Monday, May 21, 2007

My Stint as a Murder Trial Juror

Now that I have some pretty decent OCR software again, I can now scan in my recollection of an early 1994 murder trial in which Baltimore City police officer Herman Jones was shot and killed. Living in Baltimore, I was selected for jury duty many times. Since moving out of Baltimore in May of that year, I haven't been called for jury duty once. Here goes:

On January 21 (the end of the most blustery and frigid week this side of Yakutsk), I went down to the Clarence Mitchell, Jr. courthouse in and for Baltimore City (sounds like Dragnet) at St. Paul, Lexington, Calvert, and Fayette streets for jury duty. This was the fifth or sixth time I had to do this in my life. Most of the previous times I just sat in the jury room all day with 400 people I had never seen before in my life, then went home, since Baltimore has a "one day or one trial" system whereby if you're not called for a trial, your service for the year is done after that day. (You get selected via voting, by the way.) I served on one previous trial in which we convicted someone of a handgun violation; that lasted only 2 days.

It took only until about 1100 for all the remaining jurors to be called over to the cramped courtroom of Judge Richard Rombro in the other courthouse across Calvert St. from the Mitchell building. Not only was this courtroom cramped, but it was HOT. Remember how we were all asked to conserve heat and energy during the cold snap? I think that's because all the heat was sent to Judge Rombro's courtroom.

Then began the lengthy "voir dire" process of finding a suitable jury from the panel of jurors. This case received quite a bit of publicity, as Wilson and two accomplices, Derrick Broadway and Clifton "Chip" Price, were accused of killing Officer Jones in the process of trying to rob him as he ordered food from a Chinese carryout on N. Gay St. in east Baltimore on May 26, 1993. More on that later. The publicity weeded out quite a few jurors, as did the fact that the trial could go on for up to 2 weeks. On that fact I tried to withdraw myself, since my Team 5 counterpart would have to fill in for me if it went longer than a week, but to no avail. Other questions concerned whether we knew any of the witnesses, litigants, etc. Makes me wonder how the juries for the Bobbitt trials were formed.

By the end of the day, about 40 jurors were left, too few to select a jury. We thus had to return Monday afternoon for selection, which we did, reluctantly. One by one, each juror was brought before the state's and defense attorneys for them to accept or "respectfully challenge," i.e. dismiss for no particular reason save that whichever attorney felt he or she would not render a fair verdict, with each attorney receiving a certain number of challenges. Before they got to me, the jury box was filled with the requisite number of jurors, but the attorneys could still challenge the jurors after they were seated. Juror #7 was dismissed, and guess who became the new juror #7? Three alternates were named as well.

The trial then began with opening statements from each side. Here's a rundown of the major players:

JUDGE RICHARD ROMBRO: Probably not too far from retirement (we thought we heard him talking about that [note: he has indeed since retired]). Early 60's. Very tall, at least 6'6". No nonsense, Judge Wapner type, but more reserved.

STATE'S ATTORNEY MARK COHEN: Mid 30's. Also tall, about 6'4". A little too dramatic at times, being a young lawyer trying to make a name for himself.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY BROOKE MURDOCK: See last sentence for Cohen. Also mid 30's. More irritating than Cohen.

HERBERT WILSON, DEFENDANT: 17. Stoic, almost lost. Seemed like it all didn't really matter.

We dubbed our bailiff "Barney Fife" because he walked like him. The first of two clerks we had looked like Dan Aykroyd circa 1976, complete with sideburns. Running errands for His Honor was a young, attractive girl who may have been his daughter.

Cohen paraded more than 30 witnesses before us amid Murdock's incessant objections and lengthy diatribes as to why she was objecting which elicited progressively sterner rebukes from Judge Rombro ("Miss Murdock, just say you object"), not to mention innumerable conversations at the bench which were not for us to hear. Two of the witnesses were Broadway and Price, each of whom had plea bargained, pleading guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for turning state's evidence against Wilson who was being tagged as the shooter. Another was the owner of the carryout who didn't speak much English and required an interpreter, but it was the interpreter who needed an interpreter:

COHEN: How long have you owned the carryout?
INTERP: (before owner can answer): Yes.
COHEN: No, no--how long have you owned it? (Interpreter interprets, owner answers in Chinese)
INTERP: 5 months.
OWNER (angrily, in English): No! No! 5 years!

What emerged was the following picture of what happened:

Wilson, Broadway, Price and three others are drinking beer and wine in Wilson's house. They decide they wanted to rob somebody to get money for drugs, so Wilson went to get a .38 Smith and Wesson from his friend, Reginald "Scar" Rollins. Wilson, Broadway, and Price check a nearby pizza joint but no one is there, and they didn't want to rob the place, so they go to the Chinese carryout instead; the other three are to meet them later. Officer Jones, who has just completed his shift, pulls up and enters the carryout; the three follow. Wilson, brandishing the gun, makes Jones get to his knees and tells him to empty his pockets. He does so, then says he has nothing else (he had $5). Jones then pulls out his gun and fires, hitting Wilson. Wilson, upset at Broadway because he didn't search Jones' pockets, shoots Jones twice as he flees. In trying to get the gun from Jones, Broadway is shot twice, then he flees. Jones dies later at the hospital. Both Broadway and Wilson wind up in the hospital. Wilson gives the gun to Price, then it changes hands several times before the police get it a month later (Wilson sent the police on a goose chase originally about the gun's location).

Another interesting exchange was with a late witness produced by the defense (one of only four Murdock called, including Wilson in his own defense) who met Wilson the first week of the trial in lockup, heard the name Broadway, and said that Broadway was the shooter (part of the defense's divide-and-conquer strategy). Cohen cross-examines him:

COHEN: Then what happened?
WITNESS: I don't wanna talk to you.
COHEN: Why not?
WITNESS: 'Cause I don't wanna talk to you.
COHEN: Why not?
WITNESS: 'Cause I don't wanna talk to you.

While both lawyers were reprehensible at times in their demeanor, Murdock won the crass statement of the trial award with this statement in her closing argument: "If Officer Jones hadn't pulled out his gun, he might still be alive today." At that point, one of his daughters stormed out of the courtroom.

Then, we got the trial. For a jury, we got along pretty well. Among ohers, there was a retiree, another DoD employee, a letter carrier, an accounting student who played a mean game of Uno, and a couple of computer/telecommunications folk. The foreman was an auto mechanic.

Never knew how much joy we'd derive from staring out the jury room window onto Calvert St. watching Baltimore go by and figuring out if the cars were parked in the same spaces they had been yesterday. The Battle Monument, commemorating the 1814 Battle of North Point vs. the British, stared back at us from the middle of Calvert.

We deliberated for 2 hours. At no point was anyone convinced that Wilson wasn't guilty. Some, however, felt it unfair that Wilson appeared to be the hit man while Broadway and Price, involved in the same crime, would likely get lesser sentences for the plea-bargain. I felt that way too, but life isn't always fair and the plea-bargain was beyond the scope of this trial.

We thus found Wilson guilty of felony murder (simply, murder committed in the act of a felony, and neither the intent to murder nor the identity of the shooter did not have to be proven), attempted robbery, use of a handgun in a crime of violence, and conspiracy to rob. He will be sentenced later this month.

As I stood on the corner of Fayette and Calvert waiting for the #2 bus for the last time, Murdock came up to me and thanked me for my service. I wished her good luck in her future cases. But, as another juror standing there and I concluded, she really didn't have much of a chance. The evidence was too overwhelming. I was relieved to be done at last, and I returned to the midnight shift at work the next evening. Thanks, Linda, for filling in!

Oddly enough, I ran across Cohen years later as he was lobbying against medical tort reform in Annapolis.


Em B said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog, Cyg! I enjoyed this entry, and the exchange between Cohen and the chinese restaurant owner made me LOL!