Reasonable doubt.

I don’t know anybody who likes jury duty.  I certainly don’t.  It’s something you don’t look forward to.  You tolerate it, as your “civic duty”…just another unwanted interruption, making you take a day or more off from work for a few dollars stipend from the state or county.

That having been said, it’s an interesting experience, if you get picked for a jury.  My past four days on jury duty in the Durham County Superior Court have certainly not been dull.

After all, it’s not every day you get to acquit a guy of possession of cocaine despite a drug dog finding drugs in his sock drawer, with a confession on top of that.

The case looked pretty cut and dried at the beginning.  It all stemmed from a 2004 raid on an apartment, where the defendant’s roommate had been tracked for months as a mid-level crack dealer by a local/FBI joint task force. When they arrested the roomie and searched the apartment, they found 6 grams of crack, in two baggies, in a dresser drawer in the defendant’s room, along with a year-old speeding ticket that gave them his name.

Six days later, the Durham PD roused themselves and issued an arrest warrant for the defendant. He was followed from near his apartment, pulled over, cuffed, and taken downtown to an interrogation room. At this point, things diverge drastically depending on who you listen to.

According to the police, when taken into the room by a local cop and an FBI agent (both members of the “Organized Drug Crime Yadda-Yadda Task Force” or some such highfalutin name), he was read his Miranda rights, had to initial and sign a paper with them on there, agreed to speak without a lawyer, and was then questioned about his roomie the kilo-level crack dealer.  Somewhere in there, he confessed to the 6 grams of crack being his, and that he got a few bags every so often from his roomie to sell to “some white guy named Daniel.”  He was then taken and booked into jail on state–not Federal–charges of possession of cocaine with intent to sell or distribute.  At no time was he threatened with a Federal indictment like his roommate, who was staring 10-to-life in Federal prison in the face.

According to the defendant, he was taken into the interrogation room, and immediately questioned before his Miranda rights were read.  The local Durham cop was asking him about the drug-dealer roomie, and the defendant maintained “I don’t get into his business.”  At which point, the FBI agent threatened him with a conspiracy charge and told him “I’m not some local blue-lighter, I’m the FBI, and I can put you away for 10 to life,” while the local cop maintained he could leave if he just told them the truth about his roomie.  The defendant, 21 at the time, said he freaked out and confessed to the crack, making up answers to some other questions asked by the FBI agent, in the hopes of telling them what they wanted to hear.

Seems pretty open and shut, right?  Two veteran law enforcement officers versus the best friend and roommate of a known kilo-level cocaine dealer?

Think again.

Both the DPD investigator and the FBI agent withered under the defense cross-examination.  Details got crossed up.  There were fifty-nine separate “I can’t recall” answers (was this a Hillary Clinton hearing from her days as First Lady?).  The cops couldn’t remember how many people were in the guy’s car when he was pulled over.  They couldn’t get their timelines straight without consulting each other after the DPD officer’s testimony but before the FBI agent’s.  Nobody could explain the six-day gap between finding the crack and even trying to arrest the guy.  Most damning, there was no independent transcript or recording of the confession.  All we had to go on was the word of the two officers.  The three-paragraph, one-page typewritten confession (an “FBI form 302”) wasn’t even entered into evidence for us to look at.  The original handwritten notes by the DPD officer were destroyed.  We were told it was “FBI policy” that their interviews cannot be tape-recorded or videoed, even though the charges the defendant were brought up on were state charges, and the FBI agent supposedly wasn’t running the interview.

Don’t think the defendant fared any better.  The DA blew his credibility apart on the stand.  Piece by piece, bit by bit, he pointed out hole after hole in his story, even direct contradictions between testimony in an evidence suppression hearing on Tuesday and the testimony in court on Thursday.

The end result, as one of my fellow jurors put it, was that “they were all lyin’.”  We did not know, and probably never will know, what happened in that interview room.  There’s no independent record of the confession–whether the kid was intimidated and threatened with 10+ years in the Federal graybar hotel, whether he was Mirandized before or after being questioned, whether they showed him the state arrest warrants before or after they took him to be booked.  And that just left us with 5.9 grams of crack, in two baggies, in a dresser drawer, in his bedroom, of an apartment where people came in and out.

According to the State of North Carolina, we had to apply a standard of “reasonable doubt”.  That means that each juror has to use his common sense and life experience to examine all pieces of the evidence, weigh them, and if beyond a doubt that is reasonable and fair–not a “shadow of a doubt,” nor a “vain and fanciful” doubt–then you think he’s guilty, he’s guilty.  If not, he walks.

It took the twelve of us only an hour to decide he was not guilty on posession of a Schedule II controlled substance with intent to sell or distribute, and possession of drug paraphernalia (the baggies the crack was in).  In our minds, the Durham Police Department did not meet their burden of proof.  There were too many holes, too many gaps.  Not by much, mind.  It was a close thing all around.  But their sloppy work left us all with a “reasonable doubt.”

Was it his?  Probably.  But “probably” is not good enough to send someone to jail.

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2 Responses to “Reasonable doubt.”

  1. Itanya Blade Says:

    When you were telling me about this, all I could see was that ascii faceplam.

  2. Lewis Says:

    That’s about how I felt about it. How badly do you have to screw up to lose a case with physical evidence AND a confession? They did.

    I know there were some juries that would’ve convicted the guy. This wasn’t one of them. Some of the folks I was on the panel with, I know, simply would not be convinced due to prior experiences with the court system and police in various places. It was a 51/49 case for me; I came in this morning to start deliberation thinking 51/49 guilty, but several of the other jurors convinced me around to 51/49 not guilty.

    There’s a lot I wish I knew about this case that I never will.


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