I was nervous. Extremely nervous. I had been practicing law for just two months as a public defender, and I was about to undertake my first jury trial. Although my job with the New York City Legal Aid Society had given me a month of training before I was let loose in court, I had never seen an actual jury trial.
The two defendants had been formally charged with “jostling,” a New York crime that punished people for unnecessarily putting their hands near or in others’ pockets or purses, a crime aimed at pickpockets. The complaint, however, hardly indicated a light-fingered pair. No. They were charged with beating a person senseless on the Bowery (in those days it was not a hipster haven but a skid row) and taking money out of his pockets.
I knew little about the case other than the single paragraph setting out the charges. New York law did not even require that I be told who the prosecution witnesses would be, much less what they would say. I could do only what I had been taught to do.
In the courtroom before the judge entered, I tentatively called out the victim’s name listed in the complaint in hopes that he would talk to me. No response. I said it louder. Still no response. I then called out, “Officer Murphy,” who had made the arrest. A man with a gold badge dangling from a breast pocket motioned me outside.
His first words to me were angry. “I worked hard to become a detective. I am Detective Murphy, not Officer.” He almost spat that last word. He went on to tell me that he was working a robbery detail when he saw my clients roll a drunk. When I asked where the victim was, the detective confessed that although he had repeatedly been to the dollar-a-night hotel the victim had given as an address, the Bowery resident could not be found.
I descended into the bowels of the courthouse to talk to my clients, who were in a holding cell. The two, both much older than the average arrested person, had not made bail. Their “rap sheets” revealed lengthy criminal records, and although I was to see thousands of such criminal records over the years, one of these client’s sheets contained an entry I never saw again. Twenty years earlier, he had been arrested for vagrancy in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Although in those days, the records seldom reported the disposition of an arrest, this one did. It simply said, “Put on the bus to Chicago.”
One of the defendants moved to the front of the cell and spoke to me through the bars, nervously insisting that he knew nothing about the charges but that he wanted a plea bargain. The assistant district attorney, however, had said that any deal would require both defendants to plead guilty. The other client sat placidly in the far corner of the cell reading the Bible. From there he said firmly, “I am not pleading guilty. If this is a crime, where is the victim?” When I explained that the charges were not going to be dismissed because of the victim’s absence, he just repeated, “If this is a crime, where is the victim? Let’s go to trial.” So, we went to trial.
I may have thought that a certain majesty or dignity surrounded a jury trial, but the TV and movie courtrooms did not look like this one. Manhattan misdemeanor jury trials were in small, airless, dingy rooms with humming, dim lights. The smell could never have been captured on television. Part of it came from generations of unwashed bodes; another part from infrequently applied disinfectant floor cleaners. There were other components, too, but even after years of entering such rooms, I dare not speculate on them all.
The jury selection for that trial is a blur, as are the prosecutor’s and my opening statements. The detective testified about how he saw the defendants beat the other man and take his money. In my cross-examination, I suggested that the cop’s vantage point did not allow him to see all that he claimed, but mostly I harped on the fact that the supposed victim showed no interest in the case and could not be found. The detective was the only witness.
My summation must have pleased one of my clients because most of it was variations of “If this was a crime, where is the victim?” The prosecutor responded that justice had seldom seen a more open-and-shut case. The judge then told the jurors the law they were to apply in reaching a verdict, and the jury began to deliberate. Two hours at most had elapsed from the trial’s inception.
Perhaps forty-five minutes later, the jury had a verdict. The clerk told my clients to stand and face them. My heart pounded, and I asked myself, “Am I to stand, too?” No one had told me. As I worried whether I was embarrassing myself, the foreman announced the first verdict. I did not hear it. But when the jury was asked about the second defendant, I clearly heard, “Not guilty.”
Relief followed. A few days later, the arresting detective saw me in a courthouse corridor. He extended his hand. “Counselor,” he said, “you beat me fair and square.” Is that what a jury trial was about? Was it a contest between the cop and me, with the jury as arbiter?
The jury system was starting to seem more complicated and mysterious than I had realized. On the one hand, I thought it possible that my clients had done something like what the cop had recounted, even though I doubted he had witnessed all he claimed. On the other hand, the state could not prove robbery, and I thought that the prosecution was misusing the jostling law against the defendants. According to the words of the statute, they were guilty, but the acquittal did not seem unjust. Perhaps it was even right.
(Continued November 20)