Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Burden of Proof – Who Shot Dodi?

“I can’t believe I’m putting myself through this again,” he thought to himself, while seated at the old oak table and looking towards the cozy little space just a few feet away where soon twelve empty wooden swivel chairs would slowly be filled one by one with people from everyday walks of life.  All afternoon, since the close of the trial, a silent stillness had pervaded the spacious courtroom, with its ultra-high ceilings and ornate trimmings from another era.  And then early evening, two sharp buzzes rang out from the bailiff’s desk.  “That means we got a verdict.”   She was a young, just over five feet stout black woman, who had made it known throughout the weeklong trial that she was in complete command of the courtroom, and now she was alerting the judge and all that the end had arrived.

The anticipation of that moment – when a man’s fate, his client’s life, would literally be decided – weighed heavily on him, and he thought about the anxiety felt at that moment by every lawyer, defendant, and family caught in the throes of the criminal justice system.  Family and friends of both the deceased and the accused started slowly walking in, their solemn and foreboding looks filling the cavernous courtroom with an almost excruciating tension about what was to come. 

A picture of a handsome young black man, twenty-seven years old, with his two adorable young children nestled beside him, had been placed in the hands of the jurors by the prosecutor, who then, in pointing directly to his client, coldly said: “And that’s who murdered this man, this father.” 

His family and friends were there, as were the family and friends of the accused, whose life they knew lay in hands beyond theirs.  His grandmother was there.  Ninety years on the planet had not prepared her for this.  She had raised him.  His mother, her middle child, was too strung out on crack, and his father – who appeared at the trial and almost ashamedly introduced himself as his client’s “biological father”- was nowhere to be found when he was growing up.  As he sat there watching the deputies slow walk her grandson to the table to sit beside him, he recalled how he got into the case – his grandmother’s words over the phone: “He wouldn’t kill nobody, not my baby.”

 As they walked him in, he rose, ready to go through what had become their ritual throughout the trial, noticing the fancy purple tie and belt laid out on the table beside his briefcase.  Besides his briefcase he had placed a yellow notepad and pen for his client to use throughout the trial.  He had shown himself to be unusually intelligent, as he had thoroughly studied all the reports in the file, including the expert lab reports, and reviewed all the audio and video tapes.  They became a team, spending hours and hours at the jail going over records, testimony, and re-enacting the incident, while during the trial whispering in sharing notes and thoughts.

The deputies walked him around the table and had him stand just in front of the chair that was to the left of his chair, then un-handcuffed him and ordered: “Hands in your pockets.” Slowly, he placed his long hands into each of his black pants pockets, and then stood there erect, all six feet three of him, weighing maybe 150 pounds, looking skinny as a rail, like he hadn’t been fed the past twenty-one months he’d been in jail awaiting trial.  With his reading glasses on, he looked like a college student or young tech company executive.  “Now put your belt on,” they said, and he carefully picked it up off the table and gradually encircled his waist, tightening it to it seemed the last notch.

“Sit down,” they then ordered, and once his client had obediently sat, he began the ritual that became part of the trial that he had not, with all his meticulous preparation, prepared for.  He picked up the tie and began to place it up over his client’s neatly shaved head and around his glasses to down past his already upturned collar and onto his neck.  Their physical closeness was such that the deputies and others in the courtroom took notice, and it reminded him of how he had taught his own son how to tie a tie.

“I see we’re in purple today,” he said while adjusting the tie around his client’s neck to perfectly fit and align with his purple shirt.  “Yea,” he said with a sort of half smile, “My peoples came through, and they got me the black slacks to go with it…What you think?, it didn’t take ‘em long, did it?”  Still adjusting the tie, face to face, he avoided answering: “We’ll see.”  “There,” he then said in finishing adjusting the tie and patting him on the shoulders, “you look ready.”  He smiled and nodded in agreement.    

Then began the longest ten minutes of his life.  As if in slow motion, the bailiff called for all to arise for the jury, and as everyone in the courtroom stood, they began coming in slowly, one by one, with him watching the two who looked like him and the ten of another race take their seats.  They were about to do what several on the jury panel, including two blacks, said they could not do – and thus were stricken – make a judgment about a person’s life.  

It was sort of strange, he thought to himself while trying to read the jurors expressions as they marched in - seven women and five men - that what was really on trial was his client’s life’s story, and this case was just an extension or manifestation of that.  While he realized that he had developed a particular bond with this client, he knew that the young black man beside him could be any number, maybe even an infinite number, of young black men like him.

They live in a combustible world.  Where youthful energy, vigor, ambition, aspiration, and even innocence come into contact with the ghetto - its deprivation and despair - into which they are born.  When those elements interact, they combust into social dysfunction, tension and violence, sometimes outwardly, though mostly inwardly.  The bailiff asked him at one point during the trial to warn his client that he was to always look forward and not towards the back of the courtroom, and he was sure that what had sparked her action was seeing the defendant turn backwards to his right to see seated in the first pew the social disarray that had brought him to that moment.  There sat his baby’s mama – the chief witness against him – and her three children (by men other than him), with two testifying against him.  

Their child together was six at the time of the shooting, and they had lived together off and on for the past seven years.  He had worked full time as a union employee at a downtown hotel, and also had a small lawn care business, while she worked as a home health tech.  He was a good father, she said, to all of her children.  Their relationship, on the other hand, was torrid, with some of the charges against him stemming from her calling the police about him choking and striking her two months before the shooting incident.   

She broke down on the witness stand, uncontrollable tears in describing the night of the incident and her seeing a man dead - a man she knew and loved as a cousin – on her living room floor, and being shot herself three times in the leg.  Describing her shock at suddenly seeing her son’s father come into the dining room and start shooting at her and others in the living room while “not targeting anyone” – with the BET Awards on - she said he “didn’t look angry. He looked lost.”

“Brother, that whole generation lost, and ain’t nutin’ you, me, or nobody can do ‘bout it.”  As he watched the jurors now take their seats and the judge emerge from his chambers, he remembered for some reason those words spoken by his seventy-four year old cabbie friend when he told him what the case was about during one of their trips to the courthouse.  “Man, this young generation ain’t got not values, and it ain’t they fault.  They was raised without mommas and daddys, so what you expect?  All they know is this rap shit – cussin’ an’ fuckin’ an’ suckin’ an’ shootin’ up shit an’ each other.”

He had the cabbie’s observation in mind when he cross examined the mother following a break after her emotional breakdown on the stand.  Politely greeting her on the witness stand with “Miss” and “good afternoon,” he proceeded in a gentle tone: “I know going over this is very difficult.” “Yes, very much so,” she quietly replied.  “And I know that the night of this shooting had to be the most horrific night of your life,” he continued. “Yes, absolutely,” she softly responded.  “More horrific, I imagine, than the time you spent in prison,” he then dropped. 

With that line he began putting before the jury her character, her criminal history and personal morality, and yet he knew that she had been as much a product of the ghetto circumstances and lost generation circumstances as his client.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I understand you have reached a verdict,” the judge said in a serious and stately pose from his regal and lofty perch while facing the jury.  “We do,” replied the jury foreman.

The time it took for the judge’s clerk to go pick up the verdict forms from the jury foreman to him taking them to the judge’s side bar, and the judge then reviewing all the verdict forms for the six charges – ranging from 1st degree murder to domestic assault – must have seemed an eternity to his client, he thought.  Except for the soft whir of the A/C system, total silence swept over the court room.  What was the judge thinking in seeing what the jury had decided, he wondered, wondering if his client was thinking the same at that moment in his silence.

The judge had before him the same evidence as the jury, except he had heard and seen it as an attorney – devoid, presumably, of bias and emotion - and so he wondered, how, lawyer to lawyer, the judge viewed the case.  He knew that he had seen evidence of a homicide; that there was evidence of a shootout occurring between the living room and dining room; that there were two different firearms involved in the shooting–one used in the living room and another used in the dining room; that no firearms were ever recovered; that no bullets or bullet traces were found in the deceased victim, and the bullets found in the mother’s leg could not be traced to either of the firearms; that ballistics tests could not show which shooters’ bullets went through the deceased victim, or from which firearm the bullets in the mother’s leg were shot; that the 3 bullets that entered the deceased victim all entered from his left and exited his right, with two having a path upward and one downward; and that the DNA of the blood on kitchen floor and on the outside back handrail confirmed that the defendant was in the kitchen, which connects to the dining room, and which is also where the back door is located. 

The judge, he thought, also had to notice that the prosecution did not produce any ballistics expert to connect bullet projectiles to the victim from where they said his client was shooting from the dining room.  He wondered if the judge thought the prosecution had met the burden of proof standard – i.e. the state proving his client had shot and killed the deceased beyond a reasonable doubt – when no one testified that they saw his client directly shoot the deceased.   

As he watched the judge go carefully through the papers presented by the jury, he wondered mostly what the judge thought about the key figure in the trial who had been dubbed the “mystery man.”  “There was some other dude in the house shooting,” his client had told him the first time he visited him at the jail.  “I don’t know who he is or how he got there,” he said.

The judge and jury learned during the trial that there was a man at the home during the time of the shootout whose identity is unknown and who likely was the shooter in the living room.  They learned that when the police arrived upon the scene a hot summer night in June that they found two witnesses to the shooting – the mother and her cousin, a black male in his early thirties – and her three children (including his client’s son), who did not see the shooting because they were in their bedroom, though they witnessed events right before and after.  

Both the mother and her cousin told police on the night of the incident that it was his client who did the shooting, never mentioning that there was another shooter, who the ballistics confirmed was in the living room with them at time of the shooting, firing off a 9mm automatic weapon.  The trial testimony revealed that the mother and the deceased had driven to some location she could not recall, and there she and the deceased – nicknamed Dodi - picked up the mystery man – supposedly a cousin of the deceased – and then brought him back to the house to “protect” them against his client, who she and her cousin testified had threatened to come back to the home to “air it out” following their having an argument about another woman that went from the house to the street outside, ending with him running away and her getting in a car with Dodi and driving to go get the mystery man, described as “dark skinned with dreds,” who was last seen by the mother and cousin hurriedly getting out the house right after the shooting, saying he’d “been hit.”  Neither the mother nor her cousin said they could identify him from the possible suspects presented to them by the police.  They have closed the case.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the verdict forms all appear to be in order and I will now hand them to my clerk to read aloud your verdict,” the judge announced in taking his seat and handing the forms to his clerk.  “However,” he continued, his voice booming more now as he turned to face the entire courtroom, “I want to caution everyone here.  This is a very emotional situation, and I know it’s hard to contain those emotions because there has been a lot of pain suffered here.  I caution you, though, that you must contain your emotions in this courtroom.”

What an ironic admonition by the judge, he thought, given the emotions in evidence in this case.  From the hurt and anger and vengefulness caused by Facebook postings, to wrestling over a telephone because of suspicions of infidelity, to the tug of war over a child between two separated parents, to the mixing of egos and aggression, and finally, to violence rather than words, using guns rather than tongues.

“Why have I put myself through this again?” he pondered in the seconds before the clerk, after adjusting his spectacles, was set to read another of the countless verdicts he had read in that courtroom. 

You know why,” he heard a voice say.  He turned to his left.  There he saw a young black man, dressed proudly in a purple shirt and paisley purple tie, feeling glad he was alive, feeling good he had his day in court.  Ready for whatever next.  Grandma’s baby. 

“We the jury find…”

Eric E. Vickers

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