Did My Jury Help Set a Gun Thug Free?

We voted where the evidence took us. But the defendant was no angel. Did we do the right thing?

Last week, I may have helped put a gun thug back on the streets of Philadelphia.

We’ll skip his name for now and simply call him “G,” in hopes that his recent brush with the law scared him straight and will help him fly right. G is 22 now; he was 19 back in 2010, when he was the passenger in an SUV stopped by police — a loaded pistol-gripped 12-gauge shotgun at his side. He was charged with illegally carrying firearms on the streets of Philadelphia. Last week, I served on the jury that found him not guilty.

The problem? While we didn’t believe prosecutors had proved its case — I’ll explain soon — there didn’t seem to be any of us on the jury who thought G was exactly innocent. Indeed, a quick search of public records after the trial showed he’s had several encounters with the law in recent years. But we didn’t know any of that during our deliberations: What we knew was that a young man had been found in very close proximity to a gun built rather obviously for people-killing. At 2:30 in the morning. Far from his own neighborhood.

What would you think?

Here is the evidence we heard at trial: Around 2:30 in the morning during the fateful night in October 2010, police in the city’s northeast section were hunting for a suspect who had fired a shotgun at a police officer. Officers received a report that a white SUV fled the scene; G was a passenger in a white SUV stopped just a few blocks away. (After the trial, the prosecutor told us that G had not been the suspect in the original shooting.) The shotgun? Just inches away from his left leg — possibly even touching his left leg at some point.

The problem? Police never saw G holding the shotgun: The first they saw his hands, they were raised by his head in surrender to the cops who had stopped the car. According to the jury instructions, we could still find that G had “constructive possession” of the gun — and thus convict him of illegal possession — so long as we believed beyond a reasonable doubt two things:

• That G had the ability to control the gun. Given his proximity to the gun, that was easy for jurors to agree upon.

• That G had the intent to control the gun. This is where things get tricky. Because the jury instructions were pretty clear: Being close to the gun — even knowing that it was there — could help establish that intent, but “such facts do not of themselves establish the necessary intent and power to control.”

Expressed as a math problem, the equation seemed to be this:

Proximity + (X) = Intent

We had the proximity. But we heard no other facts to establish G’s intent to control the gun. Yes, we had our suspicions. Again: Nobody thought he was innocent. And the law seemed clear: If we couldn’t establish that intent beyond a reasonable doubt, we had to find G “not guilty.”

It wasn’t easy. We heard perhaps three hours of testimony, but deliberated more than twice that amount of time — the holdouts among us reluctant to let G, who at the very least was guilty of poor judgment, fly free. Ultimately, though, we came to a unanimous, but uneasy, decision.

After the verdict was delivered, we asked to speak to the attorneys. And we were direct with the defense attorney. “The state didn’t prove its case, but nobody thinks your client was making good decisions,” I told him. “It’s our hope, and I hope you would convey this to your client, that he’ll use this as an opportunity to make better choices.”

“That’s what I tell all my clients,” he responded. Honestly: It all felt rather feeble in face of the monstrous violence that stalks this city.

For what it’s worth, the case gave me — like my colleague Brian Howard — a new appreciation of the jury system. There were four men and eight women; we were a racially mixed bunch, representing many neighborhoods from across the city. And despite the city’s reputation for racial polarization, deliberations never seemed to break down along racial lines. The jurors were sober, thoughtful. It was Philadelphia at its best.

But was our decision for the best? It’s hard to know. Ultimately, we decided that proving “intent” required mind-reading — that going beyond the jury instructions and convicting G based on our strong suspicions would amount to a kind of formal vigilantism. Philadelphia, though, often seems to be broken where gun crime is concerned; sometimes vigilantism can seem tempting.

If we’re lucky, G will heed our mild warning. But the fear remains, that someday we’ll wake up and see his mug shot on the front page of the paper. We jurors had our chances to take action and decided not to; all we can do now is hope.

Personal addendum: My mother, Linda Mathis, died at 8 p.m. July 4. She was 61 years old. She instilled in me a love of books, and insisted on an ethic of compassion towards all those in need of it. I believe and hope those lessons shape nearly everything I write. I love her and miss her dearly.