Lest Ye Be Judged

Serving as a juror in a drug trial

This time I brought a big fat book and a pocket full of change for the snack machines. I know to expect long, tedious hours in the prospective jurors’ waiting room. I settle down in a chair far, far away from the big screen TV in the front.

My number’s called. We line up to go into the courtroom for voir dire, where lawyers question potential jurors. In the past, when they find out my husband is an attorney, I’ve always been dismissed. I don’t take it personally.

Uh…wait a minute. Is that my name being read out on the list of jurors? Hey, you’ve got the wrong person! You don’t want me—I’m a lawyer’s wife!

Guess again. I’m now a juror in a federal trial. After our names are called, all 14 of us—12 jurors and two alternates—are herded into the jury room to await our summons into the courtroom. Then, like obedient kindergartners, we march in single file to take our seats in the jury box. My fellow jurors look as stunned as I when we stare across the courtroom and see, staring back at us, the two defendants in this drug trial. Waaah! We wanna go home!

But we can’t go home. The trial is starting. Right now. A power-suited woman with a determined smile on her lips and a feverish look in her eyes aims herself in our direction and begins talking. She’s the prosecutor. She promises us quite a story—a story with an international cast, a story that begins in a locker in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and ends in a luxurious condo on Collins Avenue with interim stops at the Forge restaurant, Cafe Brasserie, Embassy Suites, Delano Hotel, the Strand, and…Pollo Tropical.

Well, at least I won’t be bored. I discover my chair rocks a little if I put my feet against the mahogany panel in front of me. We jurors uncap our pens, smooth out the note pads we were given, and take notes, doodle, or just listen. As the initial shock begins to wear off, the mantle of responsibility settles uncomfortably. I look around, impressed and intimidated by the courtroom: mahogany paneled walls, golden light filtering through drawn curtains, the great seal of the United States looming behind the black-robed judge. The prosecutor. The lawyers.

The defendants. I guess I’m not entirely impartial because I don’t want to look at them, at least not while they’re looking at me. I sneak peeks. The one sitting at a table across from us looks as if he’s about to explode from his well-tailored suit—big and muscular, dark hair sleekly combed back, inscrutable expression on his tan, strong-boned face. A Steven Seagal look-alike.

The other defendant sits at a table perpendicular to ours. He looks like he couldn’t make bond: pale prison pallor on a rough complexion, fuzzball black hair scrunched into a long ponytail, good suit incongruous with the socks and sandals on his feet. Every now and then he glances shyly over at us.

I study the ceiling, scribble busily on my pad, watch the court reporter tappety tapping away with her nimble fingers as she stares off into space. She has silver-gray big hair and angular features: Olympia Dukakis, I decide getting into celebrity look-alike mode. Every now and then Olympia sneaks something small and crunchy into her mouth, then nibbles in squirrelly bites.

The attorneys for each of the defendants are making their statements. It becomes apparent that Ponytail’s attorney—a Rick Sanchez look-and-sound-like—feels that Steven Seagal has led his innocent client astray, while Seagal’s attorney—distinguished, white-haired, confident—is clearly indignant that his client is here in the first place. The two defendants aren’t looking at each other. I sense bad blood. Maybe I’ve seen too many trials on TV.

I’m operating on two levels here. Level One—the important, scary one—is that this is serious. Two men are on trial and it falls on us, the jury, to decide if they are guilty. That’s a heavy responsibility. Level Two—the superficial, dopey one—is that, because of the nature of this particular trial, we feel like participants in some made-for-TV movie. It’s all here: drugs, drama, DEA. It’s a story—and we decide the ending.

Here, briefly, is the government’s story: Helped by an anonymous informant, Dutch police find a gym bag filled with 30,000 MDMA pills (known as Ecstasy) stashed in a locker in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The Drug Enforcement Administration transports it back to Miami, where an agent, “M,” posing as an intermediary, contacts the person he believes is supposed to receive it—defendant Seagal. There are aborted meetings to exchange drugs for money at various locations (from the Forge to Pollo Tropical), some of which involve the other defendant, Ponytail, none of which are conclusive because Seagal is too suspicious to accept the drugs and pay for them. He fears the intermediary might be a cop. Smart man.

Here, briefly, is the defendants’ story: “It’s a setup.”

As the story unfolds, I am enthralled. A gun? A gym bag full of drugs? At a sidewalk café? Surrounded by DEA agents who look like tourists? These things happen right here, maybe right next to me while I’m eating a bagel?

A verbal scuffle between attorney and prosecutor leads to a huddle with the judge (serene, Ossie Davis look-alike). Recess, he decides, and we jurors obediently retire to the jury room, where I encounter the Pink Elephant problem.

Try an experiment: In the next three seconds, do not even have a passing thought about Pink Elephants. One…two…Give up. Of course you thought about Pink Elephants. It’s impossible not to.

Our Pink Elephant is: Trial? What trial? I don’t see any trial. Our instructions are “Do not talk about the trial.” Not one word about what’s happening, what you think, what anybody looks like, what it is that the court reporter is nibbling on. Do not talk about the trial, here, there, or anywhere.

Admittedly, not talking about Pink Elephants is easier than not thinking about them. But what does that leave to talk about? Each other, for starters. We discover that Chickie has a congressman son-in-law. That Jorge coaches Little League. That Chris works with her plumber husband. That Adam was a ballet dancer before becoming a masseur. That Debi is a middle school librarian. That Nancy lives near me. That Kathie likes to fish. That Monica’s perfect plum-colored fingernails are paid for by her boyfriend.

And that, at this point, everybody gets along just great.

We gather our chairs around the conference table, check out the magazine racks. Fran (Bette Midler look-alike) picks up a copy of Men’s Health magazine and starts reading out loud–very loud: “Are there any ways to slow down during sex and make it last more than, say, three minutes?”

Monica sniffs. “You mean you only make it last that long?” She puts down the Jet magazine she has been thumbing through, peers mournfully at us through big, round glasses, shakes her head. “Mmm, mmmm,” she adds.

Fran, nonplussed, laughs her big Bette laugh. “HAH!”

“HAHAHAH!” we all respond, eager for more. Fran continues reading, this time about penile lengthening operations.

“Whooo!” comments Monica.

Gilberto—so quiet and shy he never corrects anyone when they call him by the wrong name (Roberto, Guillermo), which for some reason keeps happening—pulls his chair up behind Fran and gawks over her shoulder as she reads, his benign, sleepy face stretching with wonder.

The door opens. Fran slaps the magazine shut. It’s Marshal Bob (Capt. Kangaroo look-alike), our jovial U.S. marshal watchdog, singing a refrain we’re going to hear many, many times over the next several days: “OK, boys and girls, it’s time to rock ‘n’ roll!”

Time to march, single file, don’t talk, don’t change seats, keep the chairs you first sat in, stay standing until the judge comes in. And so it goes: attorneys arguing, prosecutor prosecuting, judge presiding serenely with a dab of wry humor. We listen to undercover tapes made by Agent M, whose very appearance screams DEA (dark suit, clean-cut, somber, chiseled features—How did he fool these guys?) His alto voice, heard on tape, escalates into sopranic hysteria when things aren’t going well: “What? What? No you can’t…”

Back to the jury room. Tell jokes, swap stories, play hangman on the chalkboard—a little black humor. Watch Adam and Fran arm wrestle. Pass around photos of kids, grandkids, dogs. Get Fran to read some more from Men’s Health. Discuss movies. Today it’s Men in Tights. Which leads to a discussion of Adam’s career as a ballet dancer.

Monica looks up from her Jet. “I love to see a man in spandex,” she says.


Not satisfied with the jury room fare provided courtesy of the taxpayers (soft drinks, hot chocolate, tea, coffee), the jurors begin supplementing the larder. Each new morning brings a fresh supply of goodies: Muffins, bagels and cream cheese. Tostitos and salsa, bananas and grapes, pretzels, candy and nuts. Mandel bread. Pastelitos. Homemade brownies. Pepperidge Farm cookies. And a dazzling display of Dunkin’ Donuts.

Within days, the door to the tiny refrigerator, crammed with leftovers, can hardly shut. We are blimping out between journeys into the courtroom. Except for a few of us like Monica, who studies for her computer class, and Vicki, who meets her husband, we usually travel en masse to lunch at surrounding restaurants. Burdines’ Royal Palm Café is a favorite: We give it a rating of four thumps of the gavel.

Back to the jury room. All rise. Here comes the judge.

We watch a video of Seagal, head of security at a well-known restaurant who moonlights as an instructor of jujitsu and aikido. Yikes—he really could be Steven Seagal, all poker-faced power in his white jujitsu robe, each move described in a low-key but confident voice-over. Part of me watches this from the viewpoint of an objective juror. Part of me is thinking, Wow, this is just like a movie.

And then, just like in a movie, we get the drama of evidence: six big plastic bags of Ecstasy–$1 million worth, street value—are plopped in front of our noses—29,818 pink pills, to be exact (who counts these things?). They are passed around for us to examine. They look exactly like six big plastic bags filled with pink pills.

A team of translators alternates translating for the international cast of defendants and witnesses (they are Lebanese, Italian, Dutch, Romanian, Spanish—most, but not all, of whom speak English). The translators seem to be very clubby, whispering, giggling, gossiping at their own table until their services are needed. One, an attractive young woman who translates the Italian spoken by Ponytail, pulls the colorful scrunchie from her own ponytail and fiddles with it as she works, yanking it this way, that way, twirling it in and out of her fingers as she casually glances around the room, English translation tumbling from her lips almost before Ponytail stops speaking.

Later we find that Ponytail speaks pretty good English after all. We find this out when we listen to some more tapes. Ponytail, it turns out, has another side to what we see here. What we see here is a demure, shyly smiling Ponytail, a Ponytail who speaks so softly that the translator has to ask him occasionally to repeat, a Ponytail who is almost appealing in his demeanor, a Ponytail with whom you’re starting to sympathize: Aw, poor Ponytail.

But the Ponytail on the tape is a Quentin Tarantino Ponytail. His voice is no longer a soft susurration of sounds. Oh, no. This Ponytail speaks good Spanish and fair English, a little broken maybe, but well enough to understand quite clearly when he barks in a harsh, threatening voice, “Swear on your mother’s life you not a cop!” And he seems to have mastered the vernacular.

It is all we jurors can do at this point to avoid any reference to the Pink Elephant when we retire to our snack-littered room. The facts of the case are one thing; the unconventional characters who ascend the witness stand are another. Both defendants seem to have either been acquainted with or married to some rather exotic women, and as each sashays away from the witness stand, it’s a hard-fought battle not to roll our eyes or drop our jaws, either at the makeup, the second-skin outfits, the collagen overload, or the eyebrow ring.

Each witness must stop before Olympia, the nut-nibbling court reporter, to be sworn in before taking the stand. “Doyousweartotellthetruththewholetruthandnothingbutthetruth?” Olympia drones on fast-forward, to which one model-type with very long hair and a very short skirt replies, “Huh?” And then there’s Ponytail’s jittery ex-wife, older and blindingly blond. As she shifts into over-drive, describing in detail how she had once helped out “The King of Ecstasy,” as he had dubbed himself, by stuffing a toy alligator with $20,000 worth of pills, even the judge permits himself a smile. Ponytail, however, is not amused.

We listen and take notes during the summation, a little dazed by the realization that the show is over. Now we have to make sense of it all. The alternates are informed that they are alternates. They can go home. They seem both relieved and dismayed. We’ll all get together again, we assure each other. We’ve bonded. We’ll always have ecstasy.

The remaining 12 of us are herded once more into our little room, this time for deliberation. Now we can not only talk about the Pink Elephant, we must dissect it, analyze it, and then arrive at a decision that could forever change the lives of two people. Something shifts in our perception of this trial. We’re back to Level One: the important, scary level.

Larry is elected foreman. Larry is serious, organized, and very apprehensive about his role. We are all very apprehensive about our roles, and when the boxes of evidence are carted in and stacked all around us, when the judge’ directives are passed out and read, when the door is shut and we are left with each other, we are transformed. We are The Jury.

Discussion evolves into argument; argument becomes division. We agree on one thing: dinner, ordered from the menu brought in by the clerk. One day of deliberation becomes two, with the threat of three. Adam and Bibi take one side (not guilty); the rest of us take the other. Stalemate. We read and re-read the judge’s directives until they are almost committed to memory. We list all the facts on the blackboard. We listen to the tapes over and over, study the transcripts, examine the evidence, gingerly touch the gun. We study the legal meaning of the words “conspiracy” and “possession” until their definitions become a pivotal force in our final decision. We technically and philosophically examine a term we had always taken for granted: Innocent until proven guilty.

Every juror but Adam and Bibi thinks the government’s wiretaps and taped conversations prove a conspiracy to import drugs. Every juror but Adam and Bibi thinks the fact that Seagal put his hands on the drugs in a meeting with an undercover agent makes him guilty of possession with intent to sell, even though he never paid for them or left the room with them.

Finally, Bibi retreats from her position, with reservations. Adam, however, remains adamant, mainly because he can’t see how Seagal could be said to “possess” the drugs if he didn’t take them from the agent. We take him step-by-step through our reasoning. He finally relents, agreeing that, yes, OK, we’re right, and slowly raises his hand to make our vote unanimous: guilty.

We file into the courtroom for the last time. Larry reads the verdict in a strong voice that belies his nervousness and exhaustion. I try to avoid looking a the defendants outright, but—I can’t help it—I sneak a last peek at Ponytail. For just a second, our eyes meet. It is a strange moment.

Even though the nagging question—Who am I to judge someone else?—remains, I know the jury’s decision was just. We worked long and hard to make it so. It’s a responsibility I would not have chosen 10 days ago, but now that it’s done, I appreciate not only the privilege of doing my civid duty, but the insight I’ve gained. This experience allowed me to understand on a gut level that the jury system—despite all its flaws, despite all the bizarre twists and turns exposed (and encouraged) by TV in the courtroom—is the fairest path to judgment.

But I hope I’m not asked to serve again for a long, long time.

Tropic magazine, Miami Herald, 5/17/98