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Steven M. Lerner
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jurypool.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson 2016

JURY POOL

Steven M. Lerner

 

          I took one last look at the guy on my way out of the courtroom. The twelve of us were shuffling out of the jury box, because juries are supposed to shuffle, it’s courtroom protocol, and I was number ten so I had a little longer than most of the others to get a last look. Juror number six was a slow-moving grandmother who seemed to be taking a couple of steps, stopping to reassess the earth’s surface, then another couple of steps, and so on, so we were barely even rising to the level of a shuffle.

So I’m discreetly taking a series of looks back at the defendant— you know, scratching my neck, not being obvious about it—and he’s sitting there in a cheap brown suit you could tell was provided by his lawyer because it was two or three sizes too big, and his lawyer is off to the side talking to some guy, and he’s just sitting there staring at a spot in the air in front of his nose with his hands clasped together and his chin resting on his thumbs. I look at his face, but I can’t tell if he’s thinking, “Hey, I really fooled those dumb jurors,” or if it’s, “What’s the use of me being innocent, I never get any breaks.”

          Anyway, I happen to notice a patch of discolored skin on the meaty side of his left hand. In fact, it looks a little disfigured, as if something took a bite out of it and it had to be stitched back together. The whole trial I’d been thinking how he looks kind of familiar but deciding that was only because he had this stereotypical bully look, like the grown-up version of a hoodlum kid in a 1930s movie about a gang of hoodlum kids roaming soot-covered city streets in search of pockets to pick and smaller kids to torment.  And just as I’m passing through the doorway, I put it all together—the face, the scar, the woman on the witness stand calling him Mickey even though his legal name is Michael. And I remember. I knew this guy.

*

Camp Chief Winnemucca, 1972. I’m nine years old, away at summer camp for the first time for tw­o weeks of ghost stories around the campfire, overnight hikes, treasure hunts, and lessons about Indian lore. Heaven for a kid, you’d think. And mostly it was. Except for one day when they loaded us into a caravan of busses and drove us into town for an afternoon of splashing around in the pool at the local YMCA.

The first week I’d mostly been around the other nine-year-olds. We played games, had our meals together, bunked in the same cabin. But there, at the YMCA pool, all the boys were thrown together, the nine-year-olds with the ten- and 11-year-olds, one of whom was a broad-shouldered kid named Mickey who looked like a hoodlum kid straight out of 1930s central casting, with his chipped front tooth, mop of straggly hair, and contemptuous, challenging gaze which he levelled at anyone who happened to register as potential prey on his radar.

*

          We take a vote right out of the chute: seven guilty, five not guilty. There’d been a fight in a bar and Michael Joseph Farley had won. The other guy had died. A couple of witnesses claimed that Michael Joseph Farley not only started the fight, not only raised it to a legally unjustifiable level of violence, but proceeded to continue pounding on the guy after he’d been rendered completely defenseless. A few others who witnessed the brawl—and were almost certainly drinking buddies of Michael Joseph Farley—told a different story. Farley didn’t want to fight, they said, but the other guy wouldn’t let up, and when the punches started flying he was only defending himself. These witnesses had no credibility, if you know anything about people when they lie. At first they’re a little too calm, and then they’re a little too indignant, and finally their eyes get real wide as if they’re the kind of person who would never, ever tell a lie to a county prosecutor.

          We go around the table, each juror explaining his or her vote, starting with the grandmother. She couldn’t possibly vote guilty, she tells us, unless she is absolutely sure. How could anyone send that poor boy to prison when all those nice people said he was only defending himself? This grandmother’s gonna be tough.

*

          The camp counselors decide not to use the YMCA locker room but to have us change into our swimsuits in the men’s room by the pool, in groups of ten or fifteen at a time. So I’m in the last group, and we can hear kids splashing around and shouting outside, and suddenly it starts. I hear a scuffle in the far corner of the bathroom, followed by a thump, and I turn around to see a small boy being held against the wall by a much larger boy.

          “You little punk,” says Michael Joseph Farley, alias Mickey.

          He releases the boy, who then falls to the floor and starts whimpering. I take a few steps backward, putting an additional couple of kids between me and the trouble in the corner. One boy makes a move for the door, but Mickey is too fast and blocks the exit.

          “Where you going, punk?” he says. “Running home to mommy?”

*

          After each juror has their say we shift into open debate, which includes an animated discussion about the practical meaning of “reasonable doubt.” This gets us nowhere. Our side then focuses on the testimony of the doctor. The victim was already unconscious, the doctor testified, when at least two additional blows were delivered to his head. It’s an obvious case of a guy who likes beating the crap out of people, we tell the grandmother, the manicurist and the car salesman. After two hours, they’re the remaining holdouts.

*

          Mickey grabs the quivering kid by the neck, thumb and index finger pinching at the sides. All the boys in the room are too scared to shout for help, even though there are probably a half dozen counselors within earshot. Mickey would never forgive an act of defiance like that. Sooner or later, he’d get even.

          The kid in Mickey’s clutches is now not only quivering but has turned a dazzling shade of pinkish red and his eyes are bulging. We’re gonna have a murder right here in the men’s room by the pool of the YMCA and the parents will have to drive back to Camp Winnemucca a week early to pick up their kids and there won’t be any more ghost stories around the campfire or treasure hunts or lessons about Indian lore.

          And before I realize what I’m doing the words leap from my mouth, like a reflexive gasp.

“Leave him alone,” I say.

          I don’t know, maybe I thought the other boys would rally around me and we’d have him outnumbered, we could pull Mickey’s hand off the kid’s neck and wrestle him to the ground. But it works, because Mickey releases the kid’s neck and stands there, dumbfounded, staring at me. The smaller kid falls to his hands and knees, gasping for air, rubbing his neck and sniffling as he crawls away. Everyone waits to see what Mickey will do next.

*

          Eleven guilty, one not guilty. I knew it would be the grandmother. Her standard for burden of proof seems to require that she personally witnessed the crime, hadn’t had a glass of wine to cloud her senses during the preceding forty-eight hours, a complete set of fingerprints, a full confession with lawyer present, and a sign from God. The rest of us go to work on her. What if it was your son, or grandson, we ask her, who got beat up and killed? And what about when that prosecutor tried to sneak in a mention of prior convictions, all the commotion with that? Obviously Michael Joseph Farley has been in and out of prison for most of his adult life. Yes, his buddies called it self-defense, but didn’t you see how they were smirking?

          “Well,” she says, “I just don’t know.”

*

          “Come here, punk,” says Mickey, watching me with hoodlum malevolence. He can’t leave his post by the door because the other kids will run out and get help. Also, I imagine, he likes an audience. I stay put.

          “Come here!” he says.

          Well, I’m thinking I’ll just wait it out. Surely one of the counselors will come in at any moment and tell us to hurry up. But then Mickey gets an idea and starts corralling boys away from the door with his long arms so that they can’t escape, pushing them towards me, an ever-growing cluster of trembling boys around him. His plan proves more difficult than he’d figured, however, because the smallest boys are squirming away at every opportunity, so he has to back up and start over. Then he stops.

          “If anyone tries to leave,” he says, his eyes roving from boy to boy, “I’ll find you and you’ll be sorry.”

          In three quick steps he’s on me and I raise my arms in feeble defense but he punches me in the nose. I shriek, crumple to the ground, and lie there with my arms wrapped around my head. I’m scared, of course, but it’s strange, because I’m not thinking about pain from the apparently impending onslaught of kicks, stomps and punches—what I’m thinking about is that I don’t want to cry in front of the other boys.

          “Punk chicken,” he says, and then turns and walks away.

          Well, I’m crying now, tears streaming down my face, but I’m also filled with a degree of rage I’ve never known before. I jump to my feet and hurl myself at Mickey. I drive a fist into the back of his head and throw my shoulders into the small of his back. I’m no chicken, I shout over and over as I’m punching and clawing, when a counselor named Rick—this very nice eighteen-year-old counselor who was always clowning around—comes through the door and grabs Mickey an instant before he’s about to smash me in the nose again.

*

          We’ve been at the grandmother for a good hour and a half, and she’s starting to waver. We’re using everything we can think of—Mussolini, storm troopers, lynch mobs— anything that might trigger her hatred of bullies, and her appetite for vengeance. Someone has to say no, we tell her, somebody has to stand up and tell them we will never again tolerate lawless, barbaric behavior.

          The grandmother slumps. She’s had it. Maybe we’re right, she tells us. We go around the table and take another vote. When it’s my turn, I hesitate.

          “Your vote,” says the paramedic.

          “I just realized something,” I say.

*

          It’s the next morning. Mickey has been kicked out of camp and his parents are coming to pick him up, so he’s waiting, suitcase beside him, in front of the Camp Chief Winnemucca main office cabin. Campers and counselors are on their way into the lodge for breakfast next-door. I didn’t figure I’d be running into Mickey again, but there he is, watching me walk by.

          That’s when I hear a low growl and the rustle and scrape of scrambling paws over dirt and dried leaves, and out from a cluster of trees a dog comes running straight at me. He’s not particularly large, nor is he a particularly intimidating breed— just this yellowish, medium-sized mutt— but he’s growling and snarling and picking up speed. I run towards the closest refuge, the main office cabin, but it’s obvious I won’t make it.

          “Hey!” shouts Mickey.

          All those counselors and campers are running away from this dog, but not Mickey. He’s running towards me and he skids to a stop right beside me just as the dog leaps into the air. Mickey sticks out a hand and the dog catches it with his teeth in midair and chomps down on it and then lands and starts tugging on it. Mickey is screaming.

*

“I’ve been thinking about what the doctor said,” I tell them. “Those punches after the guy was probably unconscious. All right, so we have witnesses on both sides. It’s like they saw two different fights. And if that was all we had, then sure, that’s reasonable doubt. But for me, it was the doctor who had me convinced. Now I’m thinking that even if Farley threw a few punches after the guy was unconscious, he didn’t know that. This doctor has the benefit of an autopsy, so he knows what happened and, maybe, when it happened. But Farley didn’t know. What’s he supposed to do, stop and make sure the guy’s conscious? Take his pulse? Ask some questions? In the heat of battle, you don’t know if some guy you just knocked down is about to pull a knife, or what he’s gonna do. It’s a natural tendency to keep fighting. I have reasonable doubt. I’m changing my vote. Not guilty.”

Another hour of debate proves futile. The vote is eleven to one. The judge orders us to try again, but the next day it’s the same: eleven to one.

I had to be the one who saved him, the only one that stepped up and took his side. He did it for me when that dog was about to maul me. So we’re even now. With that eleven-to-one vote, the prosecutor is sure to get a new trial. And later, with a new jury, maybe they’ll fry Michael Joseph Farley in the electric chair, for all I care.





Steven M. Lerner works in closed captioning and has a B.A. in music composition. “Jury Pool” is his first published story.

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