Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Crime School Is in Session

I sat in the front row center seat in the deliberation room today. That’s where I sat last time too. I was a bit late today, and that seat was empty and the same people were on either side of it as were the last time 2 weeks ago.

Why is it that as adults we assign ourselves seats when in a setting like this? This is something I noticed in college, and later on in grad school. I notice it at work when we have recurring meetings that people seem to sit in the same seats for each meeting. As I sit down I always think to myself, “Now, what would happen next week if I sat in Bob’s seat?” Then I imagine an uncomfortable exchange where Bob walks into the meeting the next week and sees me in the chair that he’d been sitting in for the last who knows how long. Will he come up to me and demand that I get up and get back into my rightful chair? Will he walk toward his chair, out of habit, and then turn and sit at another chair but glare at me for my blatant disregard for the assigned yet unassigned seats.

I sat down in the deliberation room and listened to witnesses testify in five different cases today, and heard two cases two weeks ago as well. I’ve come to a startlingly important conclusion today. Serving on a federal grand jury has been a mind blowing experience so far, as I’ve listened to fascinating testimony that flows like an episode of Law and Order. The thing that strikes me about the cases I’ve heard so far is that, really, these people commit crimes so they can get something they want. A person might steal something and sell it for money that they can use to get something else they really want. That’s the basic motivator behind crime—getting something that you want quickly. I mean, I could throw on a ski mask and rob the general store down the road for some quick cash, right? Or I could go to work and do my job for 2 weeks and get my paycheck.

But in the seven cases I’ve heard so far, I’ve learned one very important fact about criminals. These criminals I am hearing the testimony about are not the diabolical crooks I’ve seen on TV and in movies. They are actually quite stupid. My mind wandered a bit today while listening to a case and it went to what I would have done differently if I were the accused. Would I have walked around with the evidence in broad daylight? Probably not. Would I have bragged to friends about having committed the crime to friends who later became witnesses just so they could avoid getting prosecuted for their own crimes? Probably not.

A side effect of jury duty is kind of how people describe jail. It’s Crime 101. It’s like the show “What Not to Wear” but only it’s about “What Not to Do Once You’ve Broken the Law.” If I was so inclined, I would now make an awesome crook.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The other thing I've learned about people since working as a PD is that they all have their own stories about how they got to that point.

It's all too easy to paint them as horrible, evil, diabolical - it's sometimes too hard for people to look at how it was that they got to where they're at.

Who taught them that was the best way to get what they wanted? What education did they have access to? What role models?

December 1, 2009 at 8:56 PM  
Blogger BJ Knapp said...

HN, I wish I could hear from the accused in these cases. As you know, I only get to hear testimony from witnesses because it's grand jury. I hear snippets of stories from this side or that, but never from the actual accused. I would love to hear it from their side as well. I am sure the story would change from the side of the accused as opposed to the side of the person who saw it happen, or the person who investigated it after the crime was committed.

From what I gather, it isn't a conscious thing that gets a person to that point. I am guessing that people don't start out with running into a liquor store with a gun and cleaning out the register. They start off smaller than that. "I'll grab this DVD from a friend's house, they'll never notice it..." and then the next time, if it went unnoticed they might grab another DVD and maybe the $20 bill in the cookie jar. Then it moves on to things that are a little bit bigger every time, and there's a new justification every time. The justification stretches further and further... then before they know it, they're in a liquor store with a gun.

This part of human nature is both fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

December 2, 2009 at 8:41 AM  

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