I've just got back from three days of an interesting tour through the local court system. No, I wasn't accused of any crime. I was summoned for Jury Duty.
The last time I was on Jury Duty was in Philadelphia, in the 1970s, in the Federal court system. THAT was a weeks vacation. I got picked for one panel, and was challenged and dismissed. It was a perfectly boring week.
The Mecklenburg County courts pick a new crop of about 100 potential jurors every day. If you don't get to sit on a jury during the day, you get to go home at the end of the day, and that's it for two years. "No problem" I figured. As long as my luck held out, I'd be fine. I picked out a good seat, brought a good book to read, didn't pay attention to the endless episodes of "The Waltons" playing on the single-channel TV.
And for the first two panels, I was lucky. Then my luck began to change.
I was picked for a panel of 30 jurors to be shepherded down the hall and into courtroom 305 by two sheriff's deputies. After we had a seat in the visitor gallery, the court clerk called 12 names at random to sit in the jury box. I was number nine. Each of us had filled out a single page questionaire with information, such as whether we had ever been involved in a court proceeding, whether we or anyone in our families were police officers, whether we had ever been victims of a crime, etc., and copies of these questionaires were given to the lawyers in the case.
The assistant District Attorney stood up to speak. She was a dish. About five feet tall, dark hair, dressed in a smart business suit. She explained that this was a criminal case about a shooting. This wasn't much of a surprise. We were in the Superior Court building, where we were expecting to hear mostly civil cases, but because the football player Rae Carruth was being tried for the murder of his girlfriend in the Criminal Courts building next door, that place was mostly a circus, so the criminal cases were all moved over to the Superior Court.
The lawyers looked over our sheets and asked some general questions. The usual question about the death penalty didn't come up, so this obviously wasn't a capital case. Several jurors were questioned about what they had written on their sheets, and a few were excused to go back to the jury assembly room. The clerk called more jurors from the panel to take their seats, and the reading of the sheets and questions began anew.
We then were treated to some details of the case. This was The State of North Carolina vs. Darius Drummer. Darius, 23, was accused of shooting Bobby Beckhel, 30, at about 16:30 on St. Patrick's Day 1999 on Umstead Street between Parkwood Avenue and Grace Street, in an area of North Charlotte which is the roughest drug dealing corner in the city. I knew of the place, not because I had ever been there, but because I listen to my scanner. Police officers from the David 3 district respond to "shots fired" calls on Umstead nearly every day. This is Charlotte's version of the Badlands of North Philly, only smaller.
I noticed that several of the black women, all old enough to be Darius' mother, observed that because of their religious beliefs they would not be able to "sit in judgement of another person". The ADA asked one which religion she followed. "Baptist" was the reply. "Strange", I thought, "what kind of Baptist, when confronted with such sinfulness, would take a Pontius Pilate approach to the situation?" This was a literal interpretation of "judge not lest ye be judged". But I wondered if there wasn't some kind of Mafia-like intimidation at work here. These women seemed to be afraid of something. But no matter, they were excused, and new jurors took their seats. Finally, both lawyers told the judge they were satisfied with their jury.
We were 12 jurors and 1 alternate, two white women, two black guys, and the rest of us white guys... hardly a jury of Darius' peers. Among us were a civil trial lawyer, a former hospital administrator, college student, and the rest various skilled professionals. None of us was a native Charlottean. The girls both had several kids. Lynn, who reminded me a lot of my cousin Liz from South Philly, was a welfare baby who married a professional who rescued her from the ghetto of Bangor, Maine. Lynn had three kids, the youngest of which was 5 months old. Lynn looked at things from an entirely different perspective, and would later prove to be a tough nut to crack.
Two hour lunch.
The ADA then presented her case. Bobby was going to a local park to shoot some hoops with some bros, when he noticed Darius driving a white Nissan sedan on Parkwood, and Darius appeared to be pointing and shaking his finger at Bobby as if it were a gun. Darius turned onto Umstead and stopped halfway up the block, got out of the car, pulled a gun out of his waistband, pointed it at Bobby, shouted "I ain't nothin' to play with!" and squeezed off four rounds.
At this point, Bobby figured it was time to git. He crossed Umstead Street in front of the Nissan and ran north toward Grace Street, intending to hide behind some houses on Grace. As he ran, he was shot in the back. Darius got back in the car and exited the scene, driving north on Umstead and turned east on Grace.
A David 3 unit patrolling on Kenney Street, several blocks east, heard the shots. He drove south on Kenney and west on Parkwood until he saw people running away from Umstead. Turning onto Umstead, he was approached by Bobby, ascertained the situation, called for backup and for a Medic unit, then set about trying to calm Bobby down. His initial flash to the other district cars was for a black male nicknamed "Moosie" driving a white Nissan.
Bobby was transported to Carolinas Med Center with a gunshot wound from a .357 or a .38 Special. (The firearms expertise on the jury later surmised it was a .38) The round nicked his right lung and shattered his upper right tibia just under his shoulder. The jury was later shown a bullet which was broken into five separate pieces. Bobby was in the TICU for 3 days, listed as "Critical", then transferred to a med/surg floor.
After Medic departed, the Crime Scene Search unit roped off the block and began looking for evidence. The district cops began looking for witnesses to interview. Neither effort yielded quality results. Crime Scene recovered a .45 slug and a 9mm shell casing which were obviously too old to go along with this shooting. Officers managed to interview ONE witness, "Antoine", who only heard the shots and saw the white Nissan. Some portions of Antoine's statement were read to the jury, but it wasn't introduced into the small pile of evidence, so we didn't get to read it for ourselves.
When Antoine was later called to testify (in an orange prison jumpsuit, uh-huh) he recanted his entire statement. Under cross-examination, he told the jury that Bobby himself told him not to say anything.
Darius was picked up in early July on a couple of warrants and was interviewed. We heard the detective who interviewed him but didn't see any notes. No weapon was ever recovered.
So much for evidence.... so much for witnesses.
We were getting the feeling that there was a lot more to this than what we were being told.
Since we weren't sequestered, we got to walk around uptown in search of lunch, and to find our cars when it was time to go home. All of us had sampled "Dave's Snack Bar" the first day, and none of us was impressed. Dave's is where all of the court employees went for lunch, since it was housed in a county building across the driveway, it was convenient. But the closest "decent" food was blocks away from the courthouse complex and all of the places were mobbed. Uptown Charlotte desperately needs some fast food. Someone could open a McDonalds on, say, McDowell Street between 2nd and 5th and make a killing.
Parking uptown is always a problem, but there are some advantages to being a juror. For one thing, jurors get to park for free. The four-level parking garage next to the Superior Court building has two levels reserved for jurors and visiting police vehicles, but the spots fill up quickly. There are two other county-operated garages within a couple of blocks but they're hard to get to in rush-hour traffic.
On Tuesday the courthouse lot was full, so I had to go elsewhere. Note to self: arrive early and hang out in the jury assembly room. The next choice is the lot on McDowell Street, but if you leave the courthouse on 3rd Street and turn onto McDowell, you'll be making a left into the lot, and that's not going to happen in rush-hour gridlock. You'll want to head west on 4th, turn on Davidson, go north to Trade, go east to McDowell and turn right. This time you'll approach the lot on your right, but then you'll notice that the "full" sign is on, and this lot doesn't have reserved spots for jurors. The next choice is the county lot on Davidson Street, so you'll go down McDowell to 2nd Street and turn west toward Davidson... but resist the impulse to to turn north on Davidson because that puts the lot on your left again, and you won't make it. Go one extra block to Caldwell Street, turn north, go three blocks north to Trade (remember, 4th is one-way westbound), one block east to Davidson, one block south to 4th, and you're almost there. If you get there after 8:30 it's even odds that the "full" sign will be on, but don't despair; people go in and out of this lot all of the time.... just hug the right curb and wait for someone to leave. Everybody does it. Level 3 of this garage is for monthly parkers only -- don't even think about it. Try level 1 (the basement) first... nobody likes to park in the basement.
Remember to take your parking ticket with you and drop it into the box in the jury assembly room. It will be stamped and you can retrieve your car for free... but only if you park in a county lot.
Speaking of a circus, we just had to check out the Carruth trial next door. After lunch, people are lined up outside the door waiting to get to the elevators. All four Charlotte TV stations each have two live trucks parked in a semi-circle outside the building. There are two huge satellite trucks there from Court TV. More vans from various news services parked outside on 4th street. Several white tents set up outside the building for interviews. On Tuesday afternoon, about 5:30, as I was walking toward the Davidson parking lot, I noticed a helicopter hovering high over the county jail, undoubtedly relaying a live feed from the caverns of uptown to one of the local stations... that's got to be the only way to get a signal out to the transmitter sites in Newell or Lowell or Hood Road or wherever.
"Your Honor, the state rests."
Cool. Halfway there.
The defense attorney, kinda youngish guy clad in a pastel grey two-piece that looks one size too big (apparently a public defender without his own practice) calls his one and only witness to the stand. Turns out that it's Darius' mom.
So that's who that chick is. We figured so; she's the only one sitting on the defense side of the courtroom for all three days. There were others who came in and out, probably girlfriends, or sisters, but they didn't stay for the whole thing. Mom did. Probably her only son. Poor girl.
Defense begins by asking her if she remembers what happened one night in November in 1999.
Oopsies... conference at the bench. Darnit, that assistant DA has a cute butt. I like panty lines under a polyester pantsuit.
The judge thinks this is going to go a little long, so he asks the bailiff to herd the jury back to the jury room. Too bad. I'd prefer to sit and watch.
The Jury Room... what a hole. Hard wooden chairs of various ages and styles; two bathrooms -- one "mens" room and an accessable room that the girls used. A stack of 6-ounce plastic cups and an Igloo cooler of icewater that we emptied the first day. The next day we got some more water out of it but we suspected it was simply melted ice. Several of us preferred to stand up in the room rather than sit on those chairs. At least the seats in the courtroom were padded.
The bailiff assigned to us was a deputy with a sense of humor. Through his experience he knew we were not happy with conditions. His advice: "Don't blame the bailiff." Every time we were to re-enter the courtroom we lined up against the wall in the back hallway according to seat positions, front row first, and then filed in orderly and took our seats. "Cell phones off, pagers on vibrate" was his mantra. While we were waiting in the jury room, he'd frequently stop in and let us know what was going on procedurally and give us a time estimate.
The next time we entered the courtroom, we found -- to our surprise -- that the defense had rested. This thing was moving along, but our job just got a lot harder.
Closing arguments. The ADA opted to forego her argument and let the defender go first. She'd get her chance because she had the last word.
The defender did the usual witness debunk that one would expect. Yeah, Bobby's UA at the hospital showed cannibis, Valium and "Opiates" (heroin). No cocaine though, that was a surprise. Did Bobby really see Darius do what he thought he saw? You'd be surprised how fast you straighten up when there's a gun pointed at you. His argument was rather short, since there really wasn't a whole lot of evidence to debunk.
The ADA wanted "Assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury" and also "Attempted murder".
Okay. Now the judge instructs us on the law, telling us what these terms really mean and what we have to find in the evidence to back up the verdict. We're free to break up the charges if we wish, if we don't think we can do everything the ADA wants us to do. The alternate juror was dismissed.
Now it's our turn to make THEM wait.
Back in the jury room, we took a quick ballot to see where we were. The result: 8 to 4 guilty on all charges. We rehashed the evidence and the testimony. A couple of the guys took copious notes which proved to be useful. But the whole case boiled down to be Bobby's word against Darius'.
The cops, the Crime Scene techs, the Investigator, etc., just backed up the little forensic evidence they had. Bobby was the only testimony we had. Darius provided no alibi or anything else. But he didn't have to. The burden of proof was entirely on the state.
Another ballot: 6 to 6. Geez, we're going backwards here.
The judge has the bailiff call us up to see how it's going. We have a few who just aren't "there" yet. Well, it's getting past 5 PM and the courthouse staff has to go, so we're dismissed for the night; see you back here at 9:30 tomorrow. The bailiff says that means 9:15 at our usual meeting spot.
Next morning the black guys lay it down for us: these guys are all bad dudes. We didn't get any witnesses because everybody is scared. These guys are probably all selling dope, it's Darius' neighborhood, and Bobby is off his turf. Bobby's mom lives on Kenney Street, so what's Bobby doing on Umstead? This is probably just one battle in a continuing war that's been going on between these guys since they were kids. The defense was getting ready to tell us about another skirmish yesterday when it got squelched by the judge. Hey, I'm from Philly, the land of street gangs, where you can get killed just for being on the wrong corner, so I can dig that.
Lisa doesn't think that Darius actually shot Bobby. There were two other dudes in the car (who were never identified) and she thinks one of them might have capped him; after all, Bobby was running away when he was shot.
Lisa doesn't believe that the state has, in fact, proven that Darius even pulled a gun! Basically, she doesn't believe Bobby. But what would motivate Bobby to lie to a cop under these circumstances? He's been shot, he's coughing up blood, he probably thinks he's going to die. Why would he not tell the cop who the perp was? Why would he want his attacker to get away with it?
I give Lisa a scenario that she can understand. You have two kids in the living room and you're in the kitchen fixing lunch. You hear a slap, then one of the kids starts crying. You rush in and say "what happened?". One kid has a hand mark on his face, he's crying, says "Tommy slapped me." Tommy says "No I didn't." Who are you going to believe?
We decide to compromise. Bobby's back was turned; we can assume that there's no testimony that really says who shot Bobby in the back. There goes "intent to kill", "inflicting serious injury" and "attempted murder" out the window. Darius will be very happy with this. Lisa feels better about it. Foreman calls for a show of hands on ADW only. Twelve hands go up. Lisa has decided to come along.
Foreman signs the form saying that we're unanimous on Assault with a Deadly Weapon. Knocks on the door twice to get the bailiff. We gather up our stuff and file back into the courtroom for the last time.
Bailiff takes the form from the foreman and hands it to the judge. Judge hands it to the clerk, who reads it aloud. Relief is obvious on Darius' battle-scarred face. The clerk has us all stand, then double-checks, "so say you one, so say you all?". Everyone says "Yes", including Lisa.
Judge thanks us for our service and we're dismissed. Outta there.
In the front hallway, in front of the row of courtrooms, the bailiff hands us the "permission" slips for our bosses (I'm gonna frame mine) and tells us the rest of the story. The bailiff is familiar with both of these guys, and with Antoine. And it's almost exactly like the black guys said: trading shots, trading assault charges. Not only did Bobby go after Darius last November, he shot Darius in the leg. Someone else shot Darius in the face last year. The turf war continues in Jail; Darius was recently beaten up. Antoine is up on murder charges. Bobby is up on charges next month. Darius faces two more trials for various things. It is a continous cycle that will eventually end up with all three of these characters dead. That's precisely what we were told.
We met the ADA out in the hall. She's wearing beige today and it looks good on her. But she was really curious about why we threw out the attempted murder charge. We gave it to her straight: lack of evidence. It would have helped to see Antoine's statement, but she couldn't get it in. It would have been nice if Darius could have been picked up before he had a chance to dispose of the weapon, but David 3 is not going to pull a car out of service to set up all night on Darius's place with all of the stuff going on in that district. And nobody in that neighborhood is going to talk to the cops with that armed militia out there on their streets every night.
This is just one case. There are probably thousands still on the docket.
The starting salary for a Charlotte cop is about $28K. I can't imagine that there's a long line of people waiting outside of the Police Academy for that kind of money. The car that the average cop drives, the radios, the MDT, the Glock, they're worth several times that. And police work isn't really what it's cracked up to be. The best cops are placed in the worst districts, because that's where they're needed. Nice career.
The courthouse, built in the '80s, is too small for the caseload. Our case took 1 3/4 years to come to trial. The parquet floors haven't been waxed in years. Igloo coolers in the Jury Rooms. The jurors' smoking lounge is a breezeway between the Superior Court and the Criminal Court used by judges and court reporters. If a juror needs to use a phone, he had better bring his own.
The mini parking garage is inadequate. Some of my fellow jurors described it as "crumbling". Hey, I'm from Philly; it's not that bad.
And the voters keep killing the bond issues. If people aren't concerned about crowded schools, building a new coliseum uptown to keep the Hornets from moving, widening the cattle-chutes known as I-77, BGP, etc., they're not about to replace the courthouse district. When the county built a "satellite" jail to house their "best" prisoners on Spector Drive, the community outrage was terrific. Put 'em all in the overcrowded uptown jail where they belong!
Have you seen the rents uptown lately?
And Meck County picks a new crop of jurors every day.
They really need 'em.