Southern Courtroom, Sociological Stage

By Curtis Price

Posted January 2, 2023


Courtrooms are the same, full of heavy, somber colors and uncomfortable pew-like seats, as if you were sitting in the Church of Justice waiting for a sermon from some judicial rector. Here I was, called in for Alabama jury duty. In Baltimore, I always routinely ignored such summons, knowing full well nothing would happen to me. And indeed, nothing ever did. After all, such was the scale of violent crime in Baltimore that violating a jury summons rated about the same, if not lesser, response, than throwing a gum wrapper on the streets.

But this was Alabama and knowing the propensity of vituperative excess in the local courts – a recent case in point, the arrest of an 81 year old woman in Wetumpka for feeding feral cats as part of a trap-neuter-release program, and which the judge refused to dismiss, in intentional spite of public outrage – I complied. After all, I have been stopped by the police more in my six years in Alabama than decades in Baltimore – and once (here) by a cop with a loaded gun pointed at me – that I was afraid if I didn’t show, I’d end up on Death Row. So I dutifully shuffled down to the Morgan County (MoCo) Courthouse, a drab, ugly concrete building that was probably intentionally designed to look exactly like a Stasi-torture center circa 1950s East Germany.

We assembled in a large holding pen – that’s the best way to describe it – until we were divided into three groups and escorted to a courtroom. Given numbers, we were instructed on entering and leaving to line up according to our assigned number when it was barked out. It struck me that we in the free world were being treated in the same depersonalized way as inmates in the county jail, stripped of identity and reduced to a number.

The courtroom, predictably, was dark-oak paneled, with the judge’s platform elevated above the rest of the chambers, as such platforms always are, to give the impression that the judge is above and remote from mere human concerns in his impartial dispensation of justice. To the right, was a long table with two white lawyer-types in suits and ties, and a younger black guy, dressed in business-casual and perhaps in his 30s, sitting in-between.

At first, I thought he was a paralegal. Only later, when the judge asked the jury to look at this person to determine if anyone knew him, did I find out that this slightly built man was, in fact, the defendant, accused of capital murder. The defendant had a slightly-receding hairline, a thin build, and sensitive face with a high forehead, hard at first impression to square with the charges leveled at him. He looked like a student cramming for exams. But he was charged with being part of a two-person home invasion, drug-related, which had led to a father being shot to death in front of his children – an automatic eligibility for the death penalty or life in prison without parole in Alabama.

The rest of the time was spent in rather tedious preliminary jury questioning. What affected me, in response to a prosecutor’s query if anyone had a relative who had been entangled in the criminal justice system, was how so many people, probably half, raised their hands. One woman had a mother who was murdered and her father was in jail on a life bit. Another had a cousin that was doing time for dealing. Others had relatives that were either stabbed – or stabbers, shooters – or the shot.

Likewise, the questions about current occupations revealed a great deal. One man was a mechanic, but unemployed and taking care of his dying father. Others were disabled from blue-collar jobs such as trucking and machine-operator. I found it moving to hear of so many struggles and hard circumstances, and while it would be a mistake to over-generalize from such a small sample, Decatur being an overwhelming proletarian town, I couldn’t help but think that crime, prison, and disability being so much part of peoples’ lives is a fairly accurate representation of much working-class life in the U.S. these days.

Finally, came the question from the judge that I was expecting: “Is there anyone in the room who is opposed to the death penalty?” Three people, including myself, raised hands. He went one-by-one and repeated the question and asked for a yes or no. The two others replied in a muffled, barely-audible voice, “yes,” as if confessing some dark, shameful secret. When it came to me, I stood up and loudly said, “Your honor, I am opposed to the death penalty in principle and in the interests of transparency, I am also opposed to life in prison without parole too.” The judge squinted at me and said, “Are you saying if I ordered you to apply the death penalty you would refuse?” I said, “Yes.” I heard an audible gasp somewhere in the room and I could feel the silence of all eyes focusing on me. It was hardly an Atticus Finch moment, but in this era of reduced heroism, it’ll do. For a split second I was afraid, this being Alabama, that the two burly, buzz-cut deputies lurking in the corners, would whisk me off to some cell in the bowels of the courthouse. But the judge took it in stride, and went on to other issues. (The judge, probably in his late 40s, had long black curly hair that looked ever so much like the mullet worn by Billy Ray Cyrus in “Achey Breaky Heart” and maybe my memory is deceiving me, but I swore he was wearing brown cowboy boots under his robe.)

As a fact, I am opposed to the death penalty in squalid cases such as this one, where poor impulse control, adrenaline, fear, greed, and the whole tangled mix of human emotions lead to horrible crimes in which the wheels of a cold, clinical court system grind on, imposing death by impersonal bureaucratic fiat. But if this defendant was accused of deliberate genocide killing thousands, I don’t think I would feel the same way. And likewise, I am opposed to life in prison without parole because that is a form of death penalty too – for the guards and other inmates. For someone with no hope and nothing left to lose is capable of anything.

I sat in the cattle-jury pen for another hour before being dismissed and handed a $20 check.

I followed the case as it appeared in the local media because it was a big story in a small town. About ten days later, give or take, and after three days deliberating, the jury set the accused free by unanimous verdict. Later, when I mentioned the case on the job, a co-worker showed me a picture of the defendant. “Is this the man? That’s my cousin!” she said, “He fell in with the wrong crowd…” Her voice trailed off…

Three weeks later, the man accused of murdering another man in front of his children was arrested after a routine traffic stop transporting a gun stolen from the Huntsville police station. As a convicted felon, he is barred for life from ever carrying guns. He now sits without bond in the MoCo jail. I suspect, this being Alabama, that he will not get off so lucky the next time he appears in court.

2 thoughts on “Southern Courtroom, Sociological Stage

  1. An Atticus Finch moment, indeed! I have no doubt your boldly stated conviction against the death penalty and life in prison, not only shocked your fellow jurors, it induced their own sense of compassion and fairness during trial. Can’t say the same for Sheriffs.

    Living up to and beyond it’s Southern version of Hard Crackers, this is the best Gasoline And Grits truth telling so far, when culture, race, class and the law collide. Add the surprise factor for good measure. The reader doesn’t have to be a fly on the wall. The story leaps off the page, nothing short of theatre. This reader was transfixed, awe-struck, at every turn.

    Well written, dramatized, Curtis! A Noel Ignatiev moment in time, revealed.

    BTW, how does ANYONE steal a gun from a police station, after a near miss murder conviction?

    Like

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