(SNN) - I was thumbing through some old notes the other day and wondered whatever became of the Kid in the Mustard Yellow Suit.
I use the term “kid” advisedly; he was a high school student at the time. He’d be in his thirties now. Of all the people at that murder trial, he’s the one I’ll never forget.
Here’s the back-story: Fifteen years ago I received a letter informing me I was selected for jury duty. I fall into the “many times summonsed, rarely chosen category.” I’ve never tried to wriggle out of serving, but I rarely made it past Voir Dire.
This time I was chosen. It marked only the third time I’d been selected to help decide the legal fate of an accused fellow citizen. First time, it was a marijuana case (Not guilty.). Second was Felony Burglary (Guilty). The tiebreaker would be a charge of First Degree Murder.
As is so often the case, it was a stupid murder—senseless, useless, bewildering. A teenager had been chased down and cornered in the courtyard of his high school. He was then executed at point blank range. There were many witnesses as this took place at high noon during a crowded school lunch hour. Quick arrests had been made.
Two separate trials would try two defendants for the crime. Our jury was not deciding the fate of the shooter. Our accused young man had allegedly driven the shooter to and from the scene of the crime. The defendant’s court appointed lawyer even admitted his client was the driver, but then argued his client had no idea a crime was about to be committed, and was thus not guilty.
The defendant had not shot anyone. He had not gotten out of the car. What he had done was drive the shooter—who was carrying a long rifle with him—to the scene, stopped and let him out. The defendant then waited, engine running, for the kid with the rifle to return to the car. When he saw a foot chase that led the shooter and his victim to another part of the parking lot, the defendant drove over near where the boy was being executed and waited for his passenger to return. Once back inside the car, the defendant drove both of them away from the scene at high speed.
The driver was being tried as an accomplice under the Felony Murder Statute.
Here’s one online definition of “Felony Murder”
“Rule of Law that holds that if a killing occurs during the commission or attempted commission of a felony (a major crime), the person or persons responsible for the felony can be charged with murder.
The judge explained the law to the jury and the prosecutor took great pains to make sure we understood its implications and limitations.
The first day of the trial was mostly the prosecution laying out its case. There were charts and maps and police officers testifying as to what they believed to the best of their recollection had happened. There was some basic forensics testimony, but those ubiquitous CSI shows had not filled TV screens and changed the face of criminal justice in the minds of potential jurors.
The defendant had short hair, wore a sport coat that did not fit him well and an open collared shirt. He sat mostly expressionless as the testimony continued, but I saw his eyes were taking everything in and he was paying close attention.
His appointed attorney did what he could in his cross-examinations, but there wasn’t much for him to sink his teeth into. There had been a murder. A child was dead. His client had driven the car.
The next day, with the nuts and bolts in place, the prosecutor brought in eyewitnesses to the murder—the kids in the courtyard who had seen their classmate chased down and killed.
The Human Element
The prosecutor wanted this portion of the trial to add a human element to the proceedings. To this point the testimony had been cut and dried, unemotional, almost perfunctory. Those testifying had been professional, experienced, and in some cases jaded witnesses. This was, after all, their job. Medical examiners, detectives who caught the case, and others whose job it is to deal with the worst behavior of human kind on a daily basis, intentionally drain emotion from their testimony.
A trial runs on provable facts. Those who relate such facts seek to do so stoically, to avoid appearance of bias. As a result even the horrific can appear cut and dried.
The second day featured high school students who had been enjoying lunch in a school courtyard when one of their number was culled from the herd, chased down and murdered in cold blood.
The problem in this trial—one of the problems—was these kids still went to the high school where the murder took place. It was a high school where you hear terms like “gang-infested’ used often. And these kids were asked to be, well, snitches
All but one witness seemed to be there reluctantly. All but one failed to dress for the occasion. One young man wore a Dodgers practice jersey and a gold chain. A girl appeared in short shorts. Shorts so short that before she testified there was a sidebar, and after her testimony the kindly judge peered down over his glasses and encouraged her not to wear shorts the next time she testified in court.
If the judge caught the irony of his admonition—that testifying in court is something she might expect to do in the future—he did not so indicate.
Even accounting for normal teenage self-awareness, most appeared scared or shy or in some instances just the not-fully-formed pre-adult that inhabits the maturing body of a teenager. Most had to be reminded--sometimes repeatedly--to speak up and speak into the microphone. Several times the court reporter, lawyers, or the judge had to ask them to repeat what they'd just mumbled.
The boy in the Dodger jersey was among the most reluctant ones. When he entered the courtroom, he held his arms straight down by his sides, as if ready to perform in Lord of the Dance, only with his palms facing backward and his fingers curled into not quite a fist. At first, I thought he might be wearing shackles, and that may have been the subliminal message he wished to send. I do not want to be here, his body language fairly shouted.
He confirmed his reluctance under questioning. The DA asked if he wanted to "be here," and he replied "no." When asked why, he hesitated. "Well you know…" And we all knew.
The DA persisted but not much was forthcoming. After the lunch recess, when the boy returned, the same prosecutor’s first question was "Did I chew you out in no uncertain terms during the lunch break?"
"Yes," the boy in the Dodger shirt responded.
We learned he’d been brought to court in a police car to make sure he showed. The matter of reprisals was the elephant in the room. The thought of being turned out as a rat hung like the heavy, muggy air.
During the day, the teens came and went, testifying in their whispers and mumbles and reluctance and with their downcast gazes. None of them attempted to make eye contact with the Defendant. The prosecutions tactic, if not exactly backfiring, didn’t seem to be helping his case.
It was obvious all the students had been prepped—overly prepared in some cases—by the prosecutor. One appeared so anxious to get it over with and get off the stand he’d take a question and run with it like a horse with the bit in his teeth. Once the DA said, "Wait, I have to ask the question before you answer it.”
At times the witnesses to the murder would be asked to rise and approach an easel where diagrams and photos of the murder scene had been placed. The prosecutor, using different colored magic markers, drew in boxes in the diagram representing automobiles, X's marking spots, initials noting the place where the witness stood when the crime took place.
Through the whispers and the arrows and the boxes, the banality of a child's murder was being laid out with technical precision. But still the emotion of the horrific event had not really taken hold.
The overworked air-conditioning in the courtroom forced some jurors to fight to remain conscious. The monotonous answers, reluctantly given, started to blend together.
"Overkill," I wrote down in my notebook, as I tried to stay awake.
Finally the DA announced there would be a final witness.
The Kid Enters
Enter the Kid in the Mustard Yellow Suit. He appeared to be a few years older that the earlier witnesses. He dressed in his Sunday-Go-to-Meeting best. His suit was a single-breasted job, cleaned and well pressed, a special occasion outfit that undoubtedly was the height of fashion in some places.
The fact that he chose to wear a suit at all made a statement. Other than the attorneys and the defendant, he was the only one in the courtroom wearing a jacket. Without saying a word, he conveyed more authority than Dodger jersey guy or shorts girl.
Unlike his peers, he did not shuffle into the courtroom, but walked smoothly, a task to be done. When he sat, he did not slouch. When he spoke, his voice could be heard from the first word to the back of the room. His hair was recently cut. It looked good, unlike the over-quaffed ‘do of the appointed attorney, the stubbly dome of the defendant, or the too-busy-for-a-trim prosecutor.
The Kid in the Mustard Yellow Suit answered each question without evasion. He was direct. He did not ramble. He’d seen almost everything happen that day. As intended, his testimony added another layer of veracity to the prosecution arguments, clarifying and backing up with strong-voiced certainty what had been reluctantly muttered by other witnesses.
As he testified he did not hesitate to look back at the defendant. He would not be stared down. The Defendant broke his gaze away first.
It was late afternoon and the Kid was almost finished. I suspected the judge would break for the night and let the defense start fresh the next day. But before that could happen, something extraordinary took place.
I doubt the prosecutor had any idea what was coming, when, as he had done before with each witness, he picked up “Exhibit B” and held it for a few seconds. “Exhibit B” was a police photograph taken of the murder victim, lying on his side, motionless, a pool of blood formed beneath his head and a rivulet leading away.
The DA then crossed to the Kid in the Mustard Yellow Suit, photograph of the murdered boy in hand.
The day before, a blank-faced, Russian-accented coroner had glanced at the same photograph and explained without emotion what a bullet from close range can do to a human brain, and we in the jury box took notes.
An efficient detective handed the photograph back quickly, then delineated the timeline of the murder and we took notes.
A forensics expert took a look and explained what they had found at the scene, and we took notes.
We took notes when the mumblers and whisperers talked, too--although I spotted a few doodles on some notebooks.
Our jury was a polyglot of race and sex and age and background. The only thing we had in common was we had been approved by both counsels and the judge as competent enough to make a fair decision. More than one comedian has called a trial the opportunity for criminals “to be judged by a jury of their peers who are not bright enough to get out of Jury Duty.”
The trial to that point was—well—dull. No cries of J’accuse! No Perry Mason moments, nothing memorable. But that was about to change.
The prosecutor handed “Exhibit B” to The Kid in the Mustard Yellow Suit, and stepped back.
“Take your time,” he said, ready to resume questioning.
We watched the kid look at the picture. At first there was no change of expression. We waited for him to hand the photograph back and the questions to resume.
The first thing that happened was a subtle change in his posture. The erect shoulders hunched, his head moved forward and his neck seemed to retract. He squinted, as if to get a closer look. Then, as much as it is possible for a human to do, he shrunk some more, growing smaller in the witness chair as his arms pulled in, and he bent forward in a protective posture.
The photo fell from his hands, diving for the floor, until it caught an air current, leveled off and skittered to a halt. Then the boy’s face, so impassive and confident an instant earlier, collapsed in on itself. His eyes squeezed shut, his mouth opened and closed as he tried to catch his breath. Then a keening sound emerged from deep inside him, a sound as if from a jungle far off at night, or a baby’s cry too nearby.
And then the Kid in the Mustard Yellow Suit started to sob.
Statistics, judges rulings and objections, restating of questions, crosses and summaries all the “may it please the courts” and charts and graphs and X’s and O’s and witnesses before him had not conveyed the horror of what had happened in that school courtyard that day like the Kid in the Yellow Suit did in that instant.
He was no long a dressed up young man on the cusp of adulthood testifying on a witness stand, he was a boy crying his eyes out, a child weeping over events beyond his control or comprehension.
We never found out what relationship he might have had with the murdered child. We didn’t know if his tears were of loss, or resignation, or simply the realization that his life would never be the same. Innocence lost, despair begun. We did not know. We did not need to know.
The suddenness and power of his tears cut through the fetid air, the legal positioning, the strategizing, the careful wording, the adherence to the rules of evidence and interpretations of the letter of the law. That was some liquid Truth coursing down his face.
There was a search for tissues, some visitors to this courtroom started crying too, and the judge called a recess. We were hustled out of the courtroom and when we returned, the recomposed young man was there only long enough to hear “No further questions, your honor” from the DA and a decision by the Defense not to cross—how to you cross examine tears?
Then the Kid in the Mustard Yellow Suit left the court, never to appear again.
The prosecution rested. The next morning the defense took over. The defendant did not testify on his own behalf.
I cannot remember a single item from closing arguments and soon we were back in the jury room for deliberations. I will not get into the issues of Felony Murder and its rightfulness or wrongheadedness. The law was clear.
We realized the state had laid out its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Two of the 12 jurors hesitated, as if anxious to drag out the inevitable. But it did not take long for their minds to change and a verdict to be reached. So said we one. So said we all.
After the verdict was formally voted upon and the forms filled out by the foreperson, there were more tears--this time in the jury room. The dead teen’s life was over, of course, and now, for all intents and purposes the defendant’s life would be, too.
There would be future collateral damage, undoubtedly. No witness to the crime in that courtyard would be the same person they were before their classmate was murdered.
When I came upon my notes about the trial, recently, I found myself wondering how life for the Kid in the Mustard Yellow Suit turned out. I’d like to think he went on to success and happiness.
I wonder, too, if he kept the suit as a reminder of the brave moment where he stood up for what he believed in, spoke up, and then became overwhelmed by his own emotions.
I’d like to think that somewhere he is teaching his own children about integrity, bravery and standing up for what you believe.
And to be perfectly honest, I hope someone sat him down and talked to him about the benefits of owning a nice charcoal grey, well tailored, bespoke suit.
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