“Are you asking me or are you telling me?” she snips at the defense attorney then slouches away from the microphone with a sigh, her oversized earrings hitting the top of her shoulders.
“Miss, you have to answer his questions with a simple yes or no,” directs the Judge, unaware of the witness’s growing frustration on the stand.
She rolls her eyes, leans forward into the microphone, and responds, “Yes.”
North Philadelphia. Photo credit: lhoon on Flickr.
This summer I was selected to serve as an alternate juror (I heard all testimony, but was dismissed before deliberations) on a criminal case where two women allegedly threw hot water on another woman in a North Philly street fight. The result was a few first and second degree burns causing mild scaring, still noticeable a year later. To some a fight like this sounds shocking. But for me, who works each day in the neighborhood where this fight took place, I wondered why such a case was in court. Yes, girls square off and have physical fights over boys. Yes, one has to fight in order to be left alone in the future. Yes, people record these fights on their cell phones and then post them on YouTube. Yes, adults often allow and encourage the fighters to keep at it until there is a clear winner. No, this was not the worst fight I had heard about, seen, or tried to break up.
I spent the weeklong trial on an emotional rollercoaster. Even though I shared a similar background, race, and gender with the assistant district attorney, I found it difficult to take her arguments seriously given my experience in North Philly and other urban areas. I honestly felt disappointed in all parties involved, and thankful for the young people in the neighborhood I work with who are making more positive choices with their lives. Most of all I questioned how anyone could expect people whose only experience has been poverty and the street to find justice in a court of law. “Innocent until proven guilty” is complicated by differences in cultural background and levels of educational attainment.
It was clear to me that none of the court experts understood street life. If they did, the defense attorneys would not have missed important questions to ask. For instance, there was a baseball bat at the scene of the crime. No one used the bat in the fight, but a bystander was clearly holding one in the cell phone video presented to the court. The defense attorneys did not press one of the witnesses involved in the fight about where the bat came from. They were satisfied with her response that her brother was at a little league game. Sure, that sounds credible to those of us who think of Saturday afternoons spent watching youth play at the park. But does a manicured baseball field and little league exist nearby? Was it even possible for the brother to be playing organized baseball that day? And in not further questioning this witness, did they lose the opportunity to put her character in doubt?
Then there were the police officers who happened upon the fight and saw their first duty as dispersing the large crowd. They took a statement from the loudest witness without verifying her story with others involved in the situation. However, experience and knowledge would show that in a fight situation often the individual complaining the most has had a large role in starting or perpetuating a fight. The strategy is to take fault away from oneself by drawing greater attention to others. If the police had a genuine interest in quelling female fighting and permanently resolving the situation, they would have asked for statements from a greater number of participants and bystanders.
Then there was the assistant district attorney. Many of her female witnesses came to court in dresses, so I assume she told them to “dress nicely for court.” But their dresses were either extremely short, low cut, exposing of tattoos, or all of the above. They were acceptable for a club, but not for a courtroom. One woman stored her lip-gloss in her cleavage. I found this hard to understand; if the assistant district attorney wanted her witnesses to be seen as credible, she would have helped them dress more appropriately for court. Perhaps she did not know she had to explicitly spell out the specifics of dressing for court, or assumed that all people would know what this would look like.
Finally there was the judge, who allowed questioning to continue even after several witnesses became visually upset. The case involved showing the fight video multiple times and asking witnesses to point to themselves or explain what was going on. One witness became so overwhelmed she pushed back and turned her chair away from the video. The judge allowed the lawyers to continue questioning the witness, disregarding her emotions and the fact she was not even watching the video and thus probably couldn’t accurately comment on it.
A clear disconnect also arose between court experts and witnesses in terms of procedure and general vocabulary. The assistant district attorney asked her main witness, the victim in the case, “Prior to the incident, did you have burns on your back?” Her response? “Yes.” She responded with a yes three times before the assistant district attorney decided to use the word “before” instead of “prior”. “Before the incident, did you have burns on your back?” Then her response changed to a no. How can individuals participate in convincing a jury of guilt or innocence if they lack the vocabulary to answer questions posed to them?
The trial alone – in a large courtroom where the jury always arrives last and leaves first, the judge sits above everyone else, and one has to be escorted into and out of the room – is enough to make most people feel nervous. But for the women on the witness stand, being questioned in a cross-examination brings out their worst attitudes. They start asking the cross-examiners questions like, “They poured hot water on my friend, what would you do?” when asked about potential weapons brought to the fight. These women employed a popular defense mechanism instead of answering questions that would have shown their fault. They also claimed to have “blacked out” during the fight, meaning they couldn’t remember anything that they did because they were so filled with rage. How is one to listen to and believe combative witnesses? And if someone were to have taken these women aside and explained the trial process, would their demeanor have been more civil?
If those working in the court room day in and day out, with their specialized education to know how a court room works, spent a day walking the streets in North Philadelphia – putting themselves literally in the shoes of those they represent, learning from them how to be a scrappy survivor – the path to justice in the court room may have been more straightforward. Ultimately, my fellow jurors found the accused women “not guilty.” Perhaps if the court drew from a more diverse pool of individuals, or found others who knew the neighborhood, or understood how to fight, or had experience with our deficient educational system, these women would have gotten a fair trial. In this case, a jury of ones peers upholds the entire system. But what would it look like if our criminal justice experts could converse on the same level as their clients? Could watch a YouTube video of a fight and decide that it was a weak case to only accuse two participants of a crime?
I walked away from the trial, head spinning, resolved to share the pitfalls of our criminal justice system with the North Philadelphia students I work with. I have since encouraged them walk away from fights, because even minor players can be given a major role in court (this, however, is still a hard sell). I tell them, “Don’t be on the corner with your friends who may be drug dealers because you could also be arrested and not be able to talk your way out of a charge,” and “Stay out of cell phone videos.”
I’m still not sure why this case made it to court, but I do know that slapping charges on people after the fact is not the way to improve the lives of those living in poverty. A court of law is not large or dexterous enough to untangle that social issue.
Post by Gayle Christiansen.