Thank you for the post cards. Scenery, real or imagined, is always a welcome break from the seven by twelve I now live in. Weíre allowed out of our cells for an hour a day, five days a week. Itís a concrete yard, but itís outside, nonetheless. Since I canít see out of my window, the cards are a perfect escape. Maybe one day in the future Iíll get to leave this place entirely and never return. Until then, the cards are the next best thing.
Iím glad you enjoy living in our nationís capital and are able to enjoy some of the finer things in life. What would life be worth if we didnít take time to enjoy the things that give us pleasure?
Itís good hearing about the concert you went to. I think thatís one of the things I miss most about the world. I get tired of my own voice singing small parts of songs and even making a few up. Just isnít the same without music.
Thanks too for the books. Iím sure you can imagine how boring things can get so I wonít get into it, but everything different helps. Iím almost positive Iíll be a more patient man when the time comes again for me to have all those freedoms that I used to enjoy so much.
Thank you for thinking of me. Stay safe out there in that world.
The jury selection process began with a questionnaire about our backgrounds and personal experiences. Had we ever been victims of a crime like this? Were we close to anyone who had been involved in anything similar? Some people were subsequently dismissed, but I made this first cut, despite the fact that I had answered ďyesĒ to the second question.
As a potential juror sitting in a packed municipal courtroom in Washington D.C. one sunny December morning, I was surrounded by people of all ages dressed mainly in business attire, some busy with paperwork or laptops. Many others were either reading newspapers or books or simply taking in the situation. All was quiet except for a few muffled conversations.
The judge started speaking, explaining the process of jury selection, and then he gave us a few facts about the case. Three defendants were on trial for robbery and murder. These young African American men in their 20s, sitting at a table with their lawyers, were smartly dressed in suits and ties. This was not television or the movies. This was real life and someone had died in what I assumed had been a violent death. Now I could be chosen to be part of a jury that would determine if any or all of the three men before us were guilty of the crime.
The next step was a private interview with the judge, prosecutors, and defense lawyers in a small, windowless room behind the courtroom. They had copies of my questionnaire in front of them when I entered and sat down to join them at a large table.
ďYou say you have a relative who has been convicted of a similar crime,Ē the judge began.
ďMy cousin played a role in a robbery in which his friend shot and killed the victim.Ē
When asked to elaborate, I explained that Alan had pleaded guilty to felony murder and was now serving a life sentence. The shooter was also given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
ďHow do you feel about the way your cousin was treated by the judicial system?Ē the judge asked.
It was still hard to believe that this young man, adored by his parents and friends and, at one time, a star high school basketball player, was now behind bars. He had just turned 18 a few months before the crime in question. I had watched Alan grow up and had celebrated holidays with him, together with other family members. The last time I saw him was on a visit he made to Washington D.C. the previous year where the two of us sat and chatted over dessert late one evening in Georgetown.
ďWhat do you want to do when you graduate from high school?Ē I asked.
ďAh, I donít know. I donít like school and my grades arenít that good but my parents really want me to go to college.Ē
ďWhatís wrong with that?Ē
ďI donít know what Iíd study so Iím worried they will just be wasting their money. Iíd rather get a job.Ē
Here was a young man who was at a crossroads in life; I wish there had been something I could have done or said then that would have helped him. He went back home and the conflicts with his parents escalated, setting him on a path that no one could ever have predicted he would take.
Many people had lost so much because of the heinous crime he participated in.
ďI believe the sentence he got was fair and deserved,Ē I replied to the judge.
They thanked me and I was dismissed. Next was a welcome lunch break, a chance to go outdoors and enjoy the beautiful day. I walked to a small restaurant a few blocks away, appreciating the ninety-minute respite from the bustling courthouse. Talking about Alan with the judge and lawyers brought back memories of the previous year. I could only piece together a few of the details I knew about what had happened because no one in the family would talk about it. Alan and his friend were restless during spring break so they borrowed a van and took off. They didnít have much money and, therefore, they werenít going to get very far. I do know that they ended up at a rest stop late one evening where they spotted a man with a fully-equipped SUV and decided to rob him. The gun they had in their possession was borrowed from the same neighbor who had loaned them the van. The robbery turned bad, Alanís friend shot and killed the SUV owner, and the two of them took off in the stolen vehicle. Needless to say, it didnít take long before they were caught and charged with the crime. Even though Alan did not do the actual killing, he participated in the robbery, a felony, where someone was killed and, thus, he was charged with felony murder.
After lunch, I found myself waiting outside the courtroom with the other potential jurors. A middle-aged Asian woman sitting next to me was worried because she had gotten this far in the selection process.
ďI donít want to be on the jury. I run a company and I canít take time away from it.Ē
I reassured her that they didnít need that many people so the odds were still in our favor that we would not be chosen.
Back in the courtroom, the lawyers started asking some of us to sit up in the jurorsí seats. They needed 12 jurors and two alternates and were getting down to the final selections. Looking again at the young male defendants, I thought that the defense would prefer women jurors as we might be more compassionate than men, perhaps relating to the accused as we do to our brothers or other male relatives. Since all of these defendants were African American, I guessed that they would try to pick people from ethnic minority groups because they would want the jury to be as diverse as possible. What, then, were the odds that I, a white female, would be chosen? This process had been interesting but I was now hoping it would only be a one-day experience. The thought of spending two weeks (by the judgeís earlier estimate) at a murder trial was disturbing. Could I bear to listen to more details about this violent act? A colleague of mine was on a jury for a criminal case in this very same courthouse a few years ago and she felt traumatized by the experience. Afterwards, she had seriously considered moving out of this city with its high crime rate, even though it had been her home for over fifteen years.
My number was called, and I went up into the jury box surrounded by others similarly chosen. How did I look as a part of this mix of people? Did the prosecutors and the defense want someone like me? People were asked to step down and were replaced by others. I sat there for no more than five minutes and then was asked to return to my old seat. A few minutes later, the judge made an announcement.
ďLadies and gentlemen, thank you for your time today. All of you in the audience may leave. We have finished the jury selection.Ē
I let out a small sigh of relief. Glancing up at the group of jurors, I saw the Asian woman Iíd spoken to in the hallway. I wondered what was going through her mind because her worst fears had been realized.
It was mid-afternoon and we were excused for the day as there were no more cases that needed potential jurors. How wonderful it felt to walk out of the courthouse building and into the sunshine! However, I was also acutely aware that there were 14 people from my original jury pool who would have to return tomorrow and take on a significant role in this case. They were not free, at least not for the next two weeks.
As I headed home, I thought about Alan. He would be turning 19 soon and would become eligible for parole in 34 years.