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May 19, 2005

Trial by Jury

A tall, soft-spoken, 62-year-old Jamaican immigrant spent last night in the Gwinnett County Jail because I joined 11 other citizens of the county in convicting him of aggravated assault in a March 2 attack on his wife of two years, when an argument over money got out of hand.

After two days of intense testimony and deliberation, I was the foreman of a jury of mostly young people who found “Alfie” guilty of grabbing his short, stocky and combative wife by hair, punching her, and wielding a knife and waving it threateningly.

His wife’s daughter-in-law jumped on him and no one was stabbed. The overly dramatic and reasonably obnoxious defense attorney (as a jury we joked about asking the judge for permission to indict him for being a drama king) said the slight Vietnamese daughter-in-law could never have stopped Alfie from stabbing Dolores, if he’d wanted to. That’s possible; we’ll never know. What is clear is that he was holding her down on the stove by the hair and waving a knife in her face.

There was a 911 tape that made the case for the prosecutor, in that it captured the terror of the two women. It really defined terror. And it corroborated the testimony of the police officer and the daughter-in-law.

The two Jamaicans were a disaster on the witness stand. Neither could answer questions directly. It’s probably a cultural trait, although perhaps it was just these two individuals. The wife was particularly maddening. She was the last witness the first day of the trial, and I think we all went home thinking we’d acquit the guy, and in our minds figured we’d count living with this overbearing woman as “time-served.”

But the defense brought the defendant, Alfie, to the stand the next day. Although he was much more likeable, his story was ridiculously fictionalized. It didn’t match any of the other evidence and made it sound like he and his wife were discussing poetry in the kitchen on the afternoon of the incident.

Bad decision by the defense. Another bad move by the defense counsel was in his closing argument. His central argument was that his defendant was 62, and that the rules are different for someone 62. He really said that, several times. “When you’re 62, the rules are different.” I still can’t figure out what he meant by that. It sounded like the argument for some government program, where the rules are different for some groups that are old or poor or illegal immigrants, or gay.

No, we compared the evidence to the indictment, and the rules weren’t different for Alfie, although he was 62, affable, and simple.

As a jury we didn’t think the prosecution was able to prove three other counts—aggravated assault on the daughter-in-law and two counts of making dangerous threats, called “terroristic threats.”

We were unanimous on one count of guilty, and three counts not-guilty. No jury room arguments or stubborn hold-outs. No arm twisting.

So Alfie went to jail to await sentencing, and we went home for dinner.

But the trial will not go away in my mind. Surprisingly, it is a heavy weight to stand in judgment on another human being. There was a solemn responsibility that we felt to rule justly. We recognized that we would be altering the life of this generally likeable man—he didn’t have any previous convictions—if we found him guilty. But he had clearly snapped, and may do it again and put these women in further danger if he was not punished for what he had clearly done.

I prayed for Alfie last night, that God might be with him and redirect his life. And I prayed for peace in the family.

Posted by Jim at May 19, 2005 09:29 AM

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