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Posted at 9:55 PM ET, 09/11/2010

On a jury, but hardly a peer

By washingtonpost.com editors

By Cortney Weinbaum
Washington

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.

By washingtonpost.com editors  | September 11, 2010; 9:55 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., crime  
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Comments

To the author: Your critique needs one important correction. The criminal justice system in DC is overwhelmingly a function of the federal government, and the choice to prosecute is theirs. Only the (likely) arresting entity, MPD, is an agency of the District. If FBI, an anti-drug Task Force, or other law enforcement were involved, those are federal entities. Prosecution of criminal offenders is done by the United States Attorney's Office, and incarceration of those convicted and so sentenced is done in federal facilities.

Posted by: nan_lynn | September 11, 2010 11:35 PM | Report abuse

I've never sat as a juror, though called to duty on three or four occasions, so I don't have trial experience. But I do have personal experience with drug problems in the area.

For over four years my next-door neighbor in PG ran a crackhouse in mother's home -- more than sixty customers a day -- and the other neighbors (most, not all) and police never seemed to care about it. I point out the neighbors because so many did absolutely for so long.

Perhaps I didn't want to when I moved there, but I realized that the black community is more prone to drug and other crime than the white community, and mostly because it tolerates so much of it. And I don't think for a minute any more that the difference has anything to do with prejudice or economics -- this was in an all-black neighborhood of half-million dollar homes. It because of the reality that blacks are more prone to trouble and don't care that their kindred are the ones perpetrating it.

When I read a piece like this one that laments the "different worlds" we live in, and how sad it was that this perp was facing because of the "different world" he lived in, I thank Heaven that the federal system is the one in charge in DC. Were the black community (especially the DC government) more in charge of the criminal justice system in DC the crime problem would be much worse, because the indifference at home would be played out in prosecutions and in jury rooms as well.

I also came to believe that society has a right to be free of these people. I don't care how they got themselves into the messes they're in; the fact is they're there and need to be taken out of society for a while. If they get some help while they're in, good (but not very likely, as my neighbor's multiple incarcerations show); otherwise, they're due no pity from the rest of us.

Posted by: rustybud | September 12, 2010 6:12 AM | Report abuse

At least you found the defendant guilty. Its a step in the right direction.

Posted by: MEG4 | September 12, 2010 11:02 PM | Report abuse

This just a simple example of how millions of tax dollars are wasted each and every year on prosecution of low level drug users forced to sell drugs to support their own habits and running through the revolving criminal justice system in local jails and federal prisons while the largest suppliers who bring in tons of drugs every day and live upscale lives in our society for the most part continue business as usual and rarely see the inside of any of America's courtrooms. If we actually stopped the delivery of drugs to our cities, we wouldn't have any users because they couldn't get any drugs!!! Dah, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out but this is a billion dollar business that isn't going anywhere, so we will always have these poor victims pointed out as reasons why we continue to "launch these alleged WAR ON DRUGS" which are really a war on poor, low level victims in most cases. Victims who should be referred for treatment instead of probation and jail over and over with no effort to correct a usage problem. We can certainly expect to see this particular victim again soon because he has a habit and no legal source of income -- a recipe for failure.

Posted by: hotezzy | September 13, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

The "war on drugs" is a war on our own citizens. Billions and billions of dollars wasted. This "war" is a blatant failure.

Posted by: jckdoors | September 13, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

What happened to DC's drug courts, where pre-trial intervention allows the defendant to be diverted into a drug detox program? Drug courts have been very successful in other states and in the federal system, and I remember reading about they were going to be used in DC.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | September 13, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

RUSTYBUD, YOU ARE A IDIOT! ITS ATTITUDES LIKE YOURS THAT HAS KEPT THIS COUNTRY ENTRENCHED WITH RACISM.AFRICAN AMERICANS MAY NOW HAVE THE FREEDOM TO INTERGRATE WITH WHITE PEOPLE, HOWEVER, IF IT WERE UP TO PEOPLE LIKE YOU WE WILL STILL BE SITTING IN THE BACK OF THE BUS. YOU ARE A FOOL AND I WILL CONTINUE TO PRAY FOR PEOPLE LIKE YOU!

Posted by: md1014 | September 13, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

RUSTYBUD, YOU ARE A IDIOT! ITS ATTITUDES LIKE YOURS THAT HAS KEPT THIS COUNTRY ENTRENCHED WITH RACISM.AFRICAN AMERICANS MAY NOW HAVE THE FREEDOM TO INTERGRATE WITH WHITE PEOPLE, HOWEVER, IF IT WERE UP TO PEOPLE LIKE YOU WE WILL STILL BE SITTING IN THE BACK OF THE BUS. YOU ARE A FOOL AND I WILL CONTINUE TO PRAY FOR PEOPLE LIKE YOU!

Posted by: md1014 | September 13, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

The heroin and crack head perps, like the one you convicted, would not hesitate to knock you over the head to get a few bucks from you to ensure their next high. They are the bottom feeders of the drug world. Rehab is a joke. They should be in junkie jail and not be allowed to destroy neighborhoods. This has nothing to do with race or class. There are junkies in every neighborhood.There are plenty of poor people who are honest,live good lives and have no addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Posted by: 10bestfan | September 13, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

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