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A Criminal Justice Journalist Wrestles With Doubts in the Jury Box

A longtime journalist serving on a jury must weigh the flaws of the system against the holes in the gun and drug case he heard.

An illustration shows a brown, floating jury box against a blue background. There are 12 jurors sitting in the jury box, with two empty chairs on the left.

When I started as a journalist more than 25 years ago, my editors sent me to cover crime, the local police and the courts. I’ve lost track of how many hearings I’ve observed while sitting in courtroom galleries.

In the years since then, I’ve been called for jury duty a few times, but I’d never been selected to serve on a trial. I had never watched evidence unfold from the jury box, and I had never helped determine someone’s fate.

Last year, I got summoned for jury duty again, and in January, I was chosen for a criminal trial after several days of questioning — first via Zoom, and then in person at the courthouse in Newark, New Jersey.

I was excited to participate in something I’d studied for so long. One family member told me she wouldn’t be comfortable passing judgment on someone accused of a crime. I was a little nervous about that responsibility, but I felt that because I know the system and its flaws so well, it would be better to have me on a jury than not.

The trial took place in Essex County, a multiracial county of 850,000 people. It encompasses some of the most affluent communities in the country that are situated alongside largely working-class Newark and a string of small cities that have struggled after the White flight of the 1960s and the excesses of the drug war.

The courthouse is a busy one. Over the course of a year, Essex County prosecutors filed more than 4,200 cases of “indictable offenses,” New Jersey’s equivalent of a felony.

Reporting on police, prisons and the politics of crime, I’ve seen how guns and drugs can wreak havoc, particularly in Black and Latino neighborhoods. I had steeled myself for a trial that would expose that trauma. But that’s not quite what I got.

On its face, the case was straightforward: A man was charged with gun and drug possession.

The underlying incident took place in the spring of 2019 in East Orange, a small, predominantly Black city that borders Newark. A police officer working on a drug case was surreptitiously surveilling in the area when he spotted a group of men milling about in the parking lot of an apartment complex about a block away from the city’s police headquarters. He radioed for colleagues to drive by and ask the men if they lived there.

When three officers in tactical vests from the city’s violent crimes task force rolled up a few minutes later, two men were near a gray Nissan in the parking lot.

The officers testified that when they stepped out of their car, one of the men immediately dropped a red bubble jacket and a fanny pack he had been holding, raised his arms, and said, “Officer, I have a gun on me.”

To the police and the prosecutor, the scenario almost sounded ridiculous. “I thought he was kidding,” said Detective Felix Cabrera on the witness stand.

In a gruff voice, Cabrera testified that when he frisked the defendant, he found a gun in the man’s waistband. The detective and his colleagues went on to arrest the man, who was 37, and charge him with possessing an illegal handgun, in addition to charging him for drugs they found in the fanny pack.

Police suspected that the assortment of drugs included ecstasy, OxyContin, Xanax, cannabis and ibuprofen. By the time we on the jury began our deliberations, all but one of the drug charges had been dropped: possession of cocaine.

In my career as a journalist, I’ve seen how the justice system can go wrong. Similar crimes are unevenly policed, and people convicted of the same offenses can get vastly different punishments. So I was well-primed to be doubtful of the case presented to us. As the legal process unfolded, I was struck by several contradictions.

Sitting in the dark wooden pews of the courtroom during jury selection, I noticed signs posted all over, warning observers not to use cell phones. The sheriff’s officers, who escort defendants and jurors in and out of the courtroom, strolled down the aisle and chided anyone who was holding a phone. Yet on the other side of the bar, about 20 feet away, lawyers, translators and the officers themselves used their phones and laptops freely.

From the first salvos of the attorneys’ opening statements, the case was weird to me. Why was a man going to trial for a pair of charges that involved no violence, nearly five years after he was arrested? Why wasn’t a case like this resolved by a plea deal to avoid a costly trial?

And before the trial began, we learned that the man would not be testifying in his defense, and had even waived his right to sit in the courtroom.

I saw the man only once: On the first day of jury questioning, he appeared in a tiny box on Zoom on my laptop screen.

Given his physical absence, I was expecting to hear about who this guy was. What did he do for a living? What kind of person was he? And why was he hanging out in a parking lot on a Thursday afternoon in May?

The prosecution told us little about the defendant beyond his name and the police’s crude description of his appearance: He was a “male” with “dreads about shoulder-length.” One Black officer described him as “my complexion, maybe a little lighter.”

The defense lawyers argued that their client lived across the street from the apartment complex and was in the lot talking to a friend who was parked there. But they did not call the friend or anyone else as a witness on his behalf.

(Given how little we learned about the defendant, I am not using his name in this essay.)

The man’s absence didn’t affect how I thought about any evidence of his guilt, but it made what was already a disorienting exercise feel detached and almost academic. The person at the center of the case was an abstract concept. The prosecutor was tilting at a ghost, and the defense had little to work with beyond this man’s name and the police’s testimony.

As a journalist, I’m trained to examine my own opinions and recognize my biases. I go to great lengths so that my experiences and worldview as a White man don’t make me miss out on what other people encounter. Much of my job is to seek out different perspectives in order to tell complicated stories. Being a juror felt like the opposite of how I approach my work.

Our jury, composed mostly of Black people and more women than men, was provided with a narrow set of facts that made making an informed decision difficult. As the testimony progressed, I had more and more questions that were left unanswered.

For example, the prosecutor introduced pieces of evidence — a small, digital scale and two cell phones inside the fanny pack — that the officers said they took from the defendant. But then the defense raised obvious questions that weren’t acknowledged by the prosecution: Who did the cell phones belong to? Were there fingerprints on the scale? Were there any photographs on the phones?

There were other inconsistencies, too. One of the officers who drove up to the scene said both the defendant and the man he was talking to were standing outside the gray Nissan. Another officer said the friend was sitting in the car. Neither officer could describe what either of the men were wearing, but one said he did remember the men’s haircuts, four and a half years later.

The similarity in the officers’ phrasing — and the fact that two of them reread police reports on the stand to refresh their memories — made me suspect that most of their testimony came from their original reports. How else could cops on the beat remember a guy they arrested for relatively minor possession crimes back in 2019? And if they made a mistake when they wrote up the arrest, relying on the reports in court seemed risky.

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The defense tried to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, floating alternate scenarios: The defendant wasn’t loitering in a parking lot; he was talking to his friend across the street from his home. The gun could have belonged to someone else, like his friend or one of the other men the first police officer originally saw there. The defense said the fanny pack was “covered in grime” and could have been stashed in the lot by someone else before the defendant came along.

While the defense attorneys posited other possibilities of what might have happened that day, they didn’t offer a unified narrative to credibly undermine the prosecution’s account, nor did they have to under the law. Instead, they emphasized the police’s procedural and clerical snafus. The takeaway seemed to be that if the police are bad at paperwork and evidence collection — which they appeared to be in this case — perhaps someone besides the defendant left the gun and drugs in the parking lot.

After the trial was over, I spoke to three people who served on the jury with me. They each had worries about the case that stayed with them months later.

They remembered the police investigation as being “super disorganized.” “I was expecting to see more — fingerprints, more of those reports that they mentioned during the trial that we didn’t actually get to see, video footage, recordings, something,” said juror Casey Raynis, a 32-year-old public school music teacher and musician.

“We really didn’t get to see anything.”

“It was incomplete. It was sloppy,” said another juror, Osvaldo Gerald, a 65-year-old vice president of a government contracting company. “That was the hardest thing I had to understand and to deal with.”

I had a similar impression.

For example, on the evidence box that held the gun retrieved at the scene, someone — it was never clear to me who — had written the name of the man who police stopped with the defendant. Another report listed the wrong time of arrest.

The defense lawyers also pointed out that there was no video or audio from the arrest. The original officer’s call for backup wasn’t recorded because it was made on an encrypted radio channel used by undercover and plainclothes officers.

The cops didn’t wear body cameras, and they didn’t retrieve surveillance footage from any of the security cameras that faced the parking lot.

The officers’ response when the prosecutor asked why was that the detectives weren’t required to wear body cameras at that time in 2019. And besides, there was no need for it. They had no doubt about who committed the crime. Because they didn’t have to identify a suspect after the fact, they didn’t need to get surveillance videos of an act they had witnessed.

Some of us on the jury were dismayed by the gaps.

“I know if I were to be arrested — if you’re going to put me away — you better have every little bit of evidence. It better be in order. It better have my name on it. You’d want to know that everything was in order,” said Raynis.

In some respects, my knowledge of the flaws of the justice system made the prosecution’s case more believable. The charges against the man, and the police’s haphazard paperwork, all seemed plausible. The typos and switched names on evidence were familiar from other police records I’ve seen. It’s another apparent contradiction in the justice system. Police misspell names all the time and put the wrong numbers on reports — reports that they end up relying on when they testify in court.

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Anna Gee, one of the defense attorneys, summed up the case against the man as simply unverified claims by the police “because they said so.”

The prosecution leaned into the absurdity of the situation. “Defense wants you to believe that my officers are lying. If they are lying, they are the worst liars in the world because those facts don’t make sense unless they’re telling the truth,” said Assistant Prosecutor Andreas Diakos.

(Since the trial, I have contacted lawyers for both the defense and the prosecution. They all declined to comment on the case.)

Going into jury deliberations, Judge Arthur Batista gave us clear and lengthy instructions. To convict the man of drug possession, we had to find that he knew he was holding illegal drugs. To convict him on the gun charge, we had to believe he had possessed a firearm that was in working order and that he was not licensed to own. The judge implored us to respect the sanctity of the jury room and to keep the deliberations there secret. To abide by those instructions, I won’t divulge our conversations, but I can describe my own reactions.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the long delay before the trial, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, exposed another symptom of the growing gap between police and the public.

When the defendant was arrested in 2019 — before the COVID-19 lockdowns and a Minneapolis cop murdered George Floyd — this case must have looked like a slam dunk to the police. By the time the case went to trial, the officers on the stand, and even the prosecutor, seemed affronted that their accounts would be questioned. But that attitude felt like it was from a bygone era.

On the first count, I saw no evidence that the fanny pack belonged to the man or that he had any knowledge of what was in it. We, the jury, voted to not convict him on the drug charge.

For the second count, after several days of deliberating, we found the man guilty of possessing the unregistered handgun.

Over the three days of testimony, I saw and heard things that made me doubt how well the criminal justice system operates. But it wasn’t the system that was on trial. For me, the case hinged on whether Cabrera, the arresting officer who said he found the gun, sounded like he was being honest. As much as I wanted there to be more to it than that, there wasn’t. If Cabrera told the truth about taking the gun from the man, we had to convict, whether we liked it or not.

The other jurors I spoke with later said they, too, expected more and better evidence from the investigators, perhaps because they’d been conditioned by years of “Law & Order” or a general skepticism fomented by high-profile police killings and the resulting protests. We didn’t get answers to many of the questions we had about the case. All we had to go on was the word of the police.

Despite my disappointment at the way police handled the evidence and reports, I was buoyed by my time with the other jurors. Sitting in a room with 11 smart, careful people gave me some hope that convening an impartial jury of one’s peers was not such a crazy idea.

But given the weight of what we were asked to do — potentially send a man to prison for many years — I expected damning evidence, not evidence that was just good enough.


Shortly after our verdict, the man we convicted pleaded guilty to a separate count of possession of a handgun by someone with a prior criminal conviction. The man was scheduled to be sentenced in mid-March, and that hearing was postponed twice. On the day he was to be sentenced, the man didn’t show up in court, and the judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest. When he is sentenced, he faces five to 10 years in state prison.

Tom Meagher Twitter Email , senior editor, joined The Marshall Project at its founding in 2014. He previously led an interactive team for the Digital First Media newspaper chain and was the data editor at the Newark Star-Ledger. He got his start in journalism covering night cops for a small daily paper in Kansas.