I haven’t been to work on a regular basis for almost two months. Really since just before New Year’s. I took a few days off between Christmas and New Years, like most people, and then came to work January 3rd. I reminded my boss that I was called for Federal Jury Duty on January 11th and that I’d see her on the 12th, because really, who would pick me for a jury?
I should have known better. Actually, I should have just read the jury summons letter which laid out a few facts pretty clearly:
- The date: January 11th was the second Tuesday after New Years. In the past I’d been called for jury duty on Fridays or the week before Christmas when no trial is actually going to begin. The 2nd Tuesday after New Years is precisely when you schedule a trial to begin when you don’t want any prolonged holidays in your way.
- My juror number was 0007. That’s a good number if you’re in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but a bad omen for jury service. It meant I was at the very front of the line to get put on a panel.
- The letter said I was being called for a trial that could “last eight weeks.” Now I did pretty well on the reading comprehension portion of the SAT, but for some reason when I read that sentence I understood that the trial could “last eight weeks” in the same way that pretty much every erectile dysfunction medication advertised on television “could” cause “heart attack, stroke or death.” Yeah, it could, but what are the odds of that or an erection lasting more than four hours? Same goes for a trial lasting eight weeks. What are the odds, really?
I showed up at the courthouse in Gree*nbelt on the appointed morning with plenty of time, and there was already a large crowd assembled. In fact, there were a lot of people. So many people, that I figured that the odds of me landing on a 12-person jury panel just based on the sheer number of possible jurors had to be pretty small. In my prior jury duty experiences I hadn’t even made it out of the waiting room. When they began playing a video about “what to expect while on jury duty” that included several actors I knew from the Washington theater scene in their mid-to-late 90s hairdos, I was reassured that this wouldn’t be too different.
Unfortunately, instead of being left alone to read my book, I was quickly placed at the front of a line (#0007) and marched up to the courtroom of Judge Roger T1*tus. This was the first disappointment, because one of the other judges in Greenbelt is the uncle of one of my old college friends, and I was counting on being able to escape jury duty with a few colorful anecdotes about Nephew Jesse’s trips to the local Indian reservation casino and the time he cornered the market on soda in his dorm and jacked-up the price.
They had us sit in the courtroom’s audience seats while the attorneys stared at us. I was in the front row, practically nose to nose with one of the defense attorneys who kept meticulous notes on what she was seeing in the faces of the prospective jury. At one point we were asked whether we had any relatives who were lawyers and I dutiful got up and mentioned that my father, brother, father-in-law and uncle were all attorneys. I added for good measure that my sister was in law school and my cousin was an assistant District Attorney in Manhattan. Then I sat down and waited to be excused.
Instead, after a few hours of waiting I was invited into the jury box and given a new label, “Juror #3” (a promotion!) and told that we would be together for 6-8 weeks. Opening arguments began at 9 am the next day.
What can I say about the trial? In the end it only lasted six weeks. A total of 23 days in the courthouse — we lost one day to snow and the trial didn’t meet on Mondays so the judge could attend to other matters. The case included three defendants on trial, and an additional defendant connected to the case but receiving a separate trial for reasons that were not revealed to us until afterward. Each defendant was charged with 15 counts of wire fraud, 1 count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and 1 count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. There was an 18th count of perjury against one of the defendants. In the end that’s 52 separate counts that we had to decide on.
The case concerned a Ponzi scheme that was based out of Prince George*s County but eventually spread all over the country. The deal was that people were being convinced to buy or refinance their homes to get $50,000 – $100,000 of cash out of the loan and turn the money over to a company called Metr0 Drea*m H0m*es (also went by the name P0S Dre*am H0m*es). The money would be used by MDH to purchase ATMs, video screens to display advertising and something called a “Touch and Buy” (essentially a vending machine for pre-paid calling and debit cards). The income generated from those machines would be used to pay the investor’s mortgage at an accelerated rate so that the entire loan would be paid off in 5-7 years. Except, that there were no ATMs, no paid advertising on the video screens, no significant income coming from the Touch and Buys. The only money being used to pay mortgages was new investor money to pay the old investor obligations. It was an affinity scheme that catered mostly to upper-middle class African Americans who had the good credit necessary to obtain the financing. The organization had a charity arm that gave away thousands of dollars in high-profile ceremonies in order to woo new investors with the apparent success its generosity evidenced. The operation used the language and culture of African American churches to bestow a kind of divine glow on what was essentially a shell game. The whole thing came crashing down when the Washington Post blew the lid on the scheme in August of 2007. Hundreds of people lost their homes, went into foreclosure and declared personal bankruptcy. Retirees went back to work. As victim after victim was put on the stand it was just sad.
But wire fraud is an incredibly technical crime to prove, so in addition to the moving testimony about the scam and its effects, were hours and hours of looking at canceled checks, bank statements, deposit slips and FedWire transaction sheets. It was clear early on that An*drew W1ll1ams, the mastermind of the scheme, was a total shit and deserved to go to jail for a very long time. Unfortunately, Andy W1ll1ams was being tried in a separate trial and we had to determine to what extent three lesser figures: the CFO, the company president and the chief marketing officer were involved the scheme. Were they just another of the victims taken in by Andy W1ll1ams’ snake-oil show? Or were they knowing participants in a fraud?
In the end, we convicted the CFO, the President and the Chief Marketing Officer on all counts. We concluded that even if they didn’t know the operation was a fraud to begin with, there was compelling evidence that they learned the truth early enough to erase any reasonable doubt. Oddly enough, the CFO represented himself in the trial and ended up introducing the piece of evidence that convinced us of his and his co-defendants’ guilt. It was a report he prepared for Andy W1ll1ams before he began working for him, basically laying out that the operation could easily be called a scam unless it was majorly reorganized. He then became the CFO and while some of the administrative elements of the organization were streamlined, the scheme basically operated in the same way as before, with new investor money being used to pay old investor obligations. Then in an amazing act of hubris, the CFO lied about that very fact in court and got himself a bonus charge of perjury. It was all very sobering.
I will say that I really enjoyed my fellow jurors. It was an amazing group consisting of every type of person including an HVAC technician, an HR director for a major hospital, a civilian engineer for the Navy, a teacher’s assistant, a social worker, a government lawyer, a retired union electrician, a church administrator and a personal trainer — just to name a few. We laughed a lot, shared food and good conversation. There really wasn’t a person who got on my nerves, even after six weeks together. That was kind of a miracle.
In the end, we took the deliberations very seriously, going over all the evidence and examining every reasonable doubt raised by the defense as well as several of our own before coming to a verdict at the end of the second day.
Now I have to go back to work — I haven’t really stopped, just adjusted my hours and done a lot more work over the phone and from home in the evenings. But still, I’m going back to my routine. It will take some getting used to.
So that ends the sabbatical I never expected to take. It’s given me a renewed faith in our system of justice (and an additional skepticism about the banks that approved ridiculous loans that made both the scam and our current recession possible). I really admire Judge T1tus and thought he did a great job with the trial. He came back to the jury room after the verdict to thank us and answered some of our questions, including why we hadn’t seen certain major players in the scheme (they had plead guilty and pleaded the fifth). While I wouldn’t want to do another six week trial (and don’t necessarily recommend it to you), I would encourage people not to run away from jury duty. It is part of maintaining a civil society and it does feel good to know you did your part.
Oh, and if you do end up on the wrong side of the law, never ever ever represent yourself.