Notes from the Jury Box: The State’s First Witness

Opening Statements: A Real-Life Murder Mystery

The State’s chief attorney, an intense young woman with porcelain features, takes the stage, startling us out of our torpor. She paces and gesticulates emphatically, as if to communicate her moral outrage: the defendant, she insists, has shot an unarmed man who begged for his life in his final moments, and a parade of courageous witnesses will prove that fact.

The young public defender, equally svelte and telegenic, furrows her brow with concern as she steps forward to offer an alternative spin on the prosecutor’s tale: a violent, chaotic night in a violent, chaotic neighborhood lurches out of control, and the defendant, fearing for his life, reacts in the extreme, ending one life and changing his own forever.

The defense team doesn’t have to prove anything, she reminds us—a fact they’ve emphasized during voir dire. Their client has admitted to the shooting. His attorneys need only seed us with doubts about how it happened and why, and her opening statement effectively casts a pall of confusion over “the night in question.” A win for these attorneys, as far as I can tell, would be a sentence of anything less than first-degree murder.

The battle is on.

Glossary:

“Mississippi” – the defendant’s alias

“Sleepy” – the victim’s alias

“Memphis” – another key player in the night’s events, known to most by his nickname

First Witness for the Prosecution

A thirtyish woman in a grey fedora takes the stand with an edgy uncertainty she bolsters with defensive bravado. After so many hours of soporific, repetitive questions during voir dire, we’re suddenly riveted by her tale, and by the picture she paints of a horrific day in the life of a Nashville public housing project.

From her second-story window, she heard an argument between “Mississippi” and “Sleepy,” saw Sleepy’s hands in the air, heard him say he “had nothing to do with it,” that he had kids. “Then Mississippi pulled out a gun and started popping him,” she declares. She recalls that Sleepy was hit by the first bullet, turned and ran, and that Mississippi chased him and fired twice more before fleeing. She tells us this so quickly it all feels unreal.

The other public defender on the team, a tall, assertive blonde who unconsciously pulls her face into extraordinary shapes at the defense table all morning, takes the stage for cross-examination. Although I realize she’s just doing her job, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the young witness, wholly outmatched in the arts of verbal wizardry.

The attorney initially casts doubt on Ms. Fedora’s* observations, pointing out that the night was dark and rainy, and that the witness’s attention was divided between the argument outside the window and her kids inside the apartment. Her testimony becomes jumbled surrounding the moment of the shooting itself: was she at the window watching, or did hearing the shot draw her back to the window? It’s never clear.

The Q&A heats up when counsel, inevitably, turns her attention to Ms. Fedora’s credibility. She questions the witness’s motivations for testifying, insinuating that the young woman only reported the crime as an aside when calling in a burglary in her own apartment, and that she may have expected some kind of quid pro quo from the police officer answering the call. Did she ask the detective to find her a new apartment in return for testimony, or was she just hoping to move elsewhere for her own protection?

Ms. Fedora fights, with growing frustration, for her version of the story—that she had been threatened and hoped to move to a safer place. But the attorney partially succeeds in muddying the waters: why did this witness come forward? Was there a self-interested motive?

Counsel needlessly loses some of her advantage, it seems to me, when she begins needling the young woman about watching the argument from her window: “So, you were pretty nosy, huh?” the attorney says, affecting an aggressive, almost taunting tone, as if to judge the witness for rubbernecking. But honestly, who wouldn’t look?

“This is bogus,” the witness spits, pronouncing the word, “BOE-gusssh”; counsel pretends not to understand; Ms. Fedora shoots attorney her best Evil Eye as she stalks out. Sheer theatre. It’s an almost funny, but mostly sad little detail we would later recall during deliberations; we’re left with the feeling the attorney has to some extent misused her advantages in education and status. She’s certainly cast some doubt on the witness’s account, but she’s also made us root a little bit for the young woman as for an underdog–so out of her element, but brave in her way.

In the end, that stirring of sympathy most likely doesn’t matter as much as the confusion and uncertainty the questions have roused in our minds. Although watching the public defenders at work is definitely a sausage-being-made experience, I do get that these attorneys are doing an extraordinarily tough but vital job that doesn’t win them any fans. And I respect them for it.

The Rashomon Effect

I head home at 6pm bewildered and exhausted, as if I’d just experienced a week’s worth of drama in 9 bizarre hours. It felt wholly unreal to listen to this real-life murder story, oddly reminiscent of an episode of Law & Order in appearance and style, yet so unlike a TV courtroom drama in a more important way: we jurors suspect already that we won’t get a chance to indulge in any tidy certainties during this trial. This narrative isn’t going to wrap up neatly in an hour (or ever), and there is much we’ll never know about what really happened that night.

It’s a relief, at least, to know this one, solid fact: that the defendant was, without a doubt, the man who shot and killed the victim. He admitted as much. But as for the events leading up to the shooting and the defendant’s motives and state of mind when he fired his .38 special at another human being, I have an inkling we’re in for a muddled Rashomon-like series of confused and conflicting perspectives. And that makes me terribly uneasy.

I fall into bed early, fall asleep quickly, and dream about guns.

Tune in for The Trial, Day 2 – The State Rests.

See Part 1:  Notes from the Jury Box: Jury Selection.

*I decided not to litter this tale with people’s actual names, although clearly this is obtainable information.

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