When family members are made to bear the weight of criminality, they become the recipients of a saddened new reality, one they must make sense of without those who are either incarcerated or -even more disheartening- departed.
Earlier this spring I was a part of a forum at Bronx Community College. The goal was to engage the minds of students and community members on the topic of criminal Justice and the various issues that encumber it. Lucy Lang was in attendance that afternoon, her presence necessary in order to provide perspective based on her years of experience working and teaching within the legal system. What she shared with us that day caused me to contemplate the underlying message in her words.
She recalled a case about a mother whose son had been murdered. In her previous role, she’d functioned as an ADA or assistant district attorney in the violent crimes unit. Moved by what she saw, Lucy made every effort to make sure the person responsible for taking this young man’s life was held accountable. Eventually she was able to obtain enough evidence to prosecute, convict and imprison the guilty party for a lengthy duration of time.
Soon thereafter, the mother told Lucy that it was the first time since her son was murdered that she could finally sleep. But, she said, when she woke up the next morning, all she could think about was what the other mother must be going through. Both mothers were now tied together by a series of unfortunate events.
Several weeks ago, I too found myself imaging what the mother of the defendant was feeling as she watched her son seated alongside his attorney. I was a juror and Mr. O’Brien* was on trial for his alleged actions which took place the previous year. While in an effort to purchase drugs together, the defendant was accused of shooting and stealing property from the victim, his “friend.” The state was charging Mr. O’Brien with five felony counts ranging from carjacking to unlawful possession of a firearm.
Throughout the course of the trial, a certain uneasiness could be seen in the postures of the family members who came to support and see their loved one, whether it was the relentless pacing of a paternal figure waiting outside the courtroom doors or the stress that seemed to affix itself on the faces of each adult, yet somehow avoiding the younger children that accompanied them, who smiled innocently.
As we heard the testimonies of those called to the stand, it was our duty to decide if the evidence presented proved beyond a reasonable doubt the guilt of the man on trial. In the course of our deliberation it wasn’t immediately clear what the outcome of the case would be as we were divided in our thinking. Some focused on the victim’s testimony as the basis of their decision making, while others felt that evidence presented wasn’t material enough to adequately place Mr. O’Brien in the vehicle.
Feeling we were at an impasse, we presented our case to the judge. She wasn’t surprised, almost anticipating our inability to come to a decision on our first try. Without much delay we were sent back to our room, looking at one another puzzled, wondering what would come of any further discussions.
But the weekend spent away from the courtroom provided me with a better atmosphere to wrestle with my own thoughts. And it appeared to have a similar effect on my fellow jurors. We had come to a decision. The gun which the prosecution presented as being so relevant in the case was not there, nor had there been convincing evidence that it was Mr. O’Brien’s. Yet a robbery had transpired and the testimony of the victim proved credible.
Mr. O’Brien was ultimately found guilty of second degree robbery, though not guilty on four of the five felony counts for which he was being charged.
The family appeared to be in a state of disbelief, not yet understanding the implications of simultaneously being found not guilty and guilty. But one thing was certain: Mr. O’Brien wouldn’t be returning home with them that day.
*Mr. O’Brien is not the actual name of the defendant.