The Jaws That Bite,
The Claws That Catch
Conversations in Prison
Gary Brooks Waid
Chapter Two: Jerome's Story
Jerome Street was arrested and convicted on a conspiracy rap. That is, he wasn't actually caught with anything. He was ratted on by some of the guys he sold crack to. As a nineteen-year-old street dealer, he didn't understand exactly what federal conspiracy laws were about, and because he felt there was no real evidence against him - no cocaine or paraphernalia - he decided to go to trial. His court-appointed lawyer, one of many in the public defender's office, had ample reason to discourage him, but did not. In a perfect example of the inattentive communication between indigent clients and their lawyers, the man wasn't able to persuade Street that he was in any real danger of conviction. Street remained unconvinced even when he was told that no physical evidence was necessary and that proof could be wholly represented by a man's testimony. The days of solid evidence were long in the past, and eyewitnesses or even hearsay testimony worked fine in the courtroom of the nineties. Even so, Street reasoned that anyone he sold drugs to would have to testify in court in front of a jury, and these witnesses were all addicts - unreliable, uneducated jailbirds - whose word would have to be considered suspect.
The prosecuting attorney, Dick Smith, tried to make a deal, but there was so much time involved - ten years - that Jerome wouldn't budge. Imagine how ten years in jail must seem to a nineteen-year-old kid. Anyway, any time you take your case to trial instead of accepting a plea, you run the risk of angering the prosecution, and that's what Street was doing. At this point, the Public Defender should have talked to Street. He should have made a special effort on his client's behalf. He should have been candid and brutal and told him the truth - made him look at the truth. But the Public Defender's office is stretched to its limit just trying to deal with all the pleas and paperwork from the hundreds of cases it oversees, and Street was overlooked. There's no way proper representation could come from such an ineffective, inundated staff. The lawyer should have said, "Look, you're Black. You don't present the proper appearance. Your demeanor will scare the jury. You're just what the prosecutor looks for in a defendant. He will eat us up. Don't do this." Failing that, he should have gotten Street's attention any way he could: "Hey, you dumb mother____, you're going DOWN."
But Street was never forced to look at the whole picture. For some reason, he had no respect for his opponent's ability to construct a credible case. He told Zeus and me that, in his interview with Smith, when a deal was still being talked about, he laughed in Smith's face. Can you imagine? Someone older - more worldly - surely would have known better. Bet Jerome didn't think about the possibility that to a white man his eyes, his speech and his brooding look displayed a sinister bearing that would work against him in a public forum. And now, by laughing, he had really pissed off the prosecutor.
As the court date drew nearer, Jerome became more and more confident even though Smith had added extra charges to the original indictment. Sometimes the penalty for taking your case to trial is either more time or more charges, and Street felt that while the prosecutor's blatant choreography was a low blow, anyone could see through Smith's ploy. He would be vindicated. The whole court would see that all those additional trumped-up offenses were bullshit. He still thought he couldn't lose. He still believed. In the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, he retained a misplaced confidence in the system. He didn't realize that by angering Dick Smith, he had ruined his chances for a fair trial. Inmate Jerome Street had inadvertently converted what he thought was a legal issue into an adversarial confrontation, one in which rules of evidence were less important than results.
In the middle district of Florida, juries are almost never a collection of your peers. They tend to be populated with older, usually retired professional or middle-level blue- and white-collar citizens. Former cops, teachers, clerks and mechanics are only sprinkled with the occasional younger Black man or woman. This is because the population base tends to be older down here, and also younger people are usually busy working and raising families. It stacks the deck against guys like Street because retired folks are apt to be afraid of the image he invokes even before they hear anything. They see the degradation of their neighborhoods and blame a generic stereotype very much like Jerome. Keep in mind also that under federal law, no jury can be told of the sentence or other penalties their verdicts might signal. A guilty verdict will get the dealer off the street, and lengths of time are never revealed. At the end of the day, the good citizens go home confident that they've done the right thing, not realizing they have just put a boy away for twenty years on a first offense. During the jury selection, Street saw the unusual proportion of older people and was beginning to be alarmed, but with the bravado of youth, decided to ignore it. Maybe at this point, he still might have been able to pull out, but he didn't, and the trial began.
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