In order to get to Jury Duty last August, I took the M15 express bus down 2nd Avenue from the 13th Street stop at around 8am. In the morning this bus is filled with smartly-dressed Wall Street office staff and workers headed to Chinatown, perhaps to sweat shops where the attire of the financial workers’ could be sewn. A handful of intrepid tourists on board study Google Maps on their phones, confused by the seemingly haphazard route of the bus toward the Staten Island Ferry at the tip of Manhattan, as this is the part of the island where there are no numbered streets and avenues intersecting in orderly fashion. The bus can be fast. Passengers don’t pay on board; instead they pay before they enter via machines on the sidewalk. It makes few stops—between 13th Street in the East Village and Catherine Street in Chinatown, there are only three.
Last summer’s morning walks through Chinatown to the Courts afforded me an experience of the neighborhood without the crowds. None of the restaurants, bakeries, and bubble tea lounges were open so the neon signage was not on. Most of the residents seemed to be sleeping in—and the light alerted me to the pagodas of the vernacular architecture and the ornate—if kitschy—mid-century buildings of Chinatown-born architect Poy Gum Lee. The sidewalks were relatively clean, and even the traffic along The Bowery and Worth Street was minimal. The soundscape was dominated by the beeping sound of private garbage trucks picking up last night’s refuse from the restaurants along Mott and Mulberry Streets and when the wind kicked up, a slightly rancid odor dispersed.
Baxter Street and Columbus Park create a border between Chinatown and the Courts and City Hall. The multifunctional park was designed by Calvert Vaux, who is known as the mentor and then the collaborator of Central Park landscape architect Frederick Olmstead. In the morning the park is animated by solitary men doing Tai Chi and groups of women doing synchronized routines to loud pop music (sometimes called dancing grannies). North of the park three different bails bondmen have storefronts on Baxter Street servicing those trying to get out of jail while awaiting trial. These establishments are accompanied by a bar that opens up in the morning, and an old-fashioned Italian restaurant frequented by judges, city commissioners, and organized crime figures—each booth is named after a legendary figure. Jurors usually frequent one of two well-known Vietnamese restaurants on Baxter Street. But I became a temporary regular at a Malaysian restaurant further up toward Canal Street, past the Manhattan Detention Complex where prisoners are kept, otherwise known as “The Tombs.” This complex consists of two windowless buildings connected by a “Bridge of Sighs.” But the building is silent to the passer-by. Allegedly the original Tombs, designed in 1838 by neo-classicist John Haviland, was based in part on an Ancient Egyptian tomb, and the name of the building has stuck even though the jail has been rebuilt twice since, each time decidedly uglier.
Even if one doesn’t know anything about the old Five Points area in general (mythologized by Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York) and Baxter Street in particular (originally called Orange Street, renamed in honor of a legislator), it is hard to ignore the sense of history on the street. It is a history of cops, crime, and corruption. And yes gangs thrived on the street, including the posse called the Baxter Street Dudes, run by Baby-Face Willie in the 1870s. Yet during the first day I was on jury duty, there was a lot of press on the street, not because of any of our cases, but because the New England Patriots’ star quarterback, Tom Brady (aka supermodel Giselle’s husband), was appearing in court to answer charges that he cheated in a playoff game by deflating the football. Even though cameras and news vans caused chaos on Center and Baxter Streets, order prevailed at the juror’s entrance to the court, just off Baxter Street–thanks to additional police and security guards.
Most New Yorkers dread jury duty—it’s the opposite of winning the lottery. Yet it gets office workers out of the cubicle and it brings them near to the best lunch specials in the City. Not only did I win the anti-lottery, I was selected for grand jury duty, which is loathed even more—it is an entity of 23 people that decides whether the DA (District Attorney) has the grounds for an indictment and a trial. Grand jurors don’t need to concur like a jurors on a petit jury; if a majority votes “yes” the DA’s office will move forward. One can‘t get out of a grand jury once selected, even if one insists that every utterance from a policewo/man or government-employed lawyer is a lie because they are lackeys of the fascist state. And yes, even if a juror believes that fascism is a necessary corrective to the chaos of a representative democracy, the fascist will still be seated on the grand jury. We had no such fascist. Instead a self-declared anarchist—an animator—annoyed all the other jurors with his diatribes. He never voted to indict anyone, even when it was clear that the accused had shot a gun that injured the victim.
I had a suspicion that I might get selected as foreperson of the jury. Why? I probably reek of being a stern, if affable, schoolteacher. Moreover I am not particularly disheveled—even for an academic. I appeared attentive to the Jury Warden that explained the process. I told the truth on the short form they had us fill out, asserting my level of education and credentials matter in this world. And truth be told I wasn’t disappointed when I was named as foreperson—I’d rather have access to some level of power, and figure out how not to function as a rubber stamp to the police and the DA’s office. Perhaps I could ensure a modicum of justice. And perhaps a jury foreperson was granted the special booth at local restaurants and received free soup dumplings.
A few days into our proceedings one of my fellow jurors, a corporate lawyer, started to jokingly calling me “The Enforcer.” I reprimanded a court reporter for loudly chewing gum (like Norman Desmond in Sunset Boulevard) and for the way she turned to a soft-spoken witness and said “What?” (As opposed to a more polite “excuse me.”) I never saw her again so I imagine she demanded another jury. I spoke curtly to a fellow juror when he took offense to one of my jokes while we deliberated, asking him if he wanted the responsibility of my job. I didn’t care to be liked by anyone but the two Jury Wardens who guided us through the process. In fact, I disagreed with the Wardens’ recommendation to show deference to the cops who testified but didn’t let them know it. After a summer of police misconduct and brutality, I didn’t automatically believe the testimony of “New York’s Finest,” especially the undercover cops whose names we were not told, and did not wear uniforms even in court. Some tried to sit down before they were sworn in, and I reminded them to stand up while I administered the oath—this was not their courtroom, it belonged to the citizenry (and me!). I suspected one cop of planting drugs on the accused. Another lied about how near an arrest occurred to a school—and when we brought him back for further questioning he continued his lie. This unraveled the ADA’s (Assistant District Attorney) case. We never saw the accused (or heard from his or her lawyer). Only arresting officers–and in some instances victims or witnesses or security guards in expensive stores–testified in front of us.
I became peeved at how the high end department stores caught high end shoplifters, needlessly involving law enforcement and the citizenry/taxpayer. Due to video surveillance security guards usually saw the accused put clothing onto their person or into a bag. Instead of warning them they that are about to commit a crime (if one tries to steal over $1000 in goods, the crime is grand larceny in the 4th degree, carrying a minimum sentence of 1.5 years!), the guards follow them until they leave the first set of doors leading to the street. Before the shoplifter goes through the next set of doors, the guards apprehended them and called the police. In other words, security guards wait until the potential larcenist officially leaves the building so that the act of carrying an unpurchased garment then becomes a crime. Additionally the larcenist is always known by the department store from previous incidents. I resented the fact that these stores preferred to call in the “sheriff” instead of handling this as an in-house matter. They never let the accused avoid his or her fate.
Jurors never directly address a witness. If we had a question, we had to ask it to the ADA who would then ask the revised inquiry to the witness—if s/he deemed it appropriate or useful to get an indictment. So I learned how to frame my questions without revealing bias and making it appear as needing clarification. We could ask the ADA to explain the law, but not when there was a witness in the room. When physical or recorded evidence was presented to us, we could examine it to while we deliberated. We followed this procedure before we voted: if a juror had a question that a fellow juror could answer, s/he would ask it; if only the ADA could answer it, we would call him/her back. If any juror wanted to review the case, we would—if there was no one who wanted discussion, we proceeded to a vote. I worked with a Deputy Foreperson (a sports journalist), and a Secretary (a legal secretary). The three of us sat in the back, elevated higher than the other jurors. I presided in the middle.
When a victim testified, and when the victim suffered violence, we became much more likely to indict. These victims were either non-white, female, immigrants, or gay—because of power imbalances and economic inequality, heterosexual white men are apparently never victims of crimes inflicted upon their bodies. Each victim was brave to come to court—for example, the deli worker from South America who was stabbed by his boss, the teenage girl from North Africa who was beaten up by her former boyfriend, the gay hair stylist from a former Soviet Republic who took a guy home from a club and then was drugged and robbed, and the African-American woman hit by a stray bullet, still in agony. I argued for the addition of a count of hate crime to be added in many instances—male violence against a woman should automatically constitute a hate crime as it is a malice related to gender. I chastised an ADA for how she described hate crime law as being confusing in a case with two gay victims—and I complained about her afterward to the District Attorney’s office. She was doing a disservice to the victims and to a law that many worked hard to get through the legislature. Although I couldn’t directly address a victim other than by administering the oath, I made sure to thank them when they finished their testimony—they are all heroes to believe that the legal system will rightly punish the bastard that made them victims. Heroes too are the court translators, and the Jury Warden that consoled a witness when she burst into tears as she left the courtroom.
Baxter Street became a respite from the encounter with the pervasiveness of violence in the City. During lunch hour I’d go for a brief walk through the now-crowded park to clear my head and watch singers doing a version of Chinese opera, hoping that I blended in with the gawking tourists. Then I headed up to the Malaysian restaurant for Singapore Rice Vermicelli. The dish wasn’t superb but there were no jurors there, and I could sit at a table that I didn’t have to share with anyone, unlike the Vietnamese restaurants across the street. The upbeat proprietress treated me like a regular from the get-go and pointed me to my table in the back when I arrived. I relaxed with my book and my spicy noodles. It was a low-end luxury to eat lunch out on Baxter Street each weekday for a fortnight. The M15 express bus became my private limousine that I just happened to share with other New Yorkers (and a handful of intrepid tourists), and faces began to look familiar to me on the route and in the neighborhood. And then jury duty ended—I believe we voted on at least 60 cases in two weeks. My semester started the following week. I haven’t been back to Baxter Street, but I miss it. I won’t be called back for jury duty for at least seven years.