J. is approached by detectives on April 17, 2013 at the T- Mart in a traditional Southern city overflowing with wealth, creativity, and abject poverty. A canine drug unit sniffs heroin and cocaine residue. As a crowd gathers, he is handcuffed and put in the police vehicle. He starts “digging”. Experts say he was trying to remove the hidden drugs between his butt cheeks. When they arrive at the police station, Detective O. sees him fling a baggie under a car. The baggie contains 39 hits of heroin and 27 separately bagged rocks of crack cocaine.
Almost a year later, this tall, lean, light-skinned African American man of 32 years sits despondently at the table awaiting the tedious process of jury selection. His short hair is neatly groomed into rows. His pale green buttoned-down shirt reminds me of my husband. Ninety minutes pass and a group is selected: four black women, five white women, and three young white men. It took 20 hours for me to realize that he did not have a “jury of his peers”. Sin #1
The prosecutor is a confident, young woman, a character from a week-night drama. In a tight, knee-length skirt and an even tighter camisole and cropped jacket, she efficiently moves through the expert witnesses. The defense team is a disgrace: two shy, uncomfortable young men who appear to be in training. We are moved to the jury room for an hour (“do not discuss the case”). We discuss the weather, March Madness, and the lost airliner in the Indian Ocean.
We hear from the defense and return to the jury room. We take a quick poll on possession and three of us are skeptical. I argue that all over the country this very scenario is played out daily and if my pretty-boy husband were charged with these violations, he would serve no time. Why didn’t they check for fingerprints on the bag of drugs to provide solid evidence? The jury tells me that suspicion of corruption of the detectives is “unreasonable”. Everyone wants to go home. I grudgingly concede. Sin #2.
The judge reads our “guilty” decision aloud. The defense requests a roll call of each juror’s full name to indicate agreement with the decision. Excellent technique for intimidating a wavering juror. The defendant sobs with his head falling back. As he sits down he puts his head on the table. Family wipes their eyes and you get the feeling that they have seen this before. We receive jury instructions, a stack of priors, and return to the jury room to determine his sentence. The minimum sentence for each count of possession is five years. We ask the judge if he will serve the years concurrently or consecutively. He instructs us to “not get involved in the emotion of it. Just make a recommendation”. What an odd response when a man’s life is on the line. It is 6:30pm and many jurors share that they “need to get home”.
The foreman is a middle-aged blond, volunteer extraordinaire, who knows how to work through an agenda. We take a quick, anonymous vote and the sentences range from 10 to 40 years. I argue that “prison is a breeding ground for ongoing horror and is no place for transformation.” Fellow jurors state “he will not change”. There is no further discussion. It is 8:30pm. We ate lunch at 1pm and neither the judge nor the bailiff offers a break for dinner.
We add up the years and divide by 12 jurors. The average is 20 years, a sentence suggested by four jurors. “I won’t keep you here all night but I will press for less time. Whether he’s 52 or 47, he will be no different. I want 15 years.” Why didn’t I say this? I was lulled by confrontation fatigue, ignorance, and cowardice. Sin #3.
We return to the courtroom. The judge reads the sentence: 20 years for a handful of drugs with intent to distribute. He thanks us. A bailiff escorts us to our cars. 8:40pm. We return to our families. To our lives. And I was deeply disturbed.
Following the case, a fellow-juror tells me that there are only six states in the Union that use jury sentencing. In this southern state, 81% of the judges take the recommendation of the jury, so they don’t appear soft on crime. In June we discovered that he took the jury recommendation: 20 years.
Under my watch, the future of a man’s life was decided in less than two hours so that we could get back to our middle class rat-race. If we are going to bother to serve on a jury, let’s do it well: by gathering our courage to bring out the best in all of us.