jury duty

When you tell people you've been selected for jury duty, they pity you because of the hours wasted waiting to be selected/rejected, or the days lost if you're actually chosen. When you're chosen, however, and you tell people you're on a murder trial, they perk up and act like you've won the justice system lottery. Drug deals and B&E are dull; civil trials, wherein you decide if someone built their fence too far onto their neighbor's property, are the kiss of death. But murder... Everyone wants to be on a murder trial. Murder is the sweetest plum.

The plum is a prune. You don't want to be on a murder trial. If you want to live a quiet, ordinary life, you do not want to be on a murder trial. I may exaggerate a wee bit in the brief few days after 11 fellow Americans and I determined a man's fate, but I'll always remember this experience as one of the bigger decisions I've made.

Day one, and the prosecutors left their docket folder out for everyone to see. "Kane, Robert: 1st degree Murder Victim: Abraham Slovek." I grew queasy. "Death Penalty" was the first thing I thought. Short of passing sentence on some SOB who cornholed and diced up 20 girl scouts in his bathtub, I could never comfortably serve on a death penalty trial. The judge let us know upfront that it wasn't. When it is, I imagine they lose a lot of people during the selection: the bleeding hearts want nothing to do with it, the give-'em-the-chair crowd want too desperately to be in the box. I relaxed a little, but I still knew the odds were against me. I've been called to jury duty five times in my life, and I've never been selected. Today, I knew, was the day.

The selection process was familiar. Six people just happened to be going on vacation that week. One guy specified that he had reservations for Sybaris, a cheesed-out, "romantic," whirlpool bath hideaway. He was excused because it would have been too costly to cancel, though later the judge told us that he excused him partially because that was a brand-new excuse for him, and he'd heard many in his career. The other vacation rejections were the typical whiners who just happened to be heading out to Wisconsin/the Bahamas/West Virginia/Europe/Easter Island over the next few days. Tickets bought and everything. Once in a lifetime opportunity. Sorry, judge, just can't do it.

As with every jury selection I've participated in, there were two twitchy psychos. The minute you see them, you know not only will they be excused, they'll tell a long, drawn-out story before dismissal. One guy—sandy-haired, droopy mustached, living at the YMCA, and crawling out of his skin—told the judge that he loved cops because they saved him after he'd been mugged by two guys who'd beaten him with beer bottles, but he hated cops because they busted him for playing with the emergency button on the subway. When a plain-clothes cop arrested him and didn't show him a badge right away, he panicked, thinking he was being kidnapped. Yah, you bet, Norman Bates. Out you go.

I didn't want to be picked, but I wasn't a baby about it. I answered all the questions with a "yes sir" or "no sir." I find "Your honor" weird and archaic, but I think the man in the robe is still due some respect. Most of the potential jurors couldn't be bothered, lazily saying, "Yeah" or "Nah" to everything the judge said. Maybe I'm too jingoistic, but I really, really, REALLY hated it when some doofus was excused, and he or she thanked the judge. I wanted to grab them by their collars, stare them down, and say "He's not doing you a favor, you lazy shits." I suppose I was a big enough cipher for both prosecution and defense. Notably, for once, when I said I was a writer, I wasn't admonished by the judge or lawyers with a, "Now, you don't plan to write about this during the course of the trial, do you, Mr. Kelly?" It's happened before.

When they say speedy trial, you get a speedy trial. You may have to wait years for it to finally arrive, but when it does, it goes by quick. Unless, of course, you're on the jury. As they say, you get a lot of reading done. I polished off two books, and I worked on my own. I finished up my article for my friend Donna's zine Book Happy, but not as quickly as I would have liked. I had to leave the Palm Pilot and portable keyboard at home. No electronic devices of any kind are allowed in the jury room. Nor newspapers, magazines, phones, or TVs. Fine with me. I'd like to turn my own home into a media-free jury room sometimes.

My fellow jurors were nice, if perfectly ordinary people. As I said before, many were far too loud, but none of them were hateful. I couldn't think of a single social situation I'd want to be in with any of them. Some were more interesting than others. Antonio was Mexican, and while fluent in English he had trouble with technical terms during the trial. He spoke to the others even less than I did. I didn't warm to Sam too much. He was a dashing young teacher with a fondness for sweater vests. He smelled of Northshore money, and was more aloof than shy. I liked Michelle. I warm to tough middle-aged broads from the Southside because I worked with a lot of them while growing up. I also liked her story of fighting off a Rottweiller that attacked her and her dog the previous weekend.

The others... I don't remember much about them. I can see their faces, hear their voices, but I can't place a personality to them beyond the volume at which they spoke. I told Mike how amazing it was to me that you can take 12 strangers and plop them in a room for several days, and they can't NOT speak to each other. Me too, yes, though I hate chitchat. I realize we're social animals, but the 12 of us had nothing to do with each other, other than that we were all Cook County residents and we voted. The only common conversational thread was about how severely Chicago's schools suck. My eyes rolled into my head when everyone excitedly compared one school with another. I'm married to a teacher and find myself surrounded by teachers. Guess what they talk about?

Every. Single. Time.

So, the trial.

Abraham Slovek, the victim, was a 79-year-old retiree just out of the hospital. He was a fixture in his 50th Street neighborhood. One of those doddering coots every neighborhood has, who spends hid dying years at a local diner or restaurant, gumming a bowl of cream of chicken soup. The restaurant in question was Cinderella's, a hang-out spot for Mr. Slovek and Mr. Kane. Robert Kane is a 53-year-old guy with a shriveled apple head, scruffy beard, slicked-down hair, and a bad blue suit they probably made him wear. Kane was described as a handyman and craftsman by his attorney. He looked more like a carney or oddjob man, which is really what he was. I'm glad they told us that Kane is 53, because he looked about as old and haggard as Slovek did. Kane looked harmless, though not much like a fellow you'd want to sit next to on a bus.

He looked used up, gummy, wiry, and runny. Like an old farmer reduced by hard living to bone and sinew. We heard Kane speak once during the entire trial. He said good morning during the introductions. We were to decide his fate without even a conversation with the man.

State's Attorneys Carol O'Hanley and Roy Hatch looked younger than me, or at least around my age (35); state's attorneys aren't supposed to be my age yet, sigh. Hatch looked like a somewhat butcher Dave Foley from Kids in the Hall. O'Hanley was short, zaftig, blonde, well-groomed, and prone to a expression of grave seriousness that made her look like a frowning pug. For the defense we had Mr. Wayland—whose first name has slipped my mind—who appeared too much like a weaselly defense attorney. He was bald, with a wrap of hair around the back and sides, and he had small glasses he peered over when making a supercilious point. All the lawyers, especially when they delivered their arguments, sounded like they'd seen too many TV shows about lawyers.

Judge Michael Hilton reminded me a lot of Mayor Daley. That's because they're both educated Chicagoans who still have enough of a Chicago accent to make you feel like they're secretly construction workers disguised in suits.

Here's the story. I'll give you the prosecution's version since that's the one we went with. Kane asked Slovek for money so he could buy a beer and some cigarettes. Slovek, who was a soft touch, said he only had ten bucks. He gave Kane the ten and told him to buy a cup of coffee and a donut at Cinderella's, and bring them back with the change. Then he'd give Kane enough for beer and a pack of squares. Kane took off and didn't return. Slovek wasn't happy.

Enter Jerry Hassal, a neighborhood gent who watched over Slovek. Hassal stopped by to fix the switch on Slovek's heater. Remember, this is a Chicago January. Heat is detrimental, especially if you're 79. As Hassal worked on the switch, Slovek was fuming about the ten bucks he lent to a "Billy" or "Timmy" "Wayne." Hassal knew Kane vaguely. What stood out for Hassal was that Slovek said he was going to "kick his ass," or have someone else do it. The latter was more likely, since Slovek wasn't exactly Bruce Lee, and part of his front room was occupied by an oxygen tank and breathing apparatus.

January 15: Kane stopped by Slovek's. We know Slovek knew his killer because the door hadn't been forced. It's also worth noting that Kane was flying on cocaine, which he had recently shot up. Both men sat on Slovek's couch, "Close enough to kiss him," per Kane's confession.

Slovek wanted his money.

Kane demurred.

Slovek, predictably pissed, said he was going to get someone to "kick his ass." At this, Kane explained, he snapped. Kane snapped so much, he took out a knuckle-guard knife with a five-inch blade and slashed a six-inch gash across Slovek's throat. That wasn't enough. Still snapping, Kane kept stabbing and slashing Slovek, who had defensive cuts up and down his forearms, He must have spun as he fell to the floor, because he had stab wounds on his face, behind his ears, and across his torso and back. The medical examiner counted 51, detailing the length and depth of each stab and incise (a slash rather than a puncture) wound.

Yes, we saw the crime scene photos.

Yes, we saw the autopsy photos.

Yes, 51 cuts is quite disgusting.

I've been a true crime buff since childhood, and I've seen worse in person. The other jurors had only heard of such things. The woman sitting next to me looked like she was about to cry.

In the crime scene photo, Slovek's arms are crossed over his chest. Ironically, he's leaning against his oxygen machine. The autopsy photos are even more gruesome. Slovek was a grizzled geezer. He looked a little like Popeye in the photos, but that was probably due to post-mortem puffiness. His skin was wet, his hair matted with blood. Most of the shots were disquieting, giving you that back of your head creepy feeling when you see blood or death and think, "Wait, that's not supposed to be there."

The worst of it was the head and shoulders shot. The examiner propped up Slovek's head so that he was "looking," with rheumy eyes, right at the camera. The flesh had the wet slick look of the inside of your lip. The throat wound was gaping; it appeared as if Slovek's head was held on by wet red taffy.

After stabbing Slovek, Kane bolted. He walked several blocks and tossed the knife into a snowy embankment against railroad tracks. It landed somewhere in a thicket of trees. Then Kane went home. We don't know what happened after that. I prefer to think he suffered pangs of Doestoevskian guilt, rather than sat down to watch TV with a bucket of KFC.

It took a day before he was picked up on suspicion of murder. We have no idea what happened to the clothes he was wearing. If found, they would have been drenched with blood. His boots had blood on them, but lab tests proved that it wasn't Slovek's. One of life's little mysteries.

Hank Ziarko, whose father rented the coachhouse to Slovek and who had known the old man for 52 years, found the body. The way Slovek was twisted, he looked as if he'd had a heart attack. Ziarko went and got help. Cops showed up. Evidence techs. Forensic teams. The place was processed, Abraham was bagged, and so ended his life. Couldn't happen to you or me, right? Sure.

A sweep of the neighborhood turned up Hassal and his story. Kane was gathered up. After three days in an interview room, he confessed. The defense tried to paint a picture of police abuse, He'd asked for food only once in three days and was given Burger King. Otherwise he wasn't offered food or water. The state countered that he may not have asked for food, but he requested and received many cups of coffee and cigarettes, and was allowed to use the bathroom. The defense acquiesced that they didn't use the rubber hose on him, but there were other ways "to break a man." Kane didn't leave the second floor of the police station for three days. He slept on the floor. He was illiterate, so he couldn't pass the time reading. He was never formally arrested during those three days, but he wasn't told he could go. State countered with the fact that he'd been read his Miranda rights repeatedly, and was told he could have a lawyer present during the questioning. He never took them up on it.

When he was ready to talk, the state's attorney asked the interrogating detective to leave the room. The attorney asked Kane how he'd been treated. "Fair. Decent," Kane said. So much for the Midnight Express tack. Kane describe the above scene,mentioning that he'd cut the phone and a few other details only the killer and cops would know. Afterwards, the cops drove him out to where he said he threw the knife. Shouting from the car, he directed them right to it. It was recovered by an evidence tech. No prints. It had been in the snow for three days after all, and even the dumbest criminal knows enough to wipe the handle, but it did have Abraham Slovek's blood on it. It was bagged, Kane was arrested, and three years passed before I was selected for his jury.

When we went in to deliberate, we all knew what we each thought. Kane was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Certainty, however, doesn't make you feel any less uncomfortable at the thought of passing what was tantamount to a life sentence. One jury member, a young woman of 19, couldn't be sure, absolutely sure, and was afraid that the rest of her life she'd regret delivering a guilty verdict. We told her to take her time, that we wanted to go home, but no one was rushing her. If she saw something we didn't, by all means, she should try to convince us. It's easy to pass sentence while you're reading accounts of a trial in the paper. It's a little harder when you're in that little room. I was nervous, and I imagined I'd break down in the car when Mike came to pick me up, sensitive soul that I am. But then I thought about it, and after reviewing Kane's confession and the pictures of Abraham, the feeling washed away.

Screw Kane, I thought.

Screw Kane. Screw him because he had three years of trials and several appeals ahead of him, and he couldn't give Abraham Slovek five more seconds. Screw him because he confessed and led the cops to the knife, and now he's crying poor. Screw Kane. I suddenly felt very calm, imagining that I could deliver some kind of justice for Abraham Slovek. Abraham Slovek who may not have had long on this earth, but who certainly didn't need a coked-up carney deciding when his life was over. Hard as Kane's life may or may not be, I imagined finding my own father like this.

Fuck Kane in his brown eye. Abraham Slovek wanted someone to kick Kane's ass. Now he had 12 people to do it.

We didn't rush. We didn't grab a rope, rush the courtroom, and carry Kane above our heads to the nearest tree. We talked for three and a half hours. We were ready to go all night if needs be, but we knew needs didn't be. Gradually, even the 19-year-old couldn't escape from the truth. Kane killed Slovek, beyond a reasonable doubt.

We reviewed the evidence repeatedly, thinking back to the defense's many arguments of conspiracy and false confession. Even during the trial we were yearning for one scrap of evidence that Kane didn't do it. C'mon, Mr. Wayland, say Kane was nursing his sick mother back to health; that he was trapped under a flaming jeep while trying to save an orphan and Mr. Waggles, his puppy; that he was auditioning for Star Search and Ed McMahon could vouch for him. Nothing. It didn't even resemble a frame-up. It was too prosaic, to ordinary. "This is how detective careers are made ladies and gentlemen," the defense said. Doing what? Framing an illiterate handyman for the all-but-meaningless death of guy half-dead? This case would have been lucky to make page 22 of the Penny Saver. In toto, of all the witnesses, about 25 people, very few of whom knew each other, would have had to conspire against poor little Robert Kane.

Not likely. No way. We knew what we had to do.

Two of the women jurors wept a bit. The foreperson went into the bathroom to collect herself before buzzing the bell that called the deputy sheriff. Everyone else just sat quietly and stared at nothing. We filed into the courtroom, and just lak on th' Tee-Vee, we faced Kane and told him we were sending him to Purgatory.

The defense, in one last intimidation tactic, asked that we be polled. The judge called our names and asked if guilty was our final verdict. Everyone meekly said yes and looked at the judge. I gave a firm "Yes sir." and stared right at Kane. I wasn't doing this half-assed. We returned to the jury room and Mr. Kane was taken to "The Tunnel," the hallway between the courthouse and Cook County Jail.

The prosecutors gratefully thanked us as we left the jury room. I wanted to tell them to shove it up their ass. No one won anything that day. Abraham Slovek got justice, but other than that no one won. Mike picked me up outside the courthouse at 10 p.m. I went to bed a little late, but I always do. Other than that, I slept just fine.

Dad, a lawyer, once told me that the thing about juries is that they're notoriously just.* I kept coming back to that during the trial. He's right, but it's a strange, strange feeling when you're on the inside. You do indeed have to transform yourself a bit when you walk into that back room.

* After reading this, Dad said he enjoyed the article, but he never said any such thing. I'm not sure about that. I have a pretty distinct memory of him saying it, and it seems to fit in with the playful cynicism he passed on to me. Still, in case my memory is in faulty, don't quote him on it.

®2002 Dan Kelly
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