Portraits of those we met

By Phil Basso, Deputy Executive Director, APHSA VIEWS 2

If this happened in an affluent place in DC, it would never have gotten to us...


(This is part 6 of an ongoing series, Structural Inequities in the Criminal Justice System: A Personal Account.)


You might think that over the course of five weeks and 73 cases, like the ones I described in week 2 of this blog series, our grand jury would have become numb to the people involved. Despite the fact that we would sometimes use gallows humor during breaks to de-stress, or joke about the mannerisms or colloquialisms of this or that witness, we never lost sight of the fact that these were real people feeling real pain. I’m ever-thankful to every one of my fellow jurors for their deep humanity even though we sometimes sharply disagreed.


There were lessons to be learned from each of these cases and there was an overarching lesson too. I recently shared with a friend my sense of PTSD and not being able to move past it. She reminded me that what I cannot “move past” is actually beautiful in the sense that I can no longer dispense empathy and disregard painful things taking place in my community. According to this friend, “it makes the knowing worth the pain, as we can become more tender and compassionate beings.” I think she’s right. So I’m no longer trying to move past these and other profiles from my community:


Mom. One of our first cases. A young mom who was street smart and street tough. She was a witness to her own assault by a recent boyfriend. Near the end of her testimony she looked to our jury, tears rolling down, and begged us to help her find another place to live so she could focus on her kids’ education and getting a good job.


Bird of Prey. Some witnesses came before us in orange jump suits and shackles. This man in his 50s had seen it all. He looked at us with the curiosity and quiet intensity of a bird of prey. At first he scared me but by the end of his testimony I realized he was just a quiet, introspective man, aware of and accepting his fate in life with stoicism and a well-schooled alertness to the next situation where he’d have to glide away or attack.


Zac. My son’s name. He’s in the Marine Corps which was a reasonable decision on his part given his limited “executive functioning” capacity. This witness, also in shackles, spoke in the same cadence and determined but easygoing tone of my own son. He was able to repeat from memory five different accounts of a carjacking gone to murder, told to him at different times. His accounts were so consistent yet at the same time so varied and nuanced that they broke my heart, thinking of his lost, brilliant potential.


Off Duty Guard. A man supports his wife and two daughters, one with severe learning disabilities. The other daughter befriends a loafer who refuses to leave this man’s house for months. He finally calls the police who briefly visit and tell him there’s nothing they can do. Thirty minutes later, 911 is called on a shooting and cold-blooded murder. The man who was licensed and trained to use a firearm at work to protect others’ property will no longer be able to protect or occupy his own home. We voted to indict this man with great reluctance.


Responsible Family. On TV certain families from hard places can be depicted as loony, irresponsible, and full of drama. Upon discovery of their 16-year-old son’s involvement in a high-profile shooting being broadcast on the local news, this family gathers up their son and turns him in. They stay with him and support him as he faces multiple felony indictments but never waver in their conviction that their son needs to learn responsibility. This from one of DC’s “bad neighborhoods.”


Phone and Metal Pipe Pals. Two 20-something friends get into a cell phone beef, with one taking the others’ phone and running away with it. The other friend chases him into an alleyway where phone thief picks up a metal pipe to back away his temporary foe. A 911 call sets the process in motion for a multi-count felony indictment request, including the parents for obstruction of justice. Our jury voted this one down, not due to the probable cause test, but because if this happened in an affluent place in DC, it would never have gotten to us.


Both the accused and the victims we came to know often brought us pain and sorrow—the “knowing” so eloquently understood by my friend. But they also brought us hope and inspiration. Especially victims of abuse and the children we met, who at times were shrugging off what we could hardly hear. I want to thank them all for helping me to become a better person, even though that was never their interest or intention. Even though they didn’t deserve to help me in this way.  


*This is part 6 of an ongoing series, Structural Inequities in the Criminal Justice System: A Personal Account. You can catch up here and check back every Friday for more.