Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Crown Heights Homicide: Part III - The Trial

(Author's note: Earlier this year, I served as a juror in Kings County Supreme Court. The crime was the killing of a homeless man at the Albany Houses in Crown Heights. What follows is the third installment of my report and reflections on the experience. You can read Part I here and Part II here. All names have been changed or omitted by authorial decision with the exception of the victim's. He identified by his real name, Steven Ingram.)

The prosecution's case hinges on Paul's testimony. They are thorough, of course - we hear from what starts to feel like an endless parade of expert witnesses confirming the most basic of facts: yes, Mr. Ingram died of blunt force trauma to the head, yes, the blood on his clothes was his, yes, the detectives questioned the witnesses before the trial, yes, they said the things they said to us - but without Paul, there would be no case at all. The Assistant District Attorney is an intelligent, extremely competent young woman, but this seems to be one of her first cases. She is painstaking to the point of boring, and when she does attempt courtroom theatrics - raising her voice, pointing, feigning surprise - they are forced and distracting. Nonetheless, she has a gold nugget in her pocket, an eyewitness account of the assault that, if we are to believe the state, kills Mr. Ingram.

The defense attorney is a seasoned veteran, a former Kings County ADA who is now the managing partner of a successful firm. He is relaxed and in command throughout the trial, and he knows how to keep all eyes and ears on him. His eyebrow raises, exclamations of shock, and probing questions all feel genuine, the ol' razzle-dazzle at its best. After watching his first cross-examination, one of the jurors immediately dubs him "Joe Pesci" on account of his conversational, incredulous style, reminiscent of Pesci's Vinny Gambini in "My Cousin Vinny." Nonetheless, he is playing defense, not contesting the facts of the case but doing his best to muddy the waters, to highlight the inconsistencies in testimony, to find the gaps in the timeline and holes in the state's narrative and to constantly suggest alternative possibilities. It is a gadfly's strategy, one that requires constantly tapping the wall for weak spots with objections, questions, comments, and procedural tricks.

Before we can get to Paul's testimony, however, we hear from Tom, the original source of the connection to John, our defendant (for those picking up here, John is the defendant, Paul is one of his closest friends and the star witness, and Tom is an acquaintance who first gave the police John's name in connection with the killing of Steven Ingram). Tom is 20 years old, serving his second stint in jail, and has no desire whatsoever to be in the courtroom. He has been through this before, having been a witness in the grand larceny trial of his friends, Dick and Harry, who kicked Mr. Ingram, jokingly put his unconscious body in a wrestling hold, and stole money from him. With the ADA, he keeps his eyes down and speaks so quietly that the microphone on the witness stand does not pick up his voice. Their interactions approximate a teacher lecturing a poor student, and Tom is as laconic as possible. As the prosecution cannot ask leading questions, it takes her nearly three hours to get to Tom's key point. Along the way, he asserts that his friends, Dick and Harry, did not use any force in kicking or wrestling with Mr. Ingram, and that Mr. Ingram was already bloody and unconscious when they first came upon him. This is important to the prosecution's case because it suggests that John did most of the damage that killed Steven Ingram, but it is not the crucial point. Finally, after an excruciating exchange that lasts nearly 20 minutes, Tom speaks the words the prosecutor wants to hear - the day after Mr. Ingram was beaten, he walked past the tower where John lived (pictured above) and heard him say "People around here ain't gansta enough to kill somebody with their bare hands." It sounds incriminating.

The defense sets out to impeach the witness by reading out his rap sheet, which is longer than one might expect for a man of twenty. A funny thing happens as he does this, however - whereas the young female ADA was a teacher to Tom, the defense attorney, a bigger, older man who is asking his questions more aggressively, is not. To Tom, this man is a cop, and Tom comes alive, his voice rising and his eyes flashing as he is questioned about prior misdeeds. In one telling exchange, the defense asks about Tom's arrest for robbery, the one that led to the interrogation in which he revealed John's statement. Tom later plead guilty to 3rd-degree robbery, a felony, but when the defense, leading to a question about the interrogation, leads with "So, you commit this robbery at Kingston and Dean . . .", Tom cuts him off, nearly shouting, "I wasn't ever NEAR Kingston and Dean! I wasn't part of no robbery! They just picked me up!" Stopped short, the defense replies "You plead guilty to a felony you didn't commit?" and Tom snarls back "I already had warrants, and they told me I'd get city time [meaning he wouldn't serve his prison sentence upstate]." Tom rejects two other accusations the defense makes, both regarding crimes he plead guilty to, by saying that he did not commit them and was just picked up for them. By the time they get to the substance of the defense's cross examination, the mood in the courtroom is downright hostile. The point, however, to which the defense has been leading, is a valid one - Tom, walking by John's building, remembers hearing John speaking, but he did not turn his head to verify that it was indeed John. The two were not close friends, and when the defense asks "could someone else have said this?" Tom replies with something to the effect of "I don't think so, but I don't know." The defense turns to the jury, raising an eyebrow that says "reasonable doubt?"

Now it is Paul's turn. He shares much with Tom, and with John - they grew up in the Albany Houses, they have had prior run-ins with the law, they were teenagers when all of this happened and are only just twenty or twenty-one. Paul's best friend growing up was John's older brother, and he has known John since elementary school. Despite this, Paul's testimony is a world away from Tom's, and as we learn the details of his life, it becomes clear that Paul is a survivor, someone who knows how to keep his head above water. He has been arrested a few times, but has never been convicted of a crime or done time, having successful negotiated pleas, counseling, and other second chances. He has a wife and son, and works a part-time job at his home in Florida, where he moved after the incident (more on that in Part IV). Unlike Tom, who describes himself as "a smoker," he rarely partakes of either alcohol or marijuana. He speaks quietly but clearly to both lawyers, referring them as "sir" and "ma'am," and looks to the judge for guidance before speaking when an objection is raised.

Paul is sworn in, and the ADA asks her first question as to whether or not he knows the defendant. Paul answers in the affirmative, and then turns pleadingly to the judge. "Can I just say something?" he asks. The judge, doing his best to explain, says "Well, it's best that you just answer the questions you are asked . . . " but Paul continues. "It's just that the man sitting right there is one of my best friends in the world . . ." He trails off as the judge raises his hands in alarm, and looks beseechingly at John, whose eyes are fixed on the table in front of him. For a moment, a pin could drop, and then the judge, recovering first, says simply "your question?" and we move on.

Paul looks defeated and frustrated, but he does not sulk, and the ADA takes us quickly through the events of the evening of September 28, 2007. Paul met John at a house party in a first-floor apartment in the Albany Houses. John was a little drunk and dancing aggressively with a girl whose boyfriend was nearby. The girl complained to her boyfriend, who decked John, and a fight spilled out into the hall before friends held the boyfriend back and Paul dragged John away. Infuriated, John stormed out, Paul right behind him, and saw Mr. Ingram idling by the building entrance. Inexplicably, John swung and missed, crashing to the ground as Mr. Ingram ran away. His rage only rising, John got up and chased Mr. Ingram down, swinging for his head as Ingram did his best to dodge and block the blows. In short order, John knocked Ingram down and knelt over him, battering his head and face, at which point Paul felt he'd seen enough and started trying to drag John away. John, however, would not be stopped, and shoved Paul, who was screaming at the other people in the courtyard for help, away. At this point, Paul turned and ran into John's building, taking the stairs to get to John's apartment, and his brother, whom Paul hoped could dissuade John. The last thing he saw of the scene as he ran inside was John standing over Steven Ingram, swinging for his bloodied head. By the time he and John's brother returned, the ambulance had arrived.

In cross examination, the defense tries again to impeach the witness, but he is far less successful. Paul is consistent, calm, and frank about his past mistakes and the efforts he has made to put them behind him. We hear about his interrogation at the 77th Precinct by the detectives, and he tells us that he was told that he could be charged with killing Mr. Ingram by the detectives. Nonetheless, he stands by his story.

As to the night of September 28, there isn't much the defense can do - question after question only reveals that Paul's account is consistent, that the force of the blows John threw was sufficient to cause real damage, that Paul was close enough to see blood on Mr. Ingram's face and on the ground beside his head. Nothing is working, until finally the defense attorney strikes a boxing pose and asks "at the very least, was the man covering up?" He holds his arms up in defense of his head. Paul nods, and the the ADA's eyes bulge. This is something to work with. "When he was on the ground, with my client hitting him, as you allege, was he covering up?" Paul nods again. "And when you left, going up to get his brother, was the man covering up?" Paul nods a third time. Yes. Mr. Ingram was covering his head when Paul left. Mr. Ingram, therefore, was still conscious when Paul left. This is something. The ADA probes this question in her re-direct examination, but Paul sticks to his statement - when he left, Mr. Ingram's arms were still raised to his head.

We hear from one other witness, of sorts, an older resident who looked out his 12th-floor window and saw kids gathered near his car. He ran downstairs, saw them kicking an unconscious man (in his statement, he said he saw them punching him, too, but he does not recall this at trial), and told them to get lost. He called 911, but may not have been the only caller. He too has a checkered past, about which he readily laughs, and he freely admits that frequent marijuana use has left him with an impaired memory. He is, for the most part, irrelevant, though the defense argues that his testimony suggests that others should be held responsible for Mr. Ingram's death. Nonetheless, to be guilty of manslaughter in the 2nd degree, you need only be a contributing factor in someone's death, so the actions of others notwithstanding, John may still be guilty.

This is what we, the jury, have to work with as we decide the case - the testimony of two young men who, like our defendant, have grown up running from and occasionally into the law, and who share a profound distrust of the NYPD. One of them has broken a very deep bond to testify against his close friend, and both have revealed their information under duress, in a police station, arrested, at risk of being charged with killing someone. Both testify that many others saw these actions take place, but these individuals will forever remain nameless and silent. We are asked to believe them by the prosecution, to doubt them by the defense. The defendant does not testify, and no alibi is offered. He was there, he did these things (unless we believe that these others have perjured themselves). All that is left to decide is whether, beyond a reasonable doubt, he is guilty of killing Steven Ingram.

Tomorrow - Part IV: The Jury and Their Verdict

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