On a jury, but hardly a peer
By Cortney Weinbaum
Last month, I stepped off a Red Line train at Judiciary Square, reported for jury duty in D.C. Superior Court and was transported to a part of the District that I had never encountered before. I discovered the Washington where “zips” refer to single-serving bags of heroin sold to drug dealers in 10-packs of 11, so the dealer can keep one for himself as a bonus. I learned about stashes (where dealers hide drugs from police or would-be thieves). And I learned the street price of heroin ($8 to $10 per zip).
I will keep the details of my case vague enough to blur the identity of the defendant, but such details don’t really matter: My experience taught me that drug-related crimes are all too prevalent on our streets and in our courtrooms.
In my courtroom, a very sad, self-described drug user was on trial for possession of heroin with intent to distribute. The law says that every person is entitled to a trial by a jury of peers, but I doubt this defendant had any peers on our jury. How could any of us understand his plight?
The defendant was homeless at the time of the crime; soon after his arrest, he found a room to rent for $450 per month. That’s approximately what I pay in monthly condo fees. During his testimony, this grown man spoke to us with what sounded like third-grade language skills.
To the best of my knowledge, I have never met anyone who uses heroin. I don’t know what it feels like to sleep in a shelter, or worse. And I have certainly never felt such despair that I turned to heroin to ease my pain.
Our jury was mixed in age, race and gender. But we hardly added up to a jury of the defendant’s peers.
After hearing the evidence and conducting a truly thoughtful deliberation, we jurors concluded that the defendant was guilty of possession with intent to distribute. After the trial, we learned of additional damning evidence that had been withheld as a result of pre-trial hearings. We also learned that our verdict usually carries a sentence ranging from probation to two years’ incarceration.
I left the courthouse with one question: What is the point?
What is the point of the D.C. government putting so much time and effort toward trying a man for a crime for which he might receive only probation? And if he does go to jail, what is the point of that? This defendant has no job skills and a minimal education, and he exhibited no interest in stopping his use of various narcotics. What is the best-case scenario for his future?
As these questions washed over me, I stepped back onto my Red Line train. As I moved farther and farther from the defendant, the vast ocean between our two worlds began to reform. I returned to Ward 3, where my neighborhood’s greatest problems involve the construction of a local supermarket and a dog park. I wonder what I can do — or should do — to help this other Washington.
The people of the District decided to take one more teaspoon of sand off our city’s own narcotics beach, and they asked me to help hold the spoon.
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