When the government ordered me to jury duty, I was ready to go. Hokey as it sounds, I’ve always believed trial by a jury of our peers is our best American right and duty. Little did I know that I’d get the case of a 24-year-old Detroiter charged with a brutal rape.
Upon entering the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice at Gratiot and St. Antoine, the guards confiscated my $25 makeup kit and a lighter; they apparently feared I would gouge someone with a broken bottle and then start their hair on fire. Weaponless, I relied on a pile of pens and a spiral-bound writing pad for protection.
Hundreds of prospective jurors, all Wayne County taxpayers, reported to a big auditorium. People groaned and moaned to the jury-room monitor.
I was ordered with some 20 others to report to a courtroom. En route to the courtroom, we saw ambient grief: a young woman sobbing uncontrollably. Nearby, an older woman wailed, over and over, “Oh my God, oh my God, my baby, my baby.” Relatives held her as she rocked back and forth. “I won’t be alive when he finally comes home.”
Inside the court, we heard the charges: five felony counts of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree (the legal euphemism for felony rape); one count of first-degree armed robbery; another of felony firearm posession.
I was one of five women chosen for the 14-member panel, two of whom would become alternates before deliberations began.
Karen Plants, the Wayne County prosecutor assigned to the proceedings, described the case: A neighbor of the victim lured her to a gas station, ostensibly to buy cigarettes. An armed man jumped into the back seat of the car they were in, put a gun to the victim’s side and threatened to kill her. The neighbor drove a ways before a second man got in. The victim got a good look at both men. They took her to a dark, wooded area and demanded money she had told her neighbor she had, some $48,000. She insisted she didn’t have the money. The first man beat her with the gun, tied her hands behind her back and raped her, inviting his associate to join in. She was assaulted in all orifices.
The victim described the first assailant consistently, though he’s never been identified or arrested. But testimony shows her description of the second attacker changed. First he was 140 pounds; a day later, he weighed 280-310 pounds. The defendant in our case, the alleged second attacker, weighed probably 130 pounds.
We got little information about how he was identified or what he was doing at the time of the rape. A year after the crime, this fall, he was arrested in Florida. Back in Detroit, the victim picked him out of a lineup.
The prosecutor and defense attorney often squabbled about who had what report and what was in it; who said what when; what was hearsay and what wasn’t.
The defense attorney, Randall Upshaw, suggested that a manhunt ensued for the rapist and that because everybody knows everybody in the west-side Detroit neighborhood, it’s plausible the suspect was framed to settle a score or to protect the real rapists.
Upshaw, a tall, elegant and imposing figure, skillfully described the gaps and inconsistencies in the victim’s testimony.
Meanwhile, the prosecution called police officers who couldn’t remember the facts of the case. A DNA expert told us there was no physical evidence. At the mention of the suspect’s record, Upshaw erupted with protest, eliciting a loud bark from the judge, who ordered him to calm down.
I kept waiting for the prosecution to provide some credible evidence that the guy was guilty.
After all the evidence was given through two days, Judge Mary Waterstone told us that a victim’s testimony in a rape case is enough to convict, but I had more than reasonable doubt about her statements and memory.
I was chosen as an alternate and excused from deliberations. Ugh — all that for nothing?
The next day, I got a call from one of my fellow jurors. She was agitated. She said the jury asked the judge for a transcript of testimony. The judge said no, that the jury must rely on its “collective memory.” The judge later explained it would’ve taken a week to get the transcript, but the jury could’ve gotten sections of the transcript if they’d asked.
Three male jurors were on the fence, but with so many questions outstanding, the jury quickly agreed unanimously to acquit.
Afterward, my fellow jurors told me that Judge Waterstone came into the jury room and shut the door. They said she was angry and threw up her arms, exclaiming, “What were you thinking? How could you let a rapist walk free?” After a long exchange, she admonished them: “I hope your mother or daughter or wife doesn’t get raped.”
I called Judge Waterstone to get her side of the story. She said she wasn’t angry, she simply wanted to understand the verdict. She said she became irritated at the reasoning, because she had told jurors they could rely on the victim’s word alone.
Waterstone said she believes TV court dramas cloud juries, which now look for DNA and other physical evidence.
“I gave an express instruction that they need no corroboration and they disregarded it,” Waterstone told me. Jurors are “so convinced by, I think, TV that police have nothing else to do than look for a single hair that will prove it’s the defendant. I think they’re expecting more than can be done.”
The prosecutor had another theory. She said Americans trust men more than women.
“I think in our society people bend over backwards to protect men,” Plants said. “I mean, [consider] Anita Hill. We’re socialized as a society. Men are the authoritative voice. That’s not from me. Go take any sociology course.”
Hogwash, I told her, she just didn’t prove the case.
Plants said rape cases are the hardest to prosecute, because there are usually no witnesses. She said the jury should have deduced from the evidence that the neighbor — the defendant’s aunt — had fingered him as a culprit.
“Hello, a little common sense here,” she said.
(The neighbor is in prison for 14 years for her role in the case, but because her conviction is eligible for appeal, Plants couldn’t compel her to testify.)
I find it disturbing the judge and prosecutor would have preferred that the jury convict on such appallingly flimsy evidence. I pray the jury didn’t let a rapist free. But under the circumstances, the jury did the right thing. The system worked. Justice was served.
It’s about the only thing that’s made me feel good about this country in months.Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to email@example.com