Fiction by Charles Rammelkamp
by Charles Rammelkamp
I was already under a cloud because I’d missed my last jury service. I’d gotten the summons in December for jury duty in January, but the day I was supposed to appear was a date I was going to be out of town on a work assignment. I work for a federal agency, auditing other government agencies, and I was going to be away from Baltimore for that whole week, in Rahway, New Jersey. Might as well have been a prison sentence! As the summons instructed, I had my management write a note to excuse me. I figured that would take care of it.
But toward the end of January, after I’d returned from Rahway, I received a pink notice from the circuit court informing me that I’d violated the law in skipping my jury service and was subject to six months in prison and a thousand dollar fine. Dorfman, my boss, kidded me about rooming in a cell with Bubba and recycled the joke about O.J. Simpson going into prison as a tight end and coming out a wide receiver.
“At least there might be a prison prayer group,” he joked. “Maybe the rabbi will provide consolation. Unless it’s an all-purpose chaplain.”
I didn’t particularly feel threatened either, but when I called the circuit court to point out their error, the clerk I spoke with didn’t want to hear about any written excuses. She just wanted me to pick another date to come for jury duty.
It was annoying, the way they bullied you, or tried to give that impression, anyway. I doubt they’d even pursue criminal action, given the many times I have fulfilled jury service, even spending a week on a murder trial fifteen years back, and I did have a copy of the excuse Dorfman originally sent, but still, I was irked by the threat. Is this what justice in America was coming to? Throwing the jurors in jail?
So I chose a new date from a range the lady read to me, and when the next summons came in the mail, I got a fairly low number, in the mid-400’s, guaranteeing I’d have to attend, and almost immediately on the day of my service, after the video instruction on the responsibilities of a circuit court juror, I was sent with all the others ahead of me on the list to a courtroom in another marble hallway where jury selection for a criminal case was about to take place.
By the time I entered the courtroom, all the seats were taken except for those in the jury box where the twelve who were eventually picked would be seated. At least the seats were comfortable, and I had a front-row view of Judge Cuyler, the lawyers and the defendants, rather than of the backs of their heads, as most of the prospective jury panel did.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Judge Cuyler began once the stragglers had all found seats. He was a courtly African-American gentleman with a thin mustache riding his upper lip. He looked downright majestic in his black robes, as if he were presiding in Heaven, way up there on his judicial throne. “Today twelve of you and two alternates will be selected to sit in judgment in the assault trial involving the State of Maryland versus Matt Hennessey and Billy Pauley.”
I looked over at the table where the two defendants sat, two young white men with shaved heads. One was clean-shaven; the other had the scruffy facial hair of an adolescent growing his first beard. They looked to be in their twenties. Each sat at the long table with his own lawyer beside him. Billy, the scruffy one, was sitting next to an enormously overweight guy named Lawson who looked as though his suit jacket would split at any moment. Pauley had some sort of blue-ink tattoo on the back of his left hand. Hennessey was a barrel-chested man in a pull-over jersey; he looked like a thug. Hennessey’s lawyer was a ferret-faced Jewish guy named Caplan.
“Now, I’m going to ask a series of questions, and I want all of you to raise your hands if you think these apply to you,” Cuyler said, speaking slowly and enunciating clearly, as if we were all idiots.
But first, he described the crime for which Pauley and Hennessey were standing trial. The previous October, they had been arrested in the 6300 block of Reisterstown Road for assault. The judge then asked if any of us were acquainted with either of the defendants, the lawyers, or a list of witnesses, including the victims, whose names he read. Two of the names, Rosenbloom and Roth, caught my attention for possibly being Jewish, though I didn’t recognize the first names. Though Jewish myself, I’m not acquainted with every Jew in Baltimore. Far from it. Three or four hands did go up. These people were asked to approach the bench, and after conferring sotto voce for a few moments – a humming noise further obscured their conversation from the rest of the courtroom, to keep it private – they were each dismissed, sent back to the jury assembly room where they were to remain until called to another jury panel selection.
Cuyler then asked a series of questions about our attitudes toward the criminal justice system, whether we were likely to believe or disbelieve the testimony of a police officer, and if we had prejudices against any other ethnic, religious or racial group. An aging hippie with long, thin gray hair down his back a few seats down from me in the jury box raised his hand after practically every question, hell bent on being dismissed.
Finally, Cuyler asked, “Have any of you or anybody in your immediate family – this includes your spouse, your children, your siblings, you grandchildren and your grandparents – have any of you ever been the victim of or witnessed a violent crime?”
Over half the prospective jurors raised their hands, including me. One by one, the judge summoned us to the bench. After a long wait, they finally got to me, juror number 431. I approached the bench. The prosecutor, the two defense attorneys and their clients were all standing there like customers at a bar when I approached, and that’s when I finally made out the tattoo on Pauley’s hand. An iron cross. Suddenly my radar went up. The shaved heads, the iron cross.
“Mister Kohlschreiber,” Judge Cuyler began in that oh-so-patient voice, leaning over the broad tabletop to speak confidentially. “You indicated that you or someone close to you had been the victim of a violent crime or had witnessed – ”
“My daughter,” I said, cutting off the long-winded, thoroughgoing explanation I took to be a requirement of the proceedings, just so there would be no misunderstandings. “She was mugged near the Hopkins campus two years ago. A guy held her up at knifepoint and took her purse. He was caught, and then finally last summer it came to trial and the man was found guilty of assault and robbery. They didn’t convict him on the weapons charge because they never recovered the knife.”
“You attended the trial?”
“And did you feel the trial was fair?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“And would this influence you in any way in the present case?”
“I don’t think so.”
I glanced at Pauley and Hennessey. They were both contemplating their shoes. Billy had his left hand over his mouth, in a thoughtful attitude, the iron cross on display.
“OK, you may be seated,” Cuyler dismissed me.
“I think I recognize you,” I lied to Hennessey’s lawyer, Caplan. “Do you belong to Beth Chaim synagogue?”
“No, I don’t,” he said, I couldn’t be sure if this registered with him, but I’d given the hint. I don’t know if the information they had on me indicated my religion as well as my address and occupation, but I don’t particularly “look” Jewish – the way Caplan did. I’m actually a convert, twenty-five years ago, when I got married. The name Kohlschreiber might go either way, I suppose, but it’s mainly just German. My family’s from Milwaukee.
I went back to my seat in the jury box while the rest of the jurors who’d raised their hands were interviewed. I wondered about this assault case, and if I really could be impartial. Not that I have a great hang-up about “my people,” but I couldn’t see a Jew provoking a beating from a “skinhead” for any other reason than just being who he was. A hate crime, in other words. Then again, maybe it hadn’t been a Jew who’d been beaten up after all. In that part of Reisterstown Road it could have been anybody – an Orthodox Jew, complete with beard, black hat and peyes, a Russian immigrant, an African-American, an Asian – though none of the names Cuyler had read sounded Chinese or Korean. Still, it would have been a hate crime if it were a person of color, too, no doubt. Or maybe the incident hadn’t happened that way at all. Maybe it was all about a dented fender or something equally mundane. Maybe if I were selected for the jury I really could just listen impartially, make an objective judgment.
I thought about Caplan, defending a skinhead. What if the victim had been a Jew? Would he feel conflicted? Was it just all about the money, his fee from the client? Was he an ACLU type, defending people on principle?
I remembered my daughter’s trial, how the defense attorney, a court-appointed lawyer, had tried to “play the race card,” in her client’s defense, portraying my daughter as if she were just some frightened little white girl to whom all African-American males looked alike, thus casting “reasonable doubt” on her positive identification of the man when he was apprehended. If the glove doesn’t fit, you have to acquit. Justice as a bumpersticker slogan.
When he was arrested, Dante Williams was found with my daughter’s ID and public school bus passes in his possession along with a bundle of cash. His lawyer claimed he had just “found” her wallet. Dante himself was not called to the witness stand for cross-examination, his lawyer no doubt fearing the worst self-incrimination. He had been out of prison on parole at the time, a fact kept from the jury, unemployed. His alibi had been that he was with his girlfriend’s family playing cards and had gone to his aunt’s to borrow some money for beer. Eighty dollars was an awful lot of beer money to borrow, but simply having money wasn’t a crime, as his defense attorney pointed out. Still, the story just didn’t add up in the jury’s mind, and Dante was found guilty on several of the charges.
I’d felt badly for the tiny old black lady who sat in the courtroom with my wife and me. I assumed that she was Dante’s mother. Dante was 36, a little old to be mugging teenagers. It was a damn shame what poverty and hopelessness drove a person to do.
“All right,” Judge Cuyler announced, when the last potential juror had been interviewed at the bench. “We will now begin the process of seating a jury.” Those of us sitting in the jury box were asked to find other seats in the courtroom. There was plenty of room now that several dozen jurors had been dismissed.
Seating from the beginning of the list – juror number eleven, as it turned out (would jurors number one through ten be receiving threats of fines and imprisonment in the mail?) – the first twelve were seated. The prosecuting attorney and the two defense attorneys were allowed their voir dire dismissals, if they objected to any of the jurors. They didn’t have to give a reason. To see, to say. Only about a third of the original twelve would end up on the final jury; the lawyers were pretty picky about who they would accept. The fat lawyer, Lawson, consulted with his client, Pauley, whenever a new juror was asked to stand before the lawyers. The clerk would call the next half-dozen prospective jurors to line up, and they were evaluated sequentially. The numbers crept up through the 200’s and into the 300’s.
“Bastards,” the gray-haired hippie muttered under his breath. He’d chosen me to sit next to and mutter his editorial comments. “This is all rigged! You call this justice? This is a kangaroo court! It’s a mockery!”
I didn’t see why he’d made that observation, unless it was the voir dire process itself, and I just nodded and smiled at him. He was number 294, and he was dismissed back to the jury assembly room when he came up for appraisal by the lawyers. Hennessey’s lawyer Caplan was the one who asked to strike him. The hippie raised his fist in the air in a power salute when he left the courtroom. He evidently felt he had “stuck it to the man” somehow.
Whenever an African-American woman stood as a prospective juror, Lawson whispered with Pauley for a few moments before eventually dismissing her. There was one black woman on the jury panel. I wondered if the victim had been an African-American, after all. What was the defense attorney’s strategy? Why did Pauley object? Who knew?
The twelve jurors and two alternates were finally seated by juror number 388. Cuyler turned to those of us remaining after the jury had been settled. As the prospective jurors were dismissed, they’d been sent back to the jury assembly room, and the numbers had dwindled. There weren’t many of us left.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you for coming to this courtroom today. I’m sorry that we weren’t able to seat you in the jury –” Was he joking? Was he being sarcastic? Hard to tell. “Please return to the jury assembly room in case you’re needed for another trial.”
As I left the courtroom, I glanced over at Pauley and Hennessey and wondered again what had really happened, who they’d assaulted, why they’d chosen to stand trial. Of course, this would never make the newspaper, so I’d never find out. Perhaps if it really had been a hate crime the journalists would have sensationalized it, but it was just another inconsequential crime that could affect only the lives of a handful of anonymous, unimportant people.
On the way back to the jury assembly room, I stopped to use the men’s room. On the tile above the urinal somebody had written, “It’s hotter than a witch’s taint in here.” The low humor seemed to sum it all up for me. What Churchill said about democracy applied equally to the jury system. It’s imperfect but it’s the best we have.
Back in the jury assembly room an Adam Sandler movie was showing on a television screen, but nobody was watching it, and a slick young office worker was hitting on a young woman. A group of older women chattered together in a corner. I opened the novel I was reading and waited for the next jury summons.
Rosenbloom leaned on the horn of his Dodge Durango. The light at the intersection of Clark’s Lane and Reisterstown Road had changed at least five seconds ago and still the Toyota pickup in front of him had not moved. Looked like two young men sitting in the cab.
“Hey! You fucking morons!” Rosenbloom shouted, his impatience making his voice harsh and high as a New York wiseass. “Why don’t you pay attention to the light!”
The driver’s side door of the pickup erupted like a volcano and spewed out a barrel-chested man with a shaved head, hot as lava with indignation. Matt Hennessey strode over to the SUV like the Marshal of Dodge City, burning to administer wild west justice. Rosenbloom was about to blow his stack, too. No way he’d get through this cycle of lights now. For his part, Hennessey, with the instinct of a 21st century “yo,” knew he was not being shown proper “respeck.”
“You got a problem?” he bawled at Rosenbloom.
“Yeah. You and your fucking truck.”
“You little Jewish piece of shit,” Hennessey growled, self-righteous as a vigilante. He yanked the SUV’s door open and reached in for Rosenbloom.
“When Officer Riley and I arrived at Reisterstown Road Plaza we found the suspects being restrained by Mr. Rosenbloom and Mr. Roth outside the Burlington Coat Factory. The ambulance had already arrived and the medics were administering first aid to the victim.”
“Did Mr. Hennessey or Mr. Pauley use any racially derogatory language in your presence?” O’Brian, the prosecuting attorney asked.
“Overruled. The witness will answer the prosecutor.”
“Mr. Rosenbloom, what exactly did you say to my client when he didn’t move his car after the light had changed?”
“What are you doing, Caplan, defending a skinhead? You are a shanda! Don’t you have any self-respect?”
“The witness will answer the counselor’s question.”
“Your honor, the counselor’s a sniveling little sell-out kike!”
“Mister Rosenbloom, please answer the question! I’m warning you that you will be held in contempt of court!”
“I was in the car behind Rosenbloom,” Sid Roth explained when O’Brian asked him to describe where he was when the assault took place. “When he didn’t move after the light changed, I craned my neck out the window, and that’s when I saw him –” Roth pointed at Hennessey – “get out of his truck and open the driver’s side door of the car ahead of me and yank Rosenbloom out by the neck.”
“Did you do anything then?”
“What could I do? The cars behind me were honking like it was Times Square.”
“Did you get out of your car?”
“When I saw the other one get out of the other side of the truck with a baseball bat, I figured I ought to try to calm them down. I mean, it was all about a traffic light for Chrissakes.”
“Officer Riley, would you tell the jury what Mister Hennessey said about ‘racial purity’ when you approached him?”
“Your honor,” O’Brian objected, “Mister Hennessey’s comments about ‘tainted blood’ are relevant here, suggesting the motivation behind his aggression –”
“Objection sustained,” Cuyler interrupted. “Strike the reference to ‘tainted blood’ from the record. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you will disregard the comments made by counsel regarding ‘tainted blood.’”
Witnesses sitting in cars in the Reisterstown Plaza parking lot described the two men with shaved heads beating the woman in front of the Burlington Coat Factory. Two other men, identified as Bernie Rosenbloom and Sid Roth, restrained the men until police and ambulance arrived.
Hotter than a witch’s taint. Taint: slang term referring to the perineum, the region of the human body between the vulva (or the testicles on a male) and the anus. “Taint pussy and taint asshole.”
“You were wearing boots at the time you kicked Mister Roth in the groin area, were you not, Mister Pauley?”
Pauley looked at his attorney, who signaled him to answer the question.
“And is it true the brand of boots you were wearing were Doc Martens?”
“Objection. Leading the witness.”
“Rephrase your question, counselor,” Cuyler said, sounding bored.
“Do you recall the brand-name of the boots you were wearing when you kicked Mister Roth in the groin?”
“I don’t know,” Pauley said, sullen, sensing a trap. “They was just my boots.”
“Isn’t it true that Doc Martens are part of the unofficial ‘uniform’ worn by Neo-Nazi skinheads?”
In the jury deliberation room, Kohlschreiber sat at the head of the long mahogany table. The other jurors had chosen him as foreman.
“I don’t know,” Lisa Baker said. “I can sort of understand why he’d get angry with that man for insulting him. It was just a traffic light. He didn’t have to honk and call him names.”
“But did that warrant taking a baseball bat and steel-toed boots to him?”
“Well, no, but all’s I’m saying is, it sounded like an argument that just got out of hand.”
“Yeah, out of hand,” Kirby Matthews commented sarcastically. “A ballbat is certainly getting out of hand.”
“You know what I mean.”
But what did she mean, Kohlschreiber wondered.
The difference between a law and frozen water? One’s justice; one’s just ice.
Channeling Al Pacino, Kohlschreiber leapt to his feet in the jury box and shouted: “I’m tainted? You’re tainted! This whole courtroom is tainted!”
The victim was splayed across the pavement in front of the Burlington Coat Factory on the wide paved parking lot of the Reisterstown Plaza mall. The medics wiped the blood from her forehead and applied bandages to the wounds. They placed her on a stretcher and carried her to the ambulance and then drove her to Sinai Hospital on Northern Parkway for observation. Police charged Billy Pauley and Matt Hennessey with assault.
At four o’clock the jury assembly room clerk thanked us for our service for the day. I was not called to another trial.