Last week I pulled jury duty, and to my great surprise, was picked for a jury. But that was only the first of many surprises I’d experience on my slow trip down the abandoned dirt road we call the criminal justice system.
I don’t know if it’s the general inconvenience, or the fact that most civilians entering the Criminal Justice Center are there on unpleasant business, but no one was very happy to be there, and took their displeasure out on the sheriff’s deputies monitoring the entrance, and each other.
Once you’re picked for a jury, the real fun begins. Two things to note going in: First, you’re going to spend a lot more time in the jury room with your fellow jurors than you’ll spend in the courtroom listening to testimony. That’s just the nature of the beast. So get to know, and try hard to like, the other members of your panel. And second, get used to being referred to by number, since your name is now gone and forgotten. I was juror number nine.
I was picked for a murder trial in the courtroom of Judge Shelley Robins-New, who appeared to run a tight ship, but was fair-minded and put the best face possible on an experience she knew would leave a sour taste on our palates for quite some time.
In February 2008, a young man named Ronald Saunders was shot and killed outside the Easy Corner bar in Mantua, a tough West Philly neighborhood known as “The Bottom.”
Saunders, the prosecutor admitted up front, was no angel. According to testimony, Saunders was a street corner drug dealer with a quick temper and a propensity for violence. When he was killed, he was carrying a $1,200 bankroll and a loaded 9mm handgun.
Despite the late hour, about 1:15 am, there were at least a dozen people in the Easy Corner, drinking and partying — at least until shots rang out just outside the door.
That’s when as many folks scattered as could get out of there in a hurry, and the remaining patrons developed an acute case of hysterical blindness coupled with selective amnesia. By the time police arrived, no one saw anything, no one could identify either victim or shooter, and no one wanted to get involved.
I understand their reluctance to tell what they saw. Witness intimidation and retaliation is real in Philadelphia, and we have the headstones to prove it. Elsewhere in this edition, crime reporter Larry Miller is covering a story of just how pervasive witness retaliation is, and why witnesses, and their families, feel more like sitting ducks than community heroes.
With few clues, and no reliable witnesses, the trail of Saunders killer had gone cold. Then, more than a year after the shooting, a couple of jailhouse snitches, eager to reduce their own sentences by making a deal, fingered another neighborhood corner boy, Tyree Berry, as the killer.
As Berry sat silent in the defendant’s chair, the prosecutor trotted out a series of jump-suited “witnesses” fresh from the cell block, who claimed second- or third-hand knowledge of Berry’s guilt. Their testimony was so full of lies and ridiculous claims, that even if there were a kernel of truth buried somewhere deep under their pile of fabrications, it would have been impossible to find.
There was no physical evidence, no murder weapon, no ballistics evidence, no DNA and not one credible witness — nothing to put Berry in the Easy Corner bar that night, nothing to put a gun in his hand, and nothing proving he’s the one who pumped two bullets into Saunders — the last one administered as the shooter stood over the body, coup de grace style.
We the jury found Berry not guilty, mostly because the state failed miserably to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. We also agreed that it probably wasn’t the prosecutor’s fault — she had been handed a bag of lemons from the outset.
But someone casually snatched Ronald Saunders life away from him. That someone counted on the scared silence of the people in that bar, and gambled correctly. They also counted on society’s collective willingness to shrug our shoulders and turn a blind eye when one drug-dealing corner boy kills another. Again, they gambled right. There were no protestors outside the CJC, no outraged community gathering, and no “Justice for Ronald Saunders” T-shirts.
That trigger-happy someone is now freely walking the streets of Philadelphia, and having gotten away with murder once, probably won’t hesitate to do it again.
And that fact will cause Number Nine a few sleepless nights.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.