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
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
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 guysandy-haired, droopy mustached, living at the YMCA, and
crawling out of his skintold 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
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. Waylandwhose
first name has slipped my mindwho 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
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
Slovek wanted his money.
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
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
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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