Marking Time on the Color Line
Let’s take a walk along the color line, shall we? There is no way to straddle it. One is either on one side or the other. Accidents of birth make it that way. One can no more help being born white than black. Yet the line divides, and in the criminal courts, it conquers. See the defendant? More often than not he is black and young. See the judge, prosecutor and defense lawyer? White, white and white again. Let’s add jurors. Another scoop of vanilla. Oh, there may be a symbolic chocolate chip in the mass of white. Maybe there will be two. But in Connecticut, as in the slave docks of colonial Virginia, the bidders are white, and that upon which bids are cast, black. We don’t call it slavery any longer. The slaves have been emancipated, right? No, now we call it justice. And we deal out years, decades and lifetimes.
"I say 50 years," the prosecutor bids.
"No, no. Too much judge. Make it 20," the defense lawyer counters.
On the bench Solon sits, reckoning the value. Wise, he ponders.
"The sentence will be 40 years," he bellows.
Another black man led away in chains. Placed in a new slave hold.
No law enacted and engraved in statute book makes it so. But the color line divides as effectively as a steel cage. A color blind society? We kid ourselves. It is color blind so long as it lacks color. All white? Then no color; no problem. As though white were not a color, indeed, the least interesting color of all. The color of a scar.
Yeah, race matters. Race hurts. Wake up, America. You are in the midst of a guerilla war. A race war, submerged and fought in silent corridors and attitudes.
Too cynical, you say? Why look, look at the black faces sitting so close to power in Washington. Oh, yeah. Uncle Tom’s Oval Office, courtesy of Condoleeza, or is it Condie?, Rice. Movin’ all the way up, as much a stereotype as the sit-com characters who aspired to nothing more than a high-rise perch on the East Side of Manhattan. She was black at birth and then spent a lifetime preening to pass as something other. She won; another victim. Another subversive victory for the Ku Klux Klan.
Race matters. It is a gift of sorts in this land of ours to be born white.
Consider jury selection. The court sends letters. They are called summonses, actually. Ordinary folks are ordered to appear in court on a given day and time. They are to assemble as peers of the accused. All names drawn at random. But the lists from which they are drawn are not random. Registered voters? Those who have registered a motor vehicle? A new property qualification. We’re not talking conventional property here. One needn’t own 40 acres and a mule to serve. But potential jurors are required to have made an investment in the present order of things.
Vote? Sure, I’ll flip my coin for Tweedledum or Tweedledee. Own a car? Yes, I have saved enough, and the wolf is far enough from my door to venture safely on the roads. The peers we invite to serve are a privileged lot. They can worry about capital gains taxes, progressive income taxes and the cost of a motor vehicle registration. They have cleared the most basic hurdles distinguishing citizen and barbarian.
Peers? Of whom? That white bitch Oprah Winfrey and her reading lists? You can’t fool me. She’s not black. It’s a trick. Another triumph of the make-up artist; were she gussied up in lamp black and tap-dancing on a stage she’d be no blacker than she is preening between soap operas. The queen of the vanilla-lite club of literati who want their crises presented in simple sounds and sound bytes?
Or is the jury drawn from the peers of our public men, the great senators who write puerile travelogues with their wives and run for president, all the while acting like it is such a thrill to live lives devoted to manipulation and the imperative to offend no one who could possibly make a campaign contribution? Or our public intellectuals, writing books and giving lectures about what is good, true and just? What dead white ghosts lurk the world looking for a perch?
Why not round up all the young men standing at a street corner passing joints and bottles of cheap wine? Place them in a jury box and let them listen to a police officer talk about how he just lucked into a confession, or how a car’s driver looked suspicious.
Why not head to a soup kitchen and ask all assembled to c’mon down to the courthouse and help us determine what happened? We’ll spring for the lunch, of course. But no sequestration for you. Back to the streets at night. Find a warm grate in the winter, and a quiet park in the summer. But you are our peers, are you not? Let’s look at the world through the other end of the kaleidoscope. What images might we see?
Or try the single mother who cannot find, or hold, a job. No skills. Screaming kids, and dead beat dads who’ve left her alone with a litter of souls stunted at birth. One step ahead of the social service saviors who’d snatch her babies and place them with strangers. Whose peer is she? Not that of any juror who has recently decided a man’s fate.
Peers at jury duty? Perish the thought. Better we settle for something less. Give us your tired, your conventional, your deracinated masses yearning to be let alone and resentful of the least stir in the wind. Let them judge our acts and omissions. Let them deliver souls for a dark passage.
Our jurors? Lilly white and privileged. There are a few people of color tossed in for good measure. No question about it. But they are like the dots on a gambler’s die. Roll the cube as many times as you like, you’ll never see more than a few black specks swimming in a sea of white. So it is with jury service. At least, so it goes in Belle Grande, where Marcus Antoine will look for peers.
But why digress?
"Good morning, gentlemen," Reardon was behind his desk in his chambers. The prosecutor and public defender were sitting side by side across from him. A clerk temporarily assigned to the judge hovered nearby. The kid looked so pleased to be there that he made everyone nervous.
"Morning, Judge," Shamir was a mumbler in the morning.
"Good morning, Your Honor," Sterling chirped.
"Let’s talk some about scheduling. Are there any motions that need to be decided prior to trial?"
All the lip-service in the world about the importance of juries will not change for a moment the fact that a jury only sees what a judge permits it to observe. Before a juror ever steps foot in a courthouse, lawyers generate reams of paper designed to prevent unflattering facts and factors from surfacing. The law calls this subterranean work motion practice. All is quiet in the adversarial world until one side stirs.
"Yes, judge. I have several," Shamir said. Both Shamir and The Shark had filed motions. Most of these had been filed more than a year earlier. "I am looking to suppress the photo identification of my client by Wanda, um, Wanda Rice, and by the male prostitute, I forget his name. I am also looking to suppress statements Mr. Antoine made while in the lock up. I am also moving to prevent the State from offering consciousness of guilt evidence."
"Well, Your Honor, our Supreme Court is clear that consciousness of guilt evidence is proper," Sterling said.
"Wait, wait," Reardon said. "Save the arguments for later. I am just trying figure out what has to be done, and how long it will take." Lawyers never understood how little a judge knew about a case. A good lawyer worries his case night and day, turning each fact over in his mind. These issues are sprung on judges, greyhounds darting at the track, racing neck and neck. Quick, judge, quick. Declare a winner.
"We’ll bring in a panel of jurors tomorrow and start jury selection. Let’s try to resolve all these motions before we begin evidence."
Reardon had never tried cases with either lawyer, although he knew of them.
"How long do you expect jury selection to last?" he asked.
"At least three weeks, your Honor," Sterling said.
"I agree," said Shamir. He appeared to want approval for agreeing with Sterling.
"And the evidence," said Reardon. "How long will the State’s case take?"
"Two weeks," your Honor.
"A couple of days, judge." Shamir said.
"Fine. I will tell the jurors that the trial will begin in four weeks. We can sort out the pre-trial motions, and have plenty of time to pick. Any objections?"
Both lawyers were silent.
"Judge, as a courtesy, I wanted you to know that Merlin Shank will be appearing with me in this case," Shamir said.
"Isn’t he disabled?" Reardon said.
"Yes. He can hardly speak. But he knows the players here. He’ll be co-counsel and he can write notes as needed."
Indeed, thought Reardon. Notes. The Shark’s note to Reardon was still unopened in his desk.