Friday, August 13, 2010

A Crown Heights Homicide: Part IV - The Jury and Their Verdict

(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 final installment of my report and reflections on the experience. You can read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III 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.)

Selecting a jury for a criminal trial is like finding twelve needles in a haystack. When I report for jury duty on a Monday, the first half of the jury has already been selected, and it will take a full day, with two full pools of potential jurors reporting, to fill the remaining seats. Over 500 people report initially to the main jury room, where a few are dismissed and the rest of us are sectioned off and sent upstairs to the various courtrooms. Sixty people report to this specific manslaughter trial, where a few more are dismissed, and 15 of us are seated in the jury box. While the others watch, the judge and attorneys perform their voir dire. The judge asks each of us about our occupation, level of educational attainment, place of residence and neighborhood, marital status, and whether we know any of the individuals associated with the case. Then the attorneys take over, asking questions of the whole group and occasionally of individual prospective jurors at random. These include general queries such as "Can you consider the testimony of a police officer fairly, neither assigning more or less weight to it on account of the officer's job?" and "Have you or anyone close to you been the victim of a violent crime, and would this experience affect your ability to hear the facts of this case?" The attorneys also ask questions that relate directly to their strategies: from the prosecution, we are asked whether we can convict on the strength of one person's convincing eyewitness testimony (the judge reminds us that they law requires we do so if we are convinced), and the defense lawyer wants to know whether we can hold his client innocent until proven guilty even if he does not take the stand. After the process is complete, we are sent to lunch, and when we return, three of the 15 prospective jurors who were put in the jury box are selected. This process is repeated in the afternoon to fill out the jury.

The next morning, all 15 of us (12 jurors and 3 alternates) are together for the first time in the jury box, and the judge gives us our instructions. We are the "finders of fact," which is to say, we determine what happened based on the evidence, mostly testimony, that we see and hear. The judge will arbitrate the law, and the attorneys will make arguments, but ultimately, the fate of the young man charged with killing Steven Ingram is in our hands. By extension, justice for Mr. Ingram is in our hands as well. This is a grave task.

Our jury is a diverse group. Of the twelve of us, five are male and seven are female. Eight are African-American or Caribbean, two are Hispanic, and two are white. Our ages range from the early 20s to near-retirement, and our jobs and education levels are equally broad. We don't necessarily have a lot in common, but we're going to be sitting together in a jury room on the 18th floor of the Kings County Courthouse for a long time, so we're going to get to know each other.

One other key point: we can't talk about the case until we've heard all the testimony. This was a wrinkle I wasn't expecting. Jurors, of course, cannot share information about the case with anyone outside the court, nor can we speak to the judge, attorneys, witnesses, or defendant. We can't read about the case anywhere (not that Mr. Ingram's death was covered by any news outlet at all), nor can we visit the crime scene or research any questions about the laws in question (for instance, whether or not manslaughter is a fair crime to charge). But I had expected that, at least, the jurors would be able to talk to each other about the case. However, the laws are designed to keep any one of us from influencing the others throughout the trial before all the facts have been revealed. Until everything is on the table, we are to be individual receptacles for information, keeping our own counsel at all costs, and even after four hours of intense testimony, after hearing Paul plead to the judge that John is his best friend, when we retire to the room, we cannot talk about what we have just experienced. It is a peculiar kind of solitary companionship - we were all there, but we must remain silent, and we do.

One of the judge's many jobs throughout the trial is to ensure that we only hear admissible evidence, that the only factors weighing on our mind when we do finally deliberate are the facts of the case. To this end, we are constantly sent in and out of the courtroom while points of law are deliberated or evidence is considered for admission. Nonetheless, there is much more to the trial than the official record. The defense attorney, though he knows he cannot, constantly alludes to Mr. Ingram's history of drug and alcohol abuse and his criminal record. We hear, briefly, from Mr. Ingram's niece on the stand, and she, her mother, and grandmother (Mr. Ingram's mother) can be found in the courtroom nearly every day (or at least one of them can), waiting for justice for their uncle/brother/son. A woman who bears an unmistakable likeness to our defendant, and who must be his mother, sits behind him most days as well, sometimes with a younger teenage girl who appears to be her daughter. She is waiting to see whether her soon is guilty of killing Mr. Ingram, whether he will be going to prison for anywhere between one and nine years.

After two and a half weeks, our trial wraps up on a Wednesday morning, and the judge reads out the counts we are to consider, in turn, against the defendant. We are to consider manslaughter in the first degree, manslaughter in the second degree, assault in the second degree, and assault in the third degree, in descending order of severity. The accused can only be found guilty of one of these crimes. The key differences between the two types of manslaughter are state of mind - first-degree manslaughter requires "intent to cause serious physical harm" that contributes (and only contributes -- this violence need not be the ONLY cause) to the death of the individual in question, while second-degree manslaughter can be the result of "recklessness" (this includes intoxication). With regard to the assault charges, second-degree assault requires "intent to cause serious physical harm," while third-degree assault requires intent to cause "physical harm" that is not necessarily serious (this is the only charge that is not a felony).

In their closing statements, the attorneys offer their final assessments of the evidence. The ADA leads by shouting "this man beat Steven Ingram to a pulp!" She is right, if we are to believe his best friend. The defense leads by saying "we don't even know when this crime took place." He is right, too. The ADA emphasizes that beating Mr. Ingram must have contributed to his death - he died of blunt force trauma to the head, after all - while the defense makes the point that several other individuals were observed assaulting Mr. Ingram, and that only his client has been charged with manslaughter. He discredits every witness, pointing again and again to the police tactic of threatening those who became witnesses with a murder or manslaughter charge. Can we believe any of them? It is up to us to decide. The judge gives us final instructions, namely, that we are to act as arbiters of fact, not law, and that as none of us has been qualified as an expert witness, none of us may act as an expert in re-interpreting the facts of the case. Then we are off, sequestered until we reach a verdict.

The moment we are in the room, three weeks of pent-up ideas come pouring out in an incessant, incoherent jumble. Two of the men argue about what "wrestling move" Dick and Harry used on Mr. Ingram when he was unconscious, and whether or not this was the death blow, while another man argues with a woman that getting up and chasing Mr. Ingram down constitutes intent to commit serious harm, and two women nod gravely about the speck of metal found in Mr. Ingram's cheek. All is chaos until our forewoman and her self-appointed clerk, who is taking assiduous notes (we are forbidden from note-taking in the courtroom, another way in which individual jurors are kept from having any record but the official record), call us to order, and we go around the table giving our opinions.

We are united on many points. The police investigation was shoddy in places, and wholly unsatisfactory as a whole. Others should have been charged in Mr. Ingram's death. Tom, our first witness, so thoroughly confused himself and the attorneys with his denials that his testimony is hard to believe. Paul, on the other hand, was entirely convincing. There is dissonance: some of us are repulsed and angered by the crime, affected by the presence of the victim's silent mother, waiting every day with hands folded in her lap for justice, while others believe, as the defense lawyer said, that this young man has been left "holding the bag," that he was singled out by an unfair system and does not deserve to be punished for a group killing. But we believe Paul, which means we believe that John, our defendant, did in fact assault Mr. Ingram. Now we must split hairs, and carefully.

Was John impaired? He had, according to reports from Paul, smoked marijuana and drunk alcohol, though when asked about the amount, Paul said it was "not that much." This may rule out first-degree manslaughter, but not second-degree. Did, in spite of this, he mean to cause harm? We believe he did - he got up and chased Mr. Ingram down, after all, and pushed one of his best friends away to continue hitting the man once he was already on the ground. Impaired or not, impetuous as the first swing may have been, he chased the man, knocked him down, and kept swinging. This went beyond misplaced, wounded pride. This man intended to hurt Mr. Ingram.

Was the harm he intended to cause serious? We believe it was - it would be unreasonable to think otherwise, to think that multiple blows to the head, especially after someone has hit the ground, would not cause serious harm. This rules first-degree manslaughter back in, as well as second-degree assault, and seems to rule out second-degree manslaughter. The question now is whether or not the blows that we know he threw were a contributing cause of death.

It is here that we bicker most vehemently, where the weight of this decision begins to strain our camaraderie, causing the lines of race and class to show through the fabric. We return to the courtroom to have the charges read back to us, hoping that the specifics will help us to clarify the issues, but they do not. Those who have grown up or lived in similar circumstances to our defendant accuse those who have not of lacking the requisite familiarity with the circumstances to judge this man, while others accuse them of letting sentiment override logic. Our forewoman, a nurse, expresses her professional opinion, namely, that the presence of blood does not necessarily imply "serious harm" was done and that the presence of the metal speck implies that he was hit with a piece of metal. This is well outside the scope of the evidence presented, but it encourages a host of other conjectures, many of which are based on little to no evidence. Tempers are starting to rise. Finally, our scribe brings us back around to the key point: we have agreed that our defendant intended to cause serious harm. Based on the evidence provided, how can we determine whether or not this harm, which he did indeed inflict, was a contributing cause of death?

The room gets quiet for a moment, and then some of us begin to argue that if Mr. Ingram, as every medical expert told us, died from blunt force trauma to the head, there's no way these punches did NOT contribute to his death. In rebuttal, one juror returns to the unexpected point made in cross-examination: when Paul left the scene, Mr. Ingram was still covering his head with his arms, implying that he was still conscious. We do not know what happened after that, as there are no witnesses and there is no video. Perhaps, seeing his friend flee, the young man realized that he was out of his mind, and fled the scene himself, leaving a battered but conscious Mr. Ingram to be killed by others. Perhaps he beat him into the coma himself, and the others, when they arrived, found only a body. We know that others kicked and assaulted Mr. Ingram. What we don't know is whether he was already on his way to death when the defendant stopped punching him. If we don't know, argues our juror, there is reasonable doubt. We cannot convict a man for manslaughter if the only witness did not even see him knock the man unconscious. Our nurse raises another point - no wounds or bruises were found elsewhere on Mr. Ingram's body. Despite Tom's muddled testimony, it would appear that whatever kicks, punches and wrestling moves were later directed at Mr. Ingram landed on his head.

This line of reasoning carries the day, though some of us do not remember the specific testimony, and must have it read back to us, an excruciating process that keeps us in the courtroom while the stenographer drones on for well over an hour. Finally, however, it is repeated: when Paul left the scene, "the man was covering up." We return to the room, and though many of us are frustrated that no one will be held responsible for killing Mr. Ingram, we scratch the manslaughter charges off our list. We think we are decided on assault in the second degree (we do not know this at the time, but it is a Class D felony, punishable by at least a year in prison, and no more than two and a half years), but some jurors are now pushing for assault in the third degree (a misdemeanor, though again, this information is not given to the jury during deliberation), the difference being whether or not the harm inflicted was "serious." We bicker again, and this time the exhaustion of the trial seems to dissolve opposing arguments, with one juror simply throwing up her hands and saying "yes, I suppose it was serious." We knock on our door, the court officer outside hears us, and we are led into the courtroom to deliver our verdict.

The defendant is there, dressed in a clean gray suit and green tie. His mother and sister sit behind him, dressed casually but modestly. Behind the prosecution's table sit the three women who have come for justice for Steven Ingram, his niece, sister, and mother, his mother dressed for church, a large hat in her hand. Our forewoman rises and the court clerk reads out the counts.

"For the charge of manslaughter in the first degree, how do you find?"
"Not guilty." Nothing really happens. The courtroom is as tense as ever.

"For the charge of manslaughter in the second degree, how do you find?"
"Not guilty." This is news. The defendant's mother leans over until her head nearly touches the bench in front of her. She appears to be praying. The Ingrams sit ramrod-straight, unmoving but not unmoved. The mother's expression darkens noticeably. The defense attorney nods, while the prosecuting attorney pursues her lips and stares at the table in front of her.

"For the charge of assault in the second degree, how do you find?"

Three things happen at once. The defense attorney and the defendant's mother lean forward and put their heads in their hands, like puppets on the same string. The prosecutor flashes a grin, composes herself, and then glances back to the Ingrams, giving them the thumbs-up. Tears in her eyes, the mother nods. And juror number twelve bursts into tears.
The judge asks the attorneys whether they will waive the individual juror confirmation of the verdict. The prosecutor does, but the defense attorney, who has regained his cool and noticed the crying juror, does not. Now it is our turn to be tense - we will each be asked in turn whether or not this is our verdict. All we must answer is "yes," but should one of us answer "no," we have no idea what will happen. In turn, we are asked, in turn, we say yes, and when juror number twelve is asked, she says, through tears, "yes." The judge turns to us, thanks us for our service, and we are dismissed.

Juror number twelve walks out of the courtroom, grabs her things, and leaves without a word to anyone. We are more than a little troubled by this - no one wants to feel as though our deliberations were unfair - though perhaps she was just overcome by the moment, as many of us were. Ours is something of a compromise verdict - the young defendant is not guilty of killing someone, but he will do time for his violent crime - but we did not intend it that way, and none of us are completely satisfied. Has justice been done? No one has been convicted of killing Mr. Ingram, and yet he was most surely killed.

On the way out of the jury room, I hear one juror remark to another, "I can't believe his best friend snitched on him! No wonder he left the state - he should've left the country! If someone asks you about this, you say you didn't see nothin'. You didn't see NOTHIN'." I don't say anything, but this bothers me, bothers me to the point of distraction, to the point of storming clear out of the courthouse and down the street before I've realized that I walked clean past my subway stop. "Snitch" is a word any educator loathes, a word that demands silence in the face of cruelty, violence, misbehavior, a word that is not so much "tattle" on steroids as a way of life, one that opposes authority in all its forms and shows up on t-shirts ("Don't Snitch") and in chants ("Snitches get stitches!") by the time kids are in third grade. It is a word for a world in which police, above all, cannot be trusted. Perhaps they should not - this trial did not leave me with a glowing view of the NYPD - and yet, if they never are, then justice for Mr. Ingram, or for anyone else killed in a place like the Albany Houses, will remain denied. A "snitch?" I shout to myself in my head. "A snitch?" Somebody died. Somebody was killed for no reason at all. Someone should say something.

Thinkers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Akhil Reed Amar have argued that serving on a jury is an essential component of American participatory democracy, more so even than voting. By bringing a diverse group of citizens together as equals to decide the facts of the case, the jury educates them about the intricacies of the law and the judicial system and gives them a better appreciation for the challenges that attorneys, judges and enforcers face in applying the law. More broadly, jury service is a reminder that this government is our government, that ultimately, we are responsible for the laws we live under, the punishments meted out for their violation.

Most days, I can steer clear of crime, or take a detached, sociological view of it (oppositional cultures reproduce themselves, etc etc). When I do encounter crime, it is as a bystander, sometimes enraged, but never a part of it. On this jury, I, and eleven others, were responsible for justice in the senseless death of a homeless man. I will stand by our verdict, as I did under oath, and I do not think we should have found differently, but I am not satisfied. I am not satisfied with police cameras that watch walls while people are beat to death. I am not satisfied with police investigations that rely on threats and luck. I am not satisfied with a culture of "don't snitch," in which twenty people observe a violent crime and do nothing. I am not satisfied, but jury service has reminded me that I am part of this, that these are my laws and my culture, these are my taxes paying police salaries (as much as they are anyone else's), and that if I am not satisfied, it is up to me, to us, to do something about it. I want to live in a world where Steven Ingram (a homeless Vietnam Veteran) is not beaten to death for being a convenient target. Surely there is a way to build a society in which this is a reality.

Thank you for reading.


  1. Nick -- Thank you for taking the time to compose this series and reflect on what sounds like a battered system that maybe isn't broken, but could certainly use some polish. I hadn't much thought about the volatility of NYC's homeless population in terms of their victimization (beyond purely economic reasons) but you did such a poignant job of highlighting their risk.

    Certainly, I can feel your dissatisfaction through this story, though I can only begin to imagine the frustration you must've felt through those 3 weeks. And I can't agree with you more that the 'no snitch' pressure is just bullshit. Sure, it gets blurry when your friends are involved, but a man's life was taken.

    Anyway, thank you for writing about this. I think it's really important.

  2. So much more I could write, but at the very least I just want to say that this series was extremely well done. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is one of the best pieces of "citizen journalism" I've read. It's relevant, poignant, important beyond your coincidental role in the proceedings. It makes me wish every trial involved a juror as astute, thoughtful, and prolific as you.

  4. Your case was shorter and more dramatic than mine, but I also enjoyed getting insight on our judicial system though I was somewhat disheartened towards the end. We had a pretty atrocious defense councilman who nitpicked over every detail, like filibustering in the Senate. I too noticed the level of taboo on "snitching." I had never realized how offensive this was in certain communities, and it played a major role in our case as the main victim fled the state immediately following the incident, and few others offered to come forward. I enjoyed reading your experience; sounds like your jury did a good job of taking the time to deliberate and reach a fair verdict. Just think - you're free for 8 years now!

  5. Nick,

    Any thought as to why a teenager from the Albany projects had the managing partner of a successful law firm representing him rather than Brooklyn Defenders? He is entitled to strong representation (which it seems he got) but there is usually a story when someone who appears to be living on the edge has private counsel. Did the jurors ever discuss this issue?