No Justice, No Peace
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.
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?
When asked directly, and repeatedly, whether he recognized Keevin Hinton as the shooter or simply from the neighborhood, Oultman said that he couldn't be sure, and concluded that he wouldn't want to convict an innocent man. Was he recanting his original testimony? Was he covering his back? Or was he simply using a platitude to soften the impact of his damning testimony? (We jurors would argue about this for at least 30 hours straight.)
Could Oultman even have seen out the window very well? Wasn't his roommate in the way? And if his roommate was there at the window too, why wasn't he testifying? Oultman said his roommate said there were three shooters, but that was ruled hearsay. We were told to forget it. Now you try to forget it too. Whatever you believe, you may conclude this: Without Oultman there is no case. With Oultman there is a case as solid as fog.
Upstairs Myrne Bunker, an ex-girlfriend of Oultman's, had been polishing her furniture. She heard shouting on the street, and then gunfire, and she rushed to the window to see Milton crumpled in his own blood and a man in the street shouting, "Come on you motherfuckers, come on." Bunker related this and burst into tears. Was she crying because of the devastation in her neighborhood? Because she was a basket case? Or because she felt that her testimony might place her in danger? And why is it that some people hear gunfire and rush to their windows?
Another witness, Earnest Jackson, was out on his second-floor deck barbecuing, down the block from the shooting. He heard shots, which worried him because his wife had just left for the grocery store, so he noticed when someone biked up the alley from the direction of the shooting. That cyclist had long braids or dreadlocks, distinctly unlike Keevin Hinton. Asked what he did next, Jackson earnestly replied: "I personally continued to barbecue."
Back to Milton. Milton got out of the hospital 29 days after he was shot, having been quite a handful to the staff at North Memorial--trying to check himself out, stowing cans of beer in his pillowcase, and mysteriously generating high THC levels in his blood. Milton left the hospital and no one arrested him for his outstanding warrants. Why? Who knows.
Milton found out that a month after the shooting, no one had been charged. In fact, the detective who was assigned to the case never did a thing about it. Never questioned anybody--not Milton, not Burstyn, not neighbors, nobody. No one seemed particularly surprised or alarmed that people wanted to kill Milton. Except, of course, Milton. So he flagged down his neighborhood beat officer and told him he wanted to ID his would-be killer.
Let's pause here and say that Milton had had ample opportunity by now to hear other people's versions of what happened. (I found out after the trial that Milton and Hinton had met for the first time a few days before the shooting in Hinton's front yard, which was about 20 yards from the crime scene. Was that the start of a lethal argument or fodder for a memory mix-up?)
Though Milton isn't old enough to drink, he had a blood-alcohol level of .268 when he was shot. How clearly could he see up a slight incline, into the shaded area between two buildings, and behind a pointed gun? When the paramedics arrived he gave the civically poetic name of John Ramsey. Does this mean he was alert enough to remember his outstanding warrants, or does it mean that he's habitually loose with the truth? Does Milton know beyond a doubt who shot him? There are equally persuasive arguments either way.
The beat officer led Milton to police headquarters, and they spent some time looking through mug shots on a computer. Milton didn't recognize anyone. The cop, a rookie who was at the end of his day and was dealing with someone else's case, wasn't finding anything.
Milton said he knew that the shooter's street name was "Shasheed," and the beat officer said to try the name "Hinton," or "Hinyon," or something. So they pulled up Keevin Hinton's picture and stuck it in one position in the lineup and picked out other mug shots they had on file to match the skin tone and facial-hair patterns of Keevin Hinton, and that's when Milton identified him. A warrant was put out for Keevin Hinton, he heard about it, and turned himself in. (Another detail I didn't learn until after the trial: Hinton says at the time all this happened, he was suing that very beat cop for illegal search and seizure in an unrelated incident.)
The trial lasted maybe 10 hours, spread over three days. I could write a thousand pages on the nuances in it: How when Milton testified, metal detectors and armed deputies suddenly appeared in the hallways, making him seem very dangerous indeed. (The deputies said the metal detectors were set up randomly, and we would have believed it if juror Veronica hadn't laughed at us rubes.) How the process made us jurors feel flatteringly important: We got to come in through a special door and leave that way too; everyone turned quiet when we entered; we flashed little smiles and shyly looked away from each other and the attorneys. Especially the attorneys.
David Cohoes, the public defender, was handsome in a Hawkeye Pierce-ish way: flashing blue eyes, clever, righteous, a little slouchy. The prosecutor, Judith Tilsen, was short, mousy, and wrinkled. She had a Promethean, endlessly beleaguered air about her, as though her life was a series of impossible tasks done to no applause. While Cohoes seemed to dominate in the courtroom--generating the most laughs, raising the most successful objections, creating the most artful analogies--it would turn out that Tilsen had the winning strategy, capitalizing on the peculiarly Midwestern belief that wit and style exist primarily to conceal deceit.
We saw a parade of witnesses for the prosecution, including Glen Oultman and Myrne Bunker, and a lot of cops, most of whom seemed to be there to prove that a crime had in fact been committed. There was the rookie officer, and the detective who went and picked up all the bullet casings, measured where they fell, and took pictures of the scene. He looked like something out of central casting: big polyester plaid jacket, hair that was dyed, or a toupee, or some big ratty awkward thing. The beat cop was fat and menacing and angry.
Javaris Milton wore prison clothes and had a tear-drop tattoo on his face. He had a deep, gravelly voice and the scraggly beard of a teenager. He seemed smart, and sort of impressed with himself for being in such a position of influence.
Keevin Hinton sat through the trial blithely. Sometimes he worked on a chart he had drawn up (probably about us jurors), sometimes he stared off into space or down at his lap. He seemed most engaged when he was pouring water from the carafe on the defense table. He looked like a kid stuck at the adults' table at Thanksgiving, with no choice but to politely endure the proceedings. Or he seemed cocky and arrogant, confident that he was going to get away with near-murder. Depends on who you ask.
The thing that now strikes me as most ironic about my jury experience is how much I wanted to be picked. They called 27 of us as prospective jurors, and three from the initial group were left back in the gallery as replacements in case people were excused from the jury pool "for cause." I got picked in the first 24, at random, and I remember smiling to myself. It felt like when you get picked for kick-ball teams as a kid--yes, everyone's going to get picked, but it makes you feel special anyway. I smiled because it was so silly to feel good about being picked.
The voir dire went on for four days. That's when you first get questioned by the judge to see if you're related to anyone in the case or any police officers, and whether you have had any negative experiences with the police, with criminals, with lawyers, with the jury system, or with government generally that will interfere with your ability to be a fair and impartial juror. When the judge is done, the two attorneys question each juror individually before the group.
In voir dire you find out things you'd never have an opportunity to know otherwise. We learned that one good-looking woman in a brown tweed suit was being divorced by her husband of 30 years for a younger woman, that her family house had been sold and she was living in an aunt's apartment temporarily, that one of her sons had recently declared bankruptcy, that she was unemployed and was due in court for her second DUI in two weeks. Hierarchies began to form: who had better jobs, better houses, better kids, fewer felony convictions. The gabby and gregarious coalesced into cliques; it was like the first days of summer camp. But these cliques weren't so harmless. They would carry over into the deliberations and change a man's life forever.
The defense attorney questioned me very briefly. Would it be a hardship for me to spend a night away from home if the jury became sequestered? No. (If he had asked if it would be a hardship to be wrested from my life, deprived of all civil liberties, and locked up with strangers until such time as some of us cracked, my answer would have been different.) The prosecutor questioned whether I thought it was possible for police to act improperly. I said yes. She asked me if I thought the police always acted improperly. I said no. She asked me if I thought I could be a fair juror. I said yes. What a sucker I was.
These are the people who were there with me, divided--as we would be for the four days we spent arguing--into "guilties" and "not guilties."
The most persuasive voice on the pro-conviction side was Veronica, a fierce firecracker of a divorce attorney from the western suburbs. Veronica was incredibly funny and incredibly persistent, exactly the sort of person you'd want in your corner for an ugly divorce battle. But she was a wily, manipulative foe when it came to deliberation.
Jerry was a giant teddy bear of a retired computer programmer, an ex-radio DJ with an exquisitely soothing, reasonable, and ultrapersuasive voice and manner. Todd was a youngish, name-dropping, Deadhead-style intellectual and one of the most patronizing people I've ever encountered. Esme was a supremely logical and clear-speaking woman who led a Bible group and worked as a loan officer. Gretchen was a young woman who mainly parroted Veronica, and there were two other people who said just about nothing. I believe that without Veronica's charisma and highly trained debating skills those two would have gone either way, though it must be admitted that one of them had a wife so frightened of Minneapolis that she wouldn't drive in to deliver clean clothes for him.
On the not-guilty side was Rachel, an African American woman from Minneapolis who talked little but had a great deal of personal authority; me, who talks too much; Connie, who kept quiet, but (from what I learned talking to her during breaks) suffered much. Melissa, a piercingly inquisitive woman who I think went through the same agonies I did. And Beulah.
Beulah was a piece of work, an ex-con with gaudy Chanel sunglasses, a cigarette-scarred voice that rumbled like a bulldozer on gravel, and a habit of cursing like a sailor. Her first mistake was telling Todd about her criminal past, for it took Todd about a minute to tell every other juror with his voice lowered and his eyebrows raised, as though this information discredited her. Beulah was the one who said, early in the voir dire: "I can't believe no one has mentioned the elephant in the courtroom--there's only one black face in this whole outfit, and it ain't mine."
Beulah was low-brow and street-smart, and in the cliquiness of the jury room every time she opened her mouth people shuddered. Her endorsement of any position made it seem untenable, and I'm sure that my willingness to constantly agree with her made me look loony, too. Yet I can't help thinking that if Beulah had been a high-priced lawyer in a Talbot's suit, Keevin Hinton would have gone free.
We split 7-5 after the first day and we stayed that way until an hour before we split 11-1 with Beulah as the only holdout. It took only another half hour before she turned and we went home to our cozy beds. Who knew that class and charisma were half of justice? Not me.
Later I learned that Beulah switched her vote because she felt the jury was about to turn into a lynch mob and attack her criminal past. She was probably right. We were like caged animals and would have done anything to get out of there; if the only way was through Beulah or through Keevin Hinton, so be it.
This is what being sequestered is like: One moment you're a virtuous citizen, sitting in a comfortable chair watching interesting characters say interesting things; the next you're deprived of all your civil rights and locked in a room with 11 other people until some of you have breakdowns. You can't make phone calls. Any notes you want to send to your loved ones will be edited.
The room you're sealed up in is only slightly larger than the long table that fills it. Your freedom is restricted to the distance between your chair and the wall--maybe four square feet. You can never do anything alone again. If you go to the bathroom you have to wait for the group or go in the little cubby toilet attached to the jury room, where everyone else gets to listen. You have no physical exercise. You eat at a big table just like the one at which you spent all day arguing. (Who sits where is closely watched: If a not-guilty sits next to a guilty, does that mean she's turning?)
Put in as many requests for soda, coffee, and water as you like, you won't get any of it until midafternoon. Meanwhile you drink warm tap water from the tiny bathroom, since the cold tap doesn't work. If you're losing your mind and want to skip dinner and go to bed early, too bad, you have to sit there and wait for the others to finish. People can drive you nuts simply by ordering dessert. The garbage cans overflow and reek: No one can enter to empty them. The room grows hot and airless, begins to stink with fear and anxiety.
Maybe none of this sounds particularly torturous. But I never realized how much I rely on running around the lakes and watching the ducks, how much I rely on privacy and my record collection and my cat to keep my sanity. I rely on my friends to say: Isn't this crazy? You'll never guess what so-and-so said. Am I crazy or is fill-in-the-blank crazy? Isolated from all reference points of what defines "crazy," crazy ideas start to seem reasonable.
When Todd's father had a heart attack, a deputy entered and said through a crack in the door: "Your father had a heart attack, he's in the hospital, everything's going to be OK." That was all the information he could get. Todd owned a business, and during voir dire he lost a large contract. When Todd wasn't worrying about his father he could have worried about that.
Gretchen had left her overnight bag in her car, parked a block from the Government Center. She thought it would be easy to pick up the bag. It was forbidden. She stored her contact lenses overnight in the hotel water tumblers, until her roommate drank one. She'd worn a pair of uncomfortable shoes that first day, leaving comfortable ones in the car. Gretchen spent the last days of jury duty like a shipwreck victim, limping, one-eyed, dressed in the same clothes she had been marooned in.
Veronica's young teenage daughter and even younger son were fending for themselves in the suburbs. Since Veronica didn't know this would happen she hadn't made any special plans. They didn't have emergency cash or supervision. When the deputies called these free-ranging kids each evening they said they were fine. Wouldn't you find that soothing?
On the fourth day Esme--who hadn't seen her nursing infant during the entire deliberation period--wrote a note to her husband, asking him to contact their lawyer to get her out. The note was never delivered. (You're allowed to send messages from the jury room via the sheriff's deputies. You write out a note and phone number, they call and read your message to the recipient. However, messages are often not delivered for hours after you've written them, and the deputies tend to revise responses into banalities for fear of "worrying" you. Needless to say, this information blackout serves only to worry you more.)
As for myself, I was wearing the same clothes I'd hastily put on four days earlier and was vividly aware of the deadlines in my professional life falling like dominoes, potentially ruining contacts, relationships, finances. I was also terrified of how my convictions were wavering, and was obsessed with how the urge to get out might make me change my mind, how self-preservation could easily lead to self-deception. I was right to be afraid. I cried myself to sleep the last two nights--from exhaustion, from fear--and would wake up a few hours later to sit in bed, face tear-swollen, watching my lone pair of underwear dry on the heating vents while I made lists of things that I thought would convince the other jurors.
And I was lucky, because I had a room to myself. Some jurors were spending the night with people they had been arguing with all day, and Veronica made a point of moving from room to room to work the holdouts.
By the end of the fourth day we were all sleepless, unexercised, ill-fed, and hysterical. Four of us had been openly weeping at one time or another. I wouldn't have trusted myself to drive a car, to fry an egg, to hold a conversation. If you were ever falsely accused, this is the condition of the people you'd be relying on to determine your fate.
So why didn't we simply declare ourselves a hung jury? The only answer I have is that the deliberations gradually drove us insane. Veronica, the divorce attorney, would lead, asking you a series of yes-or-no questions: Do you believe Oultman could have seen the shooter? Do you believe Milton could have seen the shooter? Do you have any testimony that the defendant was framed? Then explain why two people would identify the same stranger as the shooter. If you can't, then you've got to find him guilty.
Once you said no, Todd would break in to tell you how frustrated he was to be stuck with you, since your dimness and illogic was ruining his life. Then Jerry would tell Todd to settle down, and would logically and numbingly rehash every piece of testimony as he heard it in a soothing monotone until one of the others would break in with some question about why you had agreed to serve as a juror if you weren't up to it, and then Veronica would start in on you again. And again. And again.
Meanwhile you realized you weren't skilled enough at oral argument to show that two maybes don't create proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That if Glen Oultman said he wasn't sure about whether the shooter he saw was Keevin Hinton, that in itself was a reasonable amount of doubt. That a presumption of innocence means that the not-guilty jurors shouldn't be required to make a waterproof case for their belief. That the unanswerable questions were not just peripheral uncertainties, but a giant knot at the heart of the matter, and that the oath you took didn't include unraveling it; that just because you could imagine a neat grid of events didn't make it reality.
But you couldn't explain all this as well as you once might have, because every thought had taken to pinging around in your skull like super-bouncy balls. You didn't grow to hate your fellow jurors, because you knew they were nice, reasonable people; they were suffering as much as you were, and you both witnessed and felt their pain. And worst of all, you needed their understanding, their sympathy, their approval. They were your only life now. The group had become a community, a family, a secret society with its own powerful ad-hoc myths.
The most problematic of those myths concerned the gallery, the area in the back of the courtroom where Keevin Hinton's friends and supporters sat. Todd insisted he could tell that one large bald black man who arrived in snazzy sunglasses and a shiny outfit was threatening witnesses and causing them to change their testimony. Todd called him Mr. Big. Todd also claimed he could identify Javaris Milton's tattoos as gang symbols marking him as a successful murderer. (Just try refuting this. I said it was unfounded speculation and ridiculous, but could anyone, especially a bunch of hysterical sleepless people puffed-up on self-importance and grasping for any clue, really forget it?)
Gretchen insisted that if Hinton went free it would send the wrong message "to all of them"; when asked who "they" were, she pointed to the people in the gallery. Cindy was made to feel clueless and naive because she was in a seat from which she couldn't see the gallery. Jurors got excited about how all our names and addresses were available to Keevin Hinton, and what if his gang pals came after us? This is the sort of hysteria that doesn't get forgotten once it's raised. I bet it happens a lot in Minnesota courtrooms.
In fact, I know--and so do the people who are in positions to do something about it. In 1993, the Minnesota Supreme Court appointed a Racial Bias Task Force that after two years of investigation diagnosed "pervasive" bias in the court system and formulated 134 recommendations to improve matters. The document is gathering dust while an implementation commission discusses what to do.
Meanwhile there's still a 40 percent chance that a Minnesota jury will be all white. More than likely it will also be predominantly middle-class. Jurors are pulled from voter records and drivers' licenses; poor people are less likely to vote and drive. Also excluded are people whose jobs won't allow jury leave, like temps. Jury duty presumes the sort of stable job (and, for that matter, stable home life) we're told not to expect in an age of global competition.
All of which meant that we had a jury of 11 white people and one black woman sitting in judgment on two young black men. If you are white, imagine 11 young black men trying to assess your motives and truthfulness based on your clothes and body language, and by your friends who could get off work and show up in the gallery.
At the end of the second day of deliberations, we sent a note to the judge saying that we could never reach a conclusion. She called in both attorneys and Keevin Hinton, then sent us back for further deliberations.
We'll be here 'til Christmas. I can't be here 'til Christmas. If you can't accept the facts and do what you swore you'd be able to do, we'll be here until Christmas. It was said so many times it became gospel. When we asked the sheriff's deputies how long we could expect to be sequestered, they all said the same thing: This is nothing. You could be here for months. They said this in order not to influence our deliberations. But it influenced us anyway, and if they had told us the truth--that this length of deliberation was exceptionally rare--we would have been more likely to recognize how out of control we were, and perhaps there wouldn't have been a miscarriage of justice.
Between Jerry's ultrareasonable DJ voice, Todd's snotty exasperation, Victoria's expert questioning, my own nerves, the desperate situation, and all the pleading faces in the room, I finally changed my mind a self-serving hour before we'd have headed for another night in another hotel. I asked myself if I was sure, if I was right, and the only answer I got was an empty echo. I thought that when I asked myself that question and received, for the first time, an answer with no pain, that that meant I was right.
Was this evil? Weakness? Shock? How could someone be convinced an innocent man is guilty? I don't have a clear answer. But I read about a 1991 Tucson case in which four innocent men confessed to the murder of nine people at the Buddhist temple Wat Promkunaram. The four suspects, fingered by a delusional resident of a psychiatric institute, were whisked off from their ordinary lives, but not formally arrested. They were treated well, given plenty of fast food and cold drinks, and allowed to rest, but they were cut off from all of their ordinary contacts and talked to endlessly.
It took them 72 hours to crack, just slightly less than it took us. Leo Bruce, one of the accused, explained his false confession like this: "My head felt like it was hollow... Everything echoed in there... I don't know how to put it... [It was like] when I when in for surgery and they put anesthesia on me. It was like a dream, and I couldn't wake up and I couldn't do anything to get out of it."
Five hours before I changed my mind I announced to those around me that if people had been arguing with me for four straight days that two plus two is five, I would have already given in. I said I believed that you could convince anyone of anything through this process. I said I hardly knew myself. People nodded. Esme, one of the most level-headed, down-to-earth women I've ever met, was sitting across from me. She didn't say: "That's terrible" or "If you feel like that, this process has gone terribly wrong." She simply agreed.
We reached our decision and were sprung by dinnertime. I used to wonder how the O.J. jury could have reached a decision after only four hours. Now that I know they were sequestered for months beforehand I'm amazed it took them that long.
It wasn't until after the case was over that I found out it's extremely rare for a Minnesota jury to stay out this long. Perhaps that's because Minnesota, unlike other states, requires all juries in felony cases to be sequestered. Veteran criminal-defense attorney Ron Meshbesher says in most of his cases "you give them the case in the morning and they have a verdict by evening, before they ever end up going to the hotel."
The jury in the case of accused Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols isn't sequestered. At the end of every day they go home to their ordinary lives. I believe that by the time they reach their verdict, they will feel confident in their decision, not railroaded, browbeaten, and manipulated.
Feels like this is the part where I'm supposed to say: With all its flaws, it's still the best system on earth. But it doesn't feel that way to me, and I'm sure it doesn't feel that way to Keevin Hinton. The day after I got out I wrote a letter to the judge explaining what, why, and how things had gone horribly wrong. The letter was passed on to Hinton, Cohoes, and Tilsen. It delayed Hinton's sentencing by a few days, and, since this was simultaneous with Louise Woodward's sentencing in the nanny case, I held out some hope that Judge Cara Neville would declare the whole thing a mistrial.
But what holds for internationally famous cute white girls doesn't hold for unknown African American men. The judge sentenced Keevin Hinton to 15 years. He won't be eligible for parole for 10. David Cohoes, the public defender, would tell me later he's never been so surprised by a verdict. He thought the state's case was so pathetically weak no jury starting with a presumption of innocence could vote to convict.
Perhaps that's why Cohoes didn't tell us some of the other things I learned after the sentencing. About Keevin Hinton's three daughters, his fiancée, his role in raising his sister's children, and how he once saved a choking boy's life and was pictured as a hero in all the newspapers. About his lawsuit against that beat cop.
We were never told if Milton might be striking a deal for his testimony, but the day after Hinton was convicted, Milton went free. I can't help but think that Hinton would have gotten off if we had known those things, but I've noticed I like to grasp at straws nowadays.
After the sentencing Hinton's mom, his best friend, and Hinton himself called me, to thank me. To thank me. Not to blame me for capitulating and ruining a dozen lives, but to thank me for speaking up after it was over. I never knew how profound shame could be.
I'm ashamed of myself, of our judicial system, of a process that depends much more on fickle charisma and likability than any ex-high-school nerd would ever be comfortable with. I'm ashamed and angry that as a society we're entrusting our most important decisions to people who are locked up without warning and badgered until they break down.
People tell me all the things you'd expect them to: that I'll get over it, that I shouldn't feel responsible, that I played only a minor role, that I did all that was expected of me, that it's a blessing that I'm in a position to tell the story. I suppose they're all right, but I still feel like a sham. I know that when I got sprung I was hysterical, could hardly spend 10 minutes without crying, and was trying to figure out how to give half my income to Keevin Hinton's family. I've already justified my way out of that one, and I'm sure in another six months I'll hardly think about this appalling experience.
Before then, I think it's time to realize that we've been given a wake-up call with a series of high-profile judicial eyebrow-raisers--O.J., the Menendez brothers, Rodney King, Louise Woodward. If we don't recognize how fickle the justice system is and find a way to make it better, our grandchildren are going to look at us the same way we look at Minnesotans who participated in our great historical embarrassments--the Mankato Massacre, Depression-era anti-Semitism, World War II internment camps. Bad deeds by good people won't go unpunished.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.