Judging a fellow citizen
Gary Caruso | Friday, September 5, 2003
Each autumn when students return to campus, the most asked question is, ‚”What did you do this summer?‚” My answer is that I sentenced a 26 year-old man to life in federal prison.On the last day of July, I, along with eleven other jurors, walked for the final time into a crowded courtroom to announce our verdicts. For me, it was a unique moment after sitting each day for four months on a special Federal trial in an almost empty courtroom. I felt like I was ascending Notre Dame Stadium’s tunnel before a capacity crowd prior to a national championship football game. While each juror knew we were charged with an enormously serious matter, none of us was prepared for the electrical atmosphere of the courtroom on that final day. Some jurors sat shaking nervously as curious and anxious spectators anticipated our verdicts. Jurors who had avoided eye contact with the defendant during our four months still could not look at the defendant while each of the 75 counts was read. My adrenaline abruptly skyrocketed, and my mouth went dry when my eyes locked onto the defendant’s eyes.Subconsciously I knew the possible consequences of our deliberations, but the amplitude of my responsibilities did not strike me until the moment our foreman began his announcement of our verdict. Initially the defendant remained emotionless with the same eerily relaxed expression he had displayed throughout the four-month trial. His demeanor was one that suggested an extremely casual indifference, almost as though he was an observer rather than a participant in the process.Seldom throughout the trial had the defendant changed his expression. On the first day of the trial he and I had established eye contact. I watched as his casual expression changed to an icy cold stare for a moment before he snapped back to his relaxed look. He remained detached while the entire courtroom gasped during the replay of a 911 emergency call from a woman who had been shot. When the courtroom sat mesmerized, he barely looked at an 18-year-old high school senior who testified that she had been ambushed and shot five times in an alley when she was 15.After sitting for four months as a juror, I filled five notepads with notations regarding testimony, observations and my conclusions. Thanks to the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, I reviewed countless undercover videotaped transactions and telephone wiretaps. I know how to “cook” and “stretch” powder cocaine into cocaine base (crack). I also now understand latent finger prints versus “prints of value” along with the ballistic references for shell casings and bullets.For me, the defense suffered on three days during the trial. One morning a witness described how he was kidnapped, tortured and beaten by the defendant. That afternoon another witness, a perceived rival by the defendant, identified the defendant as the person who shot into his car and killed his passenger. This day was followed by an impartial neighbor testifying that he saw the defendant shoot the passenger.On the second day that hurt the defense, the prosecution paraded several ballistics and fingerprint experts who tied shell casings from several shootings to guns confiscated during four search warrants on the defendant’s home. Additional testimony from a rival gang member who admitted almost shooting the defendant, and testimony from another impartial city government worker placed the defendant at the scene of another shooting.Finally, the third day that crippled the defense occurred when the defense called its first expert witness. On cross examination the prosecution masterfully got the expert to admit to several ascersions the prosecution had contended during his presentations. That day was one in which every law student should have been observing the U.S. Attorney’s textbook performance.On our final day when our foreman responded to the judge whether we had found the defendant guilty or not guilty on the various charges and whether or not the government had proven or not proven the racketeering elements of those charges, I fixated on the defendant’s eyes. When it was announced that we found the defendant guilty on drug distribution and distribution within a thousand feet of a school, the defendant maintained his relaxed glare. When we found him guilty on murder, he transformed into a cold, mean stare. As we pronounced him guilty on attempted murder, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, perjury and firearms violations, his eyes changed from cold to disbelief to colder to indifference.Last summer, for the first time in my life, I sat on a jury. It was an experience of a lifetime that helped me understand the beauty and wisdom of our judicial system. I am absolutely convinced that we rendered the correct verdicts and that we should remove that young man from society. If I had a choice, I would have preferred running out of the football tunnel to face three-hundred pound linemen.
Gary Caruso served as a blah in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected] The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.