No Justice, No Peace

The attorney asked if I could be a fair juror. I said yes. What a sucker I was.

IT ALL STARTED innocently enough: a jury-duty summons, a quick calculation that now was as good a time as any to get the experience over with; a selection process in which I was sure, I was sure, that no prosecutor would ever let a City Pages reporter into the jury room; a brief trial that seemed remarkable mostly for its lack of evidence; and then the deliberations, which I imagined would take 15 minutes but actually dragged into four days of madness, at the conclusion of which we condemned a man who in my opinion is probably innocent to at least 10 years of prison.

And then the questions, over and over: Did I help convict an innocent man? What does the presumption of innocence mean after the jurors go crazy? Why is a system that drives people crazy and relies on their pronouncements called justice? If Keevin Hinton is innocent and I helped put him in jail, what will this mean for my soul?

This is the story of the conviction of Keevin Hinton, but it's also the story of contemporary justice in Hennepin County. It's a story full of holes, elisions, intuitions, gaps, and maybe even delusions. But that's what being a juror is like: You start with ragged webs of stories that you learn to pretend are whole cloth, you start with a roomful of strangers and end up with a social hierarchy as intricate as any family's, you start out naive and learn to hate yourself.

Patrick Rolo

The names of the other jurors have been changed to protect them. They deserve to be protected, because they all acted in good faith. Is history full of people who acted unforgivably in good faith? Absolutely. Do we have a system of justice that encourages good people to act unforgivably? All I can tell you is this story, presented as honestly as I can get it.

The Elements of the Crime

Keevin Hinton, of course, is either the unluckiest man in Minnesota or a cold-blooded killer. He was charged with attempted second-degree murder, specifically with shooting Javaris Milton for no reason on a sunny day last May. Javaris Milton is without a doubt one of the luckiest men in Minnesota: He was shot at at least half a dozen times that sunny May day, one bullet pierced his lung and liver, and he lived.

When Milton was shot he was drunk, he had a cocktailer's ready supply of change for big bills, and his pockets were full of things that looked like crack. No one bothered to keep or identify them. Of all the holes in this story, this is nothing.

Milton was walking down the street, carrying a bag of Chinese take-out and a cheap boom box when he was approached by his friend Theo Burstyn. Burstyn told Milton that he had been beaten up and had his bicycle and jacket stolen, and that the two of them must retrieve the items. Milton said he thought this was a bad idea, but Burstyn convinced him that the goods had been abandoned and were now safe to recover.

Questions you might like to ask at this point are: Why would anyone beat up someone for his jacket and bike, and then abandon the loot? Where exactly was this loot? Why did Burstyn need help to pick it up? Why would a grown man busy raising children, like Keevin Hinton, involve himself in a scrap over things like this? Those are questions that will never be answered.

Milton and Burstyn were headed to get the bike and jacket back when someone opened fire on them from between two buildings. Milton dropped to the sidewalk. Burstyn escaped unscathed and was never heard from again. It is presumed he left for another city. Why did he flee? Was he the true target of the shooting? The bike and the jacket were never seen again: why? More unanswerable questions.

Meanwhile, on this sunny day in May, one of the buildings from between which the shots were fired was full of people. On the ground floor lived a man named Glen Oultman and his roommate, who was in a wheelchair. Upstairs was Myrne Bunker.

Before Milton was shot, Oultman's roommate told him there was something going on in the alley. Oultman went to the window to see for himself. The shooter was so close one of the bullet casings that ejected from the semiautomatic gun ended up on Oultman's windowsill.

But Oultman had a lengthy history of convictions, mostly involving drugs. He had holes in his shoes and food on his clothes, and seemed disoriented and slightly incoherent. He said he wasn't drunk that day. He said he watched the shooter for five seconds or so, and that it was definitely Keevin Hinton. On the other hand no one bothered asking him whom he saw until a few weeks before the trial, so he had nearly six months to forget or unconsciously revise whom he had seen.

In testimony, we heard that Oultman collects cans to supplement his income and Keevin Hinton, who lives down the block from him, had given Oultman several bags of cans once after a party. When the police came to Oultman with a lineup six months after the event, was he identifying the shooter, or simply recognizing a helpful neighbor?

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1 comments
flyingmonkeyair
flyingmonkeyair

There's nothing worse than reading interviews/accounts with jurors having a public crisis of conscience in the media *after* convicting someone.  If you were unsure that they were guilty, there was the *reasonable doubt* you were commissioned to look for that tells you not to come to a guilty verdict. 

Never mind admitting to pressuring another juror who "switched her vote because she felt the jury was about to turn into a lynch mob and attack her criminal past" or admitting that you "would have done anything to get out of there". 

Don't send someone to a dungeon for a decade because you were trapped in jury duty—missing your lattes and life as a food critic writing about restaurants most of us can't afford to eat at—then cry in the media about whether you sent an innocent person to prison. That's obscene.

 
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