Thursday, April 30, 2015

Death in custody 1992

Death in custody 1992

"...officers saw a man buy drugs at Jefferson and Port streets, then walk to the 2800 block of E. Fayette"

- Baltimore Sun March 13, 1992.

I served on that Baltimore City Grand Jury, as certified above.  The proceedings are secret per law, as The Sun also says; my thoughts and opinions about the events are my own. I would not reveal sworn testimony, nor would I report my vote, anyone else's, or the vote count. The public record is shown in the newspaper (now on the web, thank you Baltimore Sun).

If you live in the city and are eligible, you could be called upon to serve on a Grand Jury (as opposed to the usual Petit Jury - Twelve Angry Men style jury duty) for a term of four calendar months.  That's right--4 months away from your usual day job(s).  Because of this duration and potentially zero income, the most likely pool members are from large corporations or government agencies (as I was in 1992).

Grand Jury summons are like their lesser counterparts, though the selection process is done before the term starts, having a Judge go through the pool asking questions about ability to serve. The end product are 25 or 26 of us citizens, ready to fill 23 seats in the jury room. We started with two alternates who ended up replacing original selections due to circumstances beyond their control (or in one case, as sole proprietor local artist who should not have been chosen).  The reason for the number is 23 is lost in time--our charge was to vote yeay or nay on whether to indict people for capital crimes in the city, with 12 votes required (simple majority) to decide.

Were I on a panel in Baltimore City this month, I would be quite disturbed. Baltimore has seen nothing like these events since 1968 (I was in Junior High here then).  With recent events such as Ferguson, and not as recent but still in close memory the Rodney King incident, the rapid proliferation of words, sounds, and videos globally, a lot of attention is and should be focused on a case of death during an arrest.

I can say I empathize with the current jurors, not because I faced an exactly similar challenge, but because I was also impaneled when a citizen (Robert E. Privett) died in police custody, and we of the jury were presented with a requirement to decide on officers' fates. The proceedings must remain secret (see ) so I refer to the public record and surmise about attitudes that are relevant to events now.  Should I violate the oath taken before my service certified above, I could be liable for penalties up to $1,000 and a year in jail. Or both. So while "a grand juror can never disclose information that is secret" I have nothing to fear.

The Sun reported the circumstances of Mr. Privett's arrest as "officers saw a man buy drugs at Jefferson and Port streets, then walk to the 2800 block of E. Fayette".  Everyone knows what a drug buy looks like; everyone knows where the drug markets are in Baltimore City.  Maybe not on any given day, but with the number of murders, arrests, and drug traffic patterns, not to mention national television and cable shows like Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Corner, and The Wire (only the first of which I have seen), the activities are hardly secret.  Secretive, yes, but not hidden from view.

The Grand Jury I served on  toured the city (and the Penitentiary, courtesy of the law) at night during our term. I took the photographs below in public places, so I do not consider these grand jury proceedings.

 The Sun story went on to describe what happened during the arrest, taken from police reports and interviews outside the jury room.  Mr. Privett resisted arrest. For that attempt to maintain his freedom, he was subdued.  The Sun does not describe the nature of that action; the medical examiner's report called it blunt trauma. Four broken ribs. A ruptured spleen. And the newspaper related a detail I had mentally healed over until now: "his dentures were found lodged in his throat". The four published articles have other details of the stories told, except Mr. Privett's side, which we'll never know.

The Baltimore City State's Attorney (long way of saying chief prosecutor) at the time was Stuart O. Simms. I have a connection to Mr Simms - my father was one of his elementary school teachers.  I like to think Dad helped Mr. Simms become a successful attorney (Harvard Law, per Wikipedia).  You might suspect the police are aligned with prosecutors.  Two sides of the same justice coin - one arrests, the other prosecutes.  Then judge and/or jury decide their fate.  You could also imagine the police and State's Attorneys don't always see eye-to-eye. Prosecutors need to have valid evidence they can take to court; officers need to survive mentally and physically while enforcing the laws.

What happens when police are accused or suspected of crimes - a case of police brutality, or an accidental death?  I can't say.  But I know the prosecutors need to cooperate with the police, or they have no case.  And the police need to cooperate with the State's Attorneys or they will be drummed out.  That's what I see.

How was Mr. Privett's case presented to us?  As stated above, I cannot say what happened in the jury room.  You can guess how it went from this comment in the Sun: "There were sufficient unresolved legal and factual issues". Who knows the law, and who had the facts?

It's hardly a secret that in Baltimore City, some citizens have experienced negative encounters with police officers, and others have had little to no interactions.  Some have relatives and close friends on the force; others have friends and family members in jail or with police records.  You can imagine the debate that occurred and the experiences and attitudes expressed as a result of "seven hours of testimony."

We, the jury, decided not to indict anyone for the death of Mr. Privett.  That decision was written up, as it was big local news; the friends and families of the deceased were presumably disappointed in our action/inaction.

Today, though, my home town is in a state of emergency, or as others call it, a state of unrest, a public uprising, because of another death in custody.  We've had rioting, we are under curfew, and the future is unclear.

Were I impaneled now, I would be needing to search my conscience to make the right decision.  In the end, we and they must choose justice, not the easy way.