Shortly after my arrival for a short visit to New York City, I had the happy idea of going to the criminal courts on Centre Street. They are the Metropolitan Opera of the criminal-justice system, and as an occasional expert witness in British courts, I wanted to see how these things were done in America.
Quite by chance, I arrived at a dramatic moment in a dramatic trial of a dramatic crime. A man called Elliot Morales, charged with murder in the second degree, who was representing himself, was about to make his final address to the jury.
Even the entry into the court of that august assembly of twelve of Morales’ peers was interesting. If they were to remake the film, 12 Angry Men, they would have to retitle it, 12 Slovenly Men and Women. These days, any smartly dressed person is rejected as a juror because he or she is automatically deemed to be in favor of a guilty verdict, a criminal law being regarded as a muted form of class war. The jury, then, had not dressed for the occasion; it wore the kind of casual clothes that many people now think are suitable for all occasions. But the juror who most caught my eye was a fat young black man who sauntered into the court with his hands in his pockets in what is known as the pimp roll. “Take your hands out of your pockets in front of the judge, you slob!” I wanted to exclaim but wisely held my silence.
Strangely enough, though, the jury seemed to take its responsibilities seriously; it paid close and intelligent attention to the proceedings. My experience of juries in England is that their grubby appearance notwithstanding, they generally arrive at the right verdict.
I didn’t know anything about the crime when Morales rose to speak though it was so notorious that it had made the international press. The defendant was certainly not the kind of man one would instinctively cross the road not to meet, as so many murderers are; he was slight and even scholarly-looking. At the very least one would have expected him to be a bureaucrat rather than a gangster.