Guilty as Charged

There is something so odd about sitting on a trial for someone whom everyone knows is guilty. It’s like this: a guy catches a ride into town, finds a place in an alley to change, then takes off his shoes, covers his upper body in a black garbage bag, dons some torn gloves, puts on a baseball cap and a surgical mask, and enters the back door of a bank. He announces that this is a robbery and that everyone will be killed if they don’t give him the money. One hand holds a white plastic trash bag for the money. The other hand is kept concealed beneath the black garbage bag, suggesting a weapon. The tellers give him the money. He flees.

The police station is about four blocks away, and they are alerted immediately. A cop in a police car spots the running suspect immediately. Another cop on a motorcycle heads him off. The suspect, having discarded the black garbage bag and mask, is cornered about six blocks from the bank outside a warehouse, ordered to stop and get on the ground. More cops arrive. He falls to his knees, drops the white trash bag full of money, and is eventually handcuffed on the ground.

His disguise proved to be futile. The assistant bank manager recognizes him immediately from his white socks (he had removed his blue sneakers because he thought they were more recognizable), grey pants, and general build. The cops have their suspect—he was seen fleeing the bank, he has the money and he matches the description of the tellers. The bank’s surveillance cameras catch the suspect from two different angles. No gun is found.

When the suspect is taken to the jail and read his rights, he confesses, admitting that the whole thing was a stupid mistake. The jury hears all this evidence: first from the bank employees, who were terrified after he threatened to kill them; then the cops, who detail their attempts to stop the fleeing suspect and his subsequent arrest. The surveillance tapes are shown, the taped confession is played.

The prosecuting attorney is thorough. She has a solid case. The defense attorney is perfunctory. He establishes that at no time do the bank employees or the cops see a gun in the possession of his client. But otherwise, he mounts no defense. He has no opening remarks, he brings forth no witnesses, offers no closing remarks. It is clear that his client is guilty of the crime for which he has been accused.

The jury is called to deliberate. Why are we here, we ask? Apparently, the bank robber wanted his day in court. We have given him a week of our lives from 8:30 to noon, listened patiently to all the evidence presented. We all feel a bit sorry for the fellow. He seems, from his confession, to be an intelligent man. He went to college, but made a couple bad choices, and ended up on the street, broke and homeless; figured he was owed the money by society and decided to rob a bank to get it. He thought that this bank looked easy. It was. But in a small city like Eureka, where the police station is only a few blocks from downtown, easy is one thing, but getting away with it is another.

And then there are the bank employees to consider. They will carry the scars for a very long time. Their post-traumatic stress is very real–tears were shed in the telling of their stories. The bank robber didn’t realize that he didn’t need to be threatening to get them to hand over the money. A note would have done the trick. Threatening them with violence was a big mistake. You can see that the bank robber also realizes this as he listens to their stories. Until now, he has been smiling at us, trying to elicit a bit of sympathy. Now his eyes turn elsewhere.

We find him guilty of first degree robbery and resisting arrest. We hope the time spent behind bars will give him time to reflect on his life, and cause him to make better decisions when he gets out. Though finding him guilty, we all more or less wish him well. This is a jury that has come to a quick agreement, but is glad it isn’t involved in the sentencing. The defendant terrorized the bank tellers with his threats, but ultimately didn’t seem to want to do anyone harm. There is no bravado in his confession. Clearly, he knows he screwed up. We all know he screwed up.

This is the third jury I have served on. In its own way, it is the strangest one of them all.

–Greg Shepard

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