I reported to the first floor of the Criminal Justice Center at 8:15 a.m., figuring I would be there just for the day. Usually the court staff start laughing the minute they find out I'm a reporter, and they're still laughing when they show me the door.
But they must have been desperate. I was shipped upstairs to Courtroom 1002, where the Hon. Judge Earl W. Trent Jr. presided. He asked a few questions about whether I thought I could be an impartial juror. I said I honestly didn't know. Well, the judge said, when you go out to report a story, aren't you supposed to be impartial? I try to be, I said.
To my amazement, I was chosen as Juror No. 9, given an official ID badge, and told to report to court the following morning. After a lifetime of being an observer, I was suddenly in a position to have a direct impact on somebody's life. Terique Powell, 21, of Northeast Philadelphia, was facing a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 5 to 10 years in an armed robbery case.
At 10:40 p.m. on Aug. 12, 2009, a 17-year-old Hispanic youth was on his way home from his job at a clothing store at the Frankford Mall. He was walking on Hellerman Street in Northeast Philadelphia when somebody stuck a gun in his back and said, give me all your money.
The robber went through the youth's pockets and found a pack of cigarettes, a cell phone, a pack of gum, a SEPTA pass, a comb, and no money. The victim was carrying an ipod, but since it was pink, the robber said he wasn't interested.
The robber told the victim he was taking his cell phone so he wouldn't call the cops. The robber told the victim to head toward Bustleton Avenue, while the robber went the other way.
On his way home, the victim ran into two cops driving an unmarked Ford Taurus. The victim hopped in the back of the car and the cops drove around the neighborhood, looking for a 6-foot-2 black male wearing a white wife-beater T-shirt, black shorts and black sneakers.
Three blocks away, at 1541 Robbins St., 18-year-old Terique Powell sat on a front porch with four friends. The victim and the cops drove past Powell once, and then came back to talk.
Is this the guy, the cops asked. The victim said yes.
A half-hour after the armed robbery, Terique Powell was in handcuffs. He was charged with robbery, a first-degree felony, in addition to two gun charges, two theft charges, simple assault, and unlawful possession of the instrument of a crime, namely a gun.
Powell was raised by his grandmother. His only arrest as a juvenile was for possession of marijuana. He wound up in outpatient drug counseling.
When he was arrested for robbery, Powell was going into his senior year at Northeast High. Since he didn't have the money for the $15,000 bail [a cash deposit of $1,500 was required], he spent a total of 358 days in jail, awaiting house arrest.
The trial lasted one day. The prosecution's lead witness was the former robbery victim, now 20. He showed up for court unshaved, wearing shorts and an old, faded Superman T-shirt with an S emblazoned on his chest. He appeared to have just rolled out of bed.
The victim testified that he was standing under a broken street light when the robber stuck a gun in his back. The victim said the robber then walked around in front of him, and picked through his pockets.
Although the street light he was standing under was broken, the victim testified, the light from another street lamp some six feet away illuminated the scene, as did the headlights from a passing car. During a time span that the victim testified was between one to two minutes, the victim said he got a good look at the robber. He pointed out Powell in the courtroom as the guy who held him up.
The prosecution's next two witnesses were two police officers who described how they placed Powell under arrest. They said the defendant was cooperative.
That was it; the case rested solely on the word of a victim, and the actions of a couple of cops who believed him. There was no physical evidence of any kind. No gun, no cell phone, not even a stick of gum taken from the victim's pockets.
The defense then presented its case, which was even flimsier. A young woman took the stand who had been seen earlier crying in the courtroom. She said she was just a friend of the defendant's. She had grown up with Terique, she said, and attended church with him, where they had both been part of a youth group.
She could not stop crying. Judge Trent asked her if she was Powell's girlfriend, but the young woman insisted she was just a friend. She testified that Powell was of good character, and was known in the community to be peaceable, law-abiding and non-violent.
The defendant took the stand. He said he was sorry about the robbery, but that he didn't do it. He was sitting on the stoop with another young man, and three girls, all friends. They had spent the entire day hanging out. Powell told the jury how he tried to locate his old friends so they could testify on his behalf. But after three years, he had a hard time finding them. He only reached one of the girls, who had moved to the Poconos and had a baby.
The next day in court, the defense rested, after not being able to round up any further witnesses. None of the kids sitting on that porch three years ago ever made it to court. The pastor of the church that Powell used to attend was also tied up with church business.
It was time for closing statements. Nena Carter, assistant defender, said it was a case of mistaken identity. The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Tracie Gaydos, said the Commonwealth had arrested the right man, as she pointed her finger at Terique Powell. The victim said so, she said, and so did the cops. Now it was time for the jury to convict Terique Powell.
I have always wondered about those instructions judges give jurors. How you shouldn't talk about the case with anybody, even your spouse. How you shouldn't talk about the case with your fellow jurors until all the evidence had been presented.
Well, this jury didn't exactly follow those instructions. I doubt that we were an anomaly. When was the first time the jury began discussing the case? How about the first time they closed the door, and left us alone in the jury room.
We were 14 strangers, 12 jurors and two alternates. What else did we have to talk about? The Phillies?
The 40-year-old man who would ultimately be elected jury foreman told us he had been robbed four times. When somebody's pointing a gun at you, he said, you're only looking at the gun, and praying that it doesn't go off. You don't look at the robber's face. You don't want him to know you, and you don't want to know him.
The jury foreman also said that if you had just robbed somebody, the last thing you would do is go sit on a front porch a few blocks away from the robbery scene, when you know the cops were driving around the neighborhood, looking for the guy who did it. Also, the foreman said, if the cops showed up to question you, and you were guilty, you wouldn't just sit there, you would take off and run.
Juror No. 14, the second alternate, had a problem with the victim's testimony that he had enough light at night under a busted street lamp to make a positive ID in just one or two minutes. I agreed with him. Other jurors had a problem with the cops out searching for a black guy armed with such a generic description. That could have been my son, the foreman said.
Other jurors wondered why a robber who had a gun pointed in a victim's back would bother walking around in front of the victim to empty the victim's pockets. Wouldn't it have been easier to stand behind the victim, and reach into his pockets, and not risk being identified?
When the court staff took our luncheon order for three pizzas, Juror No. 13 insisted on double cheese. Juror 14, the second alternate, ordered pepperoni. Sadly, when it came time to deliberate, jurors no. 13 and 14 were dismissed, and they wound up missing the pizza party.
When deliberations formally began, we went around the room. Several jurors talked about whether they believed the defendant, or the young woman who had been the only other defense witness. Why didn't the pastor of the church show up in court, as well as some of the kids who had been sitting on the stoop that day? Didn't the defendant have any better witnesses to testify on his behalf, such as a former coach or teacher?
One juror requested a list of the charges, so she could review the elements of the crimes that Powell was charged with. That got me wondering whether it was going to be a long afternoon.
When it came time for my turn to speak, I outed myself as a reporter used to covering trials. Although the defendant had the face of a choirboy, I said, I had no idea whether he was guilty or innocent. But we don't even get to the credibility of the defense case, I said, because the Commonwealth didn't prove its case. There's no physical evidence. I noted the words in one of the gun charges that required the jury to find that the gun used in the crime was in proper working order.
We don't even know if it was a toy gun, I said. We have no physical evidence. This case should never have been brought to trial, I said. It's a waste of our time. Let's find the defendant not guilty, and get out of here.
We took a paper ballot, and it was unanimous. On all seven counts, from all 12 jurors, the ballots said the defendant was not guilty. Some jurors remained unconvinced whether Powell was innocent, but everybody agreed the lack of physical evidence was a problem. Show me a gun, one woman juror said, and I'll put him away.
We filed back into court and took our assigned seats in the jury box. The foreman stood and announced the verdict. Powell started crying and couldn't stop. Carter took him outside, where he said, "Thank you so much for saving my life."
That afternoon, Powell went to the probation department and had his ankle bracelet removed.
I was rewarded with a $29 check for three days of jury service. But I still had questions. So I called assistant defender Carter and asked if this was a typical case in terms of the shortage of physical evidence.
"One person's word can put you in that chair," she said.
Prosecutor Gaydos agreed. Especially, she said, when the victim is sure that he got the right man, and he makes that identification within three blocks of the crime site, within one half-hour of when the crime occurred.
But in the case of Terique Powell, Gaydos said, "obviously the lack of physical evidence was one of the factors that worked against us."