community, government, legal

Step 228: Reflections on Jury Duty Service

I thought jury duty would strengthen my belief in a legal system that requires proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a trial before 12 unbiased peers, and a set of due processes to equally protect all people. Instead, it made me question whether this system delivers justice more often than it inflicts wrongful pain and suffering. A week after serving, my mind still can’t rest.

The facts remain:
Mr. Bond lived in West Harlem at 60 Saint Nicholas Avenue, a building at the cross-section of Saint Nicholas Avenue and West 113th Street (a one-stop, five-minute subway ride or an easy twenty-minute walk from my own apartment);

On or about March 5, 2009, Mr. Bond was moving a couch, wrapped in twine to keep the cushions in place, upstairs with the help of some friends. They were taking a break from the move and standing around in a loose circle in the lobby;

There were open containers of beer in the lobby;

Two police officers in plain clothes entered the building, brandishing their badges, under the pretense that they were following two suspect black teenagers into the building (according to the officers, the teenagers “looked lost”);

Rather than continuing to follow those teenagers, the police officers told the group of men moving the couch to freeze and put their hands up against the wall;

Mr. Bond ran around the corner, was pursued by one of the police officers, and brought back to the lobby. Upon search in the lobby, a folding knife was found in Mr. Bond’s pocket. The police officer tested the knife and declared it a gravity knife, an illegal type of knife in New York City. Mr. Bond was placed under arrest. Eventually, it was discovered that Mr. Bond had a small amount of marijuana on him as well;

As a jury, our task was to determine if the knife Mr. Bond had in his pocket could fall into the broad and fuzzy classification of a gravity knife. Not if the law was ridiculous (and for the record, I believe it is). Not if Mr. Bond knew the knife was illegal. Not if the knife was indeed Mr. Bond’s and was found in his pocket. Not if he had any intent to use it to do anything other than cut the twine around the couch. Just the classification of the knife, please.

By definition a gravity knife has the capability to open by the use of gravity or centrifugal force, and then the blade must lock into an open position. After hearing both sides, under this definition, we determined the knife was a gravity knife. Verdict delivered, case closed. And off went Mr. Bond to serve 3.5 to 7 years in prison. His friends and family members hung their heads and cried. Mr. Bond, tragically, didn’t even appear surprised. He had no expression at all on his face. If I was a black man living in a section of Harlem infamous for drugs and violent crime, with a white judge, white district attorney, white police officers, white defense attorney who barely presented a case at all, and a mostly white jury, I guess would feel the same way. In the courtroom, I wanted to shove aside the defense attorney and do the job myself. At least then Mr. Bond would have had some defense presented on his behalf. I went home and cried, too.

Now Mr. Bond will spend at least 3.5 years in a prison system that will deprive him of dignity and freedom, returning him to a society that deprives him of those things as well. With a felony on his record, finding a job or attaining public assistance will be next to impossible. What will become of Mr. Bond and his family? How will they ever be able to have the opportunities to improve their lot in life? What has this done to their spirit and their belief that our system here protects its citizens and delivers justice? I went to bed the night of the verdict with a heavy heart, knowing that Mr. Bond was spending his first night of many within a cell that I didn’t believe he should be in. Circumstances may not always matter to the law, but they matter to me.

As we left the jury room on our last day, the judge thanked us for our service and she sincerely meant it. Now that the case had a verdict, she told us we were free to discuss the case with anyone, though she added the caveat that she didn’t think anyone would be interested in any of the details. I disagree. After the urging of my co-workers, I wrote to my Representatives in Congress and the Senate, to Mayor Bloomberg and a number of media outlets. I have no idea if they will do anything, but I certainly couldn’t let this moment pass in silence.

I kept rolling over in my mind how a system can hold its citizens to laws they don’t even know or understand. I’m a well-educated person and I wouldn’t know that kind of knife was illegal. If I was moving a couch in my lobby with my friends and a friend gave me that knife to cut twine, could I be searched at random by a police officer and arrested for a felony? I could, but the truth is I wouldn’t be. And even if I was searched and the knife was found in my pocket, I’m confident that the police would just confiscate it and send me on my way. I’m a white professional who lives on the Upper West Side in a full-service building. While Mr. Bond and I live only a few blocks apart, we might as well live in different countries – the laws that govern his life may, on paper, be the same as the laws that govern mine. In reality, it doesn’t play out that way.

I know my jury performed its civic duty and delivered a correct verdict in good faith as outlined by the law. It’s the law itself, and the legal and societal systems that caused Mr. Bond to be arrest at all, that leave me with a reasonable doubt that everyone in the U.S. is protected equally and fairly.