No one wants to serve on a jury. You especially do not want to serve if it’s a murder case. But that’s where I found myself last week, sitting on a jury in a criminal case against a man charged with eight felonies, one of them felony murder. By the time I was called, both prosecutors and defense lawyers had used up all their challenges. Nothing I could have said would have gotten me off. You’re against capital punishment? Too bad. You have a family member you believe was not treated fairly by the legal system? Sorry about that. You recently hired illegal Mexicans to work at your house? (The case would involve illegal Guatemalans.) No matter what, I was on the jury.
Jarron King, the defendant, sat directly across from me. He was a young black man, nicely dressed, hair so short it might have been shaved. There was one discordant thing about him: he was wearing a bright orange dress shirt. Why, I wondered, would anyone choose to put him in a shirt the color of a prison jumpsuit? What were his attorneys thinking?
The first witness was a young man who’d come to the United States from Guatemala seven years ago. An interpreter sat in the witness box beside him; he spoke English but was not fluent. Through the interpreter he told of a party at the apartment of Giovanni Sanchez. Giovanni, his brother Leopoldo, and a few of their friends had gathered to celebrate Giovanni’s birthday. They were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Giovanni was playing the guitar.
Giovanni, Leopoldo, and two other men lived in a one-room apartment on Thompson Place in Nashville. The building was once a motel. The rooms, now called “efficiencies,” were mostly rented to Hispanics. There was a bathroom, but no kitchen. They hung sheets to provide some measure of privacy. They picked up whatever day work they could; painting, masonry, landscaping, construction. They had no bank accounts. They spoke little English. When they accumulated enough cash, they bought money orders and sent what they’d been able to save home to their families.
I sat and listened while four young Guatemalan men testified to what happened on the night of November 21, 2008, at the apartment of Giovanni Sanchez. One by one they took the stand and told their stories. They kept their eyes downcast. They did not look at Jarron King nor at the defense attorneys. On occasion they looked at the interpreter. There were no drugs, no hard liquor, they all said. Just music, beer, and cigarettes. Not cigars, one of the witnesses corrected his translator. Cigarettes. Marlboro’s, he added.
Someone suggested they hire a prostitute. It seemed a good idea. Giovanni knew one. Her name was Amber Watts, aka Holly Long. She came to the apartment, collected $25.00 from those who were willing to pay for the service she provided, took them behind the curtain. Two of the witnesses admitted they had sex with her. We jurors, sitting so close to them, could feel their shame. I thought of their mothers back in Guatemala, their families, their religion.
Before they went behind the curtain, they had to pay her. They took out their wallets and handed her the money. She saw the bills stacked there. When she’d finished her job she took out her cell phone and made a call. Then she stood by the door.
The Guatemalans saw her making the call, heard her talking on the phone, but did not understand what she was saying.
There was a knock on the door. Amber opened it. Two black men came in. Their faces were covered. Each had a gun. Put your wallets on the table, they ordered. The Guatemalans did not understand, at first. But Leopoldo did, and he objected. One of the gunmen hit him on the head with the butt of his gun. Leopoldo fell to the floor. Giovanni came to his brother’s defense. He swung his guitar at the man who hit Leopoldo. The gunman shot Giovanni in the head. Someone dropped down to check on the two fallen men. They shot him in the back.
One of the Guatemalans did not want to give up his wallet. They hit him over the head. The prosecutor asked him to walk in front of the jury box. He did. We saw the scar across his scalp.
A neighbor named Freddie came into the apartment. He thought at first he was witnessing some kind of prank. Then he wasn’t so sure. There was a lot of blood. He stepped between the two gunmen, walked out the door. There was a third masked gunman on the balcony. He shot Freddie in the stomach. The bullet went all the way through him. Freddie tried to get away, half-crawling, mostly falling, down the stairs.
One of the defense attorneys suggested the Guatemalans had flashed their money. No, they said. We had to open our wallets to pay the girl, and she saw the money.
Giovanni had about $1800.
Did you see any drugs?
Did Amber’s leg get stuck in the door?
Yes, someone was trying to shut the door, and her leg got stuck.
Did you see the faces of any of these gunmen?
No, Sir, they were wearing masks.
How many beers did you drink that night?
He could only shake his head.
He nodded. Yes, the interpreter said.
Two six packs?
More than that?
We broke for lunch, and it was a relief to get away from it. Those poor men. The floor slick with blood, from Giovanni, from his brother Leopoldo, the other two men. Blood on the balcony, the stairs, the sidewalk below.
The lunch hour dragged on, an hour, then two hours. Finally we were called back to the courtroom. Jarron was gone. The defense attorneys were gone. The gallery was empty. We looked to the judge for an explanation. Jarron King has pled guilty to all eight felony charges, he said. He’s been sentenced to 27 years in the penitentiary.
I asked the first question: Does 27 years mean 27 years?
Judge: He’ll have to serve at least 80% of his time.
How old is he?
He’s about to turn 18. He was 16 when this happened.
The judge had some other matters he needed to attend to, but he wanted to talk to us. If we would go back to the jury room, he’d meet us there. The defense attorneys also planned to come back.
The key to it all was Amber Watts, the judge said. She’d set the whole thing up with that phone call. She was the only one the Guatemalans could identify. When she was arrested, she admitted what she had done and identified the others. Except for her, they might have gotten away with it.
She would have been the next witness to testify, the prosecutor said. She’d been waiting in the holding tank behind the judge’s chambers. A few of our male jurors were disappointed; they’d wanted to see what a $25 hooker looked like.
She’s pretty rough-looking, the prosecutor said.
Go home and google her, I told them. Surely there’ll be a picture of her on the Internet.
(There was. And she is indeed “rough-looking.” There were also pictures of Amber’s pimp, Dewayne Shelton, and of Jarron King. In the mugshot, Jarron did not look like the same person we’d seen in the courtroom. He was wearing dreadlocks, and he was glowering at the camera.)
He confessed almost as soon as he was arrested, the prosecutor said. If the trial had gone on, you’d have heard his confession, and seen video of it.
What happened to Leopoldo, we asked.
We found him in Florida. We decided not to bring him back for the trial. He had no drivers’ license, he couldn’t fly, he’s probably illegal. He just wanted to forget what happened. We let him stay there.
What was all that testimony about Amber Watts getting her leg stuck in the door? Was she trying to get out of the apartment, or what?
We don’t know. They might have been trying to keep the gunmen from getting back into the room. We just don’t know. But she did get out, and she went off with the three gunmen. She’s been in jail since she was arrested. The others, too. Jarron King was the first to be tried.
Amber has a 5 year old daughter, he added. We didn’t ask what would become of the little girl. Nor did we ask why Jarron King was tried as an adult. He had a “juvi” record, and it stretched back a long ways, the prosecutor said.
We wondered if the black woman in the gallery was his mother. The judge thought she was, but he wasn’t certain.
The prosecutors asked if it bothered us that they’d had to use an interpreter. No, it hadn’t.
Whose idea was it to put Jarron in that orange shirt, we asked. The prosecutors shook their heads. You’ll have to ask the defense attorneys, one said.
But the defense attorneys were long gone.
We who might have sat in judgment of Jarron King had formed friendships during the time we’d been together. Yet we had little to say to one another as we made our way out of the courthouse.