the path of an intended robber, rapist, or murderer.

Murder is the most heinous crime in our society. But growing up in a slow, suburban beach community and working at an affluent school, murder is the furthest thing from my mind. It is a concept contemplated only in a world set apart from my own through the veneer of fictional movies or books. I can deal with it in the abstract because it never has to be more real.

I was thrust, however, into the world of drug-dealing thugs whose lives are more suspenseful than the best Clancy or Grisham tale. The characters in this story were straight from central casting. The two defendants were up-and-coming cocaine and heroin dealers in New York City. And the two primary witnesses for the people were turning state’s evidence, copping pleas to other charges enabling the prosecution to build its case against the defendants. It was impossible not to simultaneously find their words believable and incredible because they were as despicable as the defendants themselves.

After two and a half days of testimony dealing with the gruesome death of a man barely eligible to drink beer, and the drug deal surrounding his murder, the jury began deliberations. The most interesting aspect of this intellectual exercise is how twelve smart, observant, and intuitive people can arrive at such different initial conclusions since we all heard the same accounts (and there were several versions) of the evening. Our job was to judge whether the prosecution, based on the evidence submitted, built a strong enough case to convince us beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants committed the crimes of which they were accused. It sounds simple, but with so much testimony from shady characters—all of whom had reason to twist the truth (or what they remember as the truth from nearly a year ago)—it was hard not to try to re-create the actual events of that fateful night.

I am proud that over the course of nearly four and a half hours, spanning two days (with a weekend of pondering in between), we did not arrive at a conclusion with ease. We left no stone unturned in considering every conceivable angle. It would have been easy for us to say, "let's just put these guys away. Even if we aren't sure they did it, they're clearly offering nothing to society." But we didn't say that. We struggled and debated and belabored points that probably didn't need belaboring.

The gravity of our decision did not become apparent until we entered the courtroom for that final time. With our group encased in the mahogany box, and over a dozen bailiffs securing the tense room, the foreperson read the verdict to which we had all agreed. We found both men guilty on all charges except one; the most serious was felony murder for which these eighteen-year-olds, just released into adulthood, will serve out the remainder of their youth (the exact number of years will be determined in about a month). As the wailing of one of the defendant's relatives echoed through the room, I was struck by how affected our jury was. Most of us had tears in our eyes. All of us were crying inside. As the judge mentioned at the outset of the trial, there are no winners here.

The judge also admonished us not to attempt to cure the ills of society with our decision. This case was neither a referendum on the failed war on drugs nor the ceaseless chasm between whites and minorities in this country. One cannot help but wonder what choice a kid born in prison (like one of the defendants) has in life. When one is socialized to sell crack-cocaine, pull a “jux” with his “ratchet” (slang terms the jury learned in this trial), and otherwise lead a life inconsistent with mainstream American mores, can we blame him or her? It is a question to which one cannot flippantly respond. Two of my fellow jurors offered insights that help me come to a conclusion. One woman has taught in the New York City public school system for over twenty years. Further, she lives in Washington Heights, a cyclically depressed part of upper Manhattan (and, incidentally, the area where our murder took place). She warned that while we continually hear of the socially depraved in that neighborhood, we shouldn’t be so quick to cast aspersions on all inhabitants. Anecdotally 90%-95% of youngsters in this area are lovely, well-intended individuals. The other male on the jury was a college-aged person who told his story. His father, whom he considers more of a friend than a mentor, has been in and out of prison for much of his adult life. This juror, however, made a conscious decision to play by the rules, not falling prey to that which many in his community have. He understands (and perhaps is more sympathetic to) the defendants’ lot in life, but does not excuse their behavior for they made choices and must live with the consequences.

We knew the case was serious when we were escorted out of the building through a back elevator, directly into a police van which drove us several blocks away from the courthouse. Despite the judge's assurances, we were all skeptical that we were completely safe. It wasn't until after a few beers with two of my fellow jurors that my nerves were sufficiently stifled, numbed to a state of calm. I don't know what it feels like to serve in a military unit. I suppose it's unlikely I will ever experience combat. But there is a quickly-initiated kinship in situations like this that one rarely experiences. In just a week I believe I've made a couple of friends. I certainly understand myself and my sensibilities better. And that comforts me as I prepare to raise a child in this crazy world.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Rebecca said...

Glad to see that you're back in the blogging saddle!

Happy trails...

July 17, 2007 12:40 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

That sounds like such a neat experience. As I told you before, I wish the trial I was first chair for wasn't declared a mistrial.

July 17, 2007 10:36 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 17, 2007 10:36 AM  

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