Jury duty in any municipality is rough. Serving on a Detroit jury calls for hazard pay; it will damage you emotionally and spiritually.
Those were my feelings this week as I was empaneled with 11 other souls on a case in Third Judicial Circuit Court. The case, I’m guessing, is typical of what other jurors hear and see when they come into the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice: Too many people smashed tight in a small house. Anger fueled by drugs, alcohol and greed. The combination results in violence of one kind or another.
This is the Detroit you don’t see when you come downtown or into one of the more successful business districts. This is neighborhood territory – where few reporters dare to roam. At least, you don’t typically find artist colonies, scrappy entrepreneurs or cool hangouts when you’re driving around these blocks.
Detroit has been violent of late – far too many shootings and deaths in the past week for the mind to comprehend. And hearing far too many details about this small slice of brutality makes me want to run away and hide. Or, at least, pretend that my Detroit is just a bunch of shiny, happy people who all want to get along. But even the peppiest cheerleader in me knows that is just one percentage of the whole story.
Without going into too much detail, the case centered on a household of four adults and seven children. One adult male attacked another, beating his head in with a jack pole. The wound was so deep you could “see the pink,” according to one witness. The victim, a 33-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, was left in a vegetative state afterward.
The defendant admitted he was angry at the victim, who had hit the defendant’s mother earlier in the day. There is evidence that the victim had been drinking in the hours before either incident occurred. And it was clear that the victim was not on his medication or well cared for in that house; he probably was just a meal ticket for the adults residing there.
Our jury foreman asked us all to pray before we started deliberating. Together, the jury of men and women, black and white, young and old, from all parts of Wayne County all bent our heads and asked for guidance and direction. There is a kinship among those stuffed together in a jury room, and we certainly felt it then.
While it was hard to show premeditated murder, we did find the defendant guilty of a slightly lesser charge. He probably will serve about 15 years for the assault, the judge told us afterward. The defendant – a young man with a huge criminal record, we learned – had been offered a plea bargain. But he chose to go with a jury trial to see if he could justify the beating because it was self defense.
The case took only a day and a half to finish, but it will leave me feeling bewildered, nauseous and disturbed for months to come. It will be hard to avoid driving down the street and looking at the house where the beating occurred. I feel compelled to see the location in person – to imagine the chaos, the fright and the rage that must still penetrate the walls. Is the blood all washed away? What evidence of these struggling lives still exists?
Yes, the crime could have happened in any big city. But it happened in what I consider my city…a place where I feel safe and secure. Even after this experience, I know I’m still safe and secure. But I’m not so sure that I won’t look at Detroit a little differently – perhaps a little more realistically.