Thursday, April 28, 2005

I was Martin Balsam

Last Thanksgiving, a homeless activist group known as May Day DC entered the Randall Homeless Shelter, south of the Capitol, to provide food and other necessities to those who were staying there. The next day, DC Protective Services and the property manager informed the activists that Randall was closed and that they needed to vacate the premises immediately. But the activists refused to leave and went to the rooftop, hanging signs demanding the goverment reopen the shelter. Media arrived and more officers and then a fire engine. When the engine ladder reached the roof, one of the activists handcuffed herself to it. In the end, the six activists were arrested and all charged with unlawful entry. This was the case my fellow jurors and I were handed.

We deliberated for a day and a half and ultimately found the defendants guilty. Why? There was enough circumstantial and direct evidence pointing to their knowledge that the Randall shelter was closed and that they were intending to protest it: The main door could only be opened from the inside, most of the windows and other entry ways were welded shut, and one had to edge his way in through a fence. One witness said one of the defendants told her she wanted to "reopen the shelter" and there was, of course, a poster that also read "reopen the shelter." This suggests the defendants knew the shelter was closed (otherwise why protest to reopen that which you think is open?).

A second element of unlawful entry is the refusal to leave once told one is in a restricted area. The defendants claim they could not hear the police or property manager on a bullhorn because they were on the roof (one story up and a second story behind it). The defendants say it was windy. But a homeless man also on the roof said he heard the police on the ground order him down lest he be arrested--and this man was half-deaf. When the deputy chief of police asked "Who is in charge?" another defendant replied, "We're all in charge." Police later said some of the defendants jokingly said things like, "Do you hear anyone?" One defendant admits to his fear of heights yet is seen in a photo sitting on the edge of the building, dangling his feet. More damning was another defendant's closing argument, in which she said, Haven't you been in a conversation with someone and another group of people are talking in the distance but you don't know what they're saying because you don't choose to listen?

Don't choose to listen?

Finally, this afternoon at around 12:40 p.m., we came to agreement on how to find all six defendants. Guilty. And guilty on the first element of knowingly entering a restricted area--there wasn't even any need to argue about the second element. And while we were all in agreement, I still found the verdict hard to deliver--because I would literally be delivering the verdict. Without my knowledge, the rest of the jury voted for me to be their foreman. And so, in front of the court, I told the judge (one of the nicest judges you will ever meet) that the jury found the defendants guilty. He asked me six times and each time I rendered that verdict with little emotion. It is a strange thing to do, handing down a verdict (let alone six times).

We don't know what the sentencing will be like, but all of the jurors felt that strictly examining this case and determining the defendants innocence or guilt, we had done the right thing.

It does make you think of that terrific movie Twelve Angry Men and where you fit within that cast. Are you the Jack Ward, eager just to get the hell out and go to the baseball game? Or are you Lee Cobb, bringing your personal baggage into the jury room? (Martin Balsam, one of my favorite actors, played the foreman.)


Al S said...

So, when does the death penalty phase begin?

Aaron said...

What kind of defense attorney keeps a writer for the Weekly Standard on a jury hearing a case involving communist defendants? If you were in my jury pool in that case, I would have dinged you up front and had a good chuckle that you made it that far.

BTW, al s, very good joke.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who, upon seeing the name "Martin Balsam", thought, "hey, wasn't he in 'Mitchell'?"

Rachel said...

I had jury duty yesterday and was hoping to be Martin Balsam myself. Hell, I'd have settled for Felix Unger. What I got was a sore back from sitting for three and a half hours. Oh and $20--cash.

arrScott said...

Reminds me of my own only jury service a few years back in Minneapolis. In our case, a man was charged with sixth-degree assault (which somehow did not involve laying a smackdown on Kevin Bacon) for roughing up his girlfriend on the street. Witnesses, including a police officer, testified to the beating. One neighbor, and then the police officer, intervened to stop it. The only catch was that the victim denied the witnesses' version of events, saying that they misunderstood what they saw. Her story was that she was set upon by an indeterminate number of men trying to rob her. Her boyfriend heard the commotion, came out, and caused them to flee down the street. What the witnesses saw was merely her boyfriend helping her recover from the beating these anonymous robbers caused.

It was a six-person jury, five of whom were foolish enough to vote for me as foreman. Only one of us was really in any doubt about the verdict, and not because she believed the victim's improbable tale. Rather, we deliberated for the better part of a day on the topic of what constituted reasonable doubt, and how to draw the line between reasonable doubt and mere uncertainty about events one did not witness. It was rather inspiring, actually; a jury of six strangers from wildly different walks of life debating (and thoughtfully resolving) fundamental questions of philosophy in order faithfully to perform a public duty.