Thursday, July 1, 2010

Modern Justice

Anderson County Courthouse, 2004

I know this guy. We’ll call him “Al.” (His nickname is actually “Groovy,” which is alliterative with his last name and also clues you in to the era when he got that nickname.)

Al runs a chain of neighborhood diners. Most days of the week you can find Al standing at the grill of the flagship shop, cooking burgers, barbecue and hot dogs and cutting up with the regulars at the counter behind him.

Al’s the kind of guy given to wearing a lot of bling. Gold rings. Gold chains. You get the picture. He’s not a made guy. But I’m pretty sure he knows some.

You don’t need to know much about Al’s second career as a gambler other than that he’s been hosting a Tuesday night high stakes card game for years.

A few years back, one of Al’s buddies was arrested and convicted for running a floating card game. The friend started serving his sentence in a state jail, where Al said you could slip most any kind of personal item in without any trouble. Later he moved to a federal prison, where Al said he had to be more creative, as in, throwing packs of cigarettes over the fence or stashing them in….

But this story isn’t about that. It’s about the time Al was a jury foreman. The case involved an alleged attempt by one drug dealer to have another drug dealer killed.

The case for conviction was strong. The hearing wrapped up on a Thursday afternoon and went to the jury first thing the next morning. The jury quickly came to a guilty verdict on the conspiracy to murder charge. But they couldn’t agree on the terms of the recommended jail sentence.

The judge said they could recommend a sentence of up to fifteen years. Most jurors had seen the case as a dispute between two thugs with long criminal records. Neither of the men involved elicited much sympathy. Because of the brutal nature of the attempted murder, all but one of the jury members were inclined to vote for the full fifteen-year jail sentence.

The lone dissenter thought the defendant had been treated poorly by society and that he’d shown genuine remorse in the courtroom during the hearing. The other Jury members couldn’t accept this. The dissenter wouldn’t budge. They went back and forth all day. Finally the judge let them go home for the weekend with a warning that they had to get their act together when they reconvened the following Monday morning.

Only they couldn’t. Al wouldn’t budge in his belief that the defendant deserved the full fifteen years. “They was both crooks,” he told me later. “At least we could get one of them off the streets for a while.”

At the close of business Monday afternoon, the jury was still undecided. Throughout the day the dissenter had picked up a few more people willing to cut some time off of their original recommendation. But the judge wanted a unanimous verdict and told them he wouldn’t let them leave on Tuesday until they came to a verdict on the sentencing recommendation.

On Tuesday morning, Al warned his fellow jurors that he had an “important obligation” that he could not miss that night and that they would come to a verdict by the time he had to leave. (He thought it best not to mention that the obligation was his weekly card game.) Through the day the jurors continued to argue over the length of the sentence. The majority continued to favor the full fifteen-year term.

At 4:00 p.m. the jury could still not come to agreement. It was almost time for Al to have to leave. Al made one last push for the 15-year sentence, called for a final vote and told his fellow jurors that if they knew what was good for them they’d find it in their hearts to vote with a single voice.

They did. The vote was unanimous. So that Al could make it to his card game, the defendant was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to time served. He walked out of the courthouse a free man just a few minutes after the jurors were thanked and dismissed.

1 comment:

  1. That's an amazing story! You have to wonder how many times cases have rested on insane things like that. I'm sure it's far more often than any of us think.