The attorney for the young man charged with murder in Baltimore Circuit Court apparently didn’t like the look of me. Or my answers during preliminary questioning known as voir dire. Or what I do for a living. I really don’t know.
I just know he rejected me as a juror for his client on Tuesday.
At the time, I knew only the defendant’s name and the two charges against him: Eugene Alexander James; felony murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence that occurred on the 700 block of North Grantley Street on Sept. 15.
I guessed he was being held in jail by the clothes he wore; they looked to have been brought in for trial, but likely not from his closet. They were too big, the pant legs were rolled up, along with the shirtsleeves. There were four people in the back of the courtroom watching the jury selection, but I didn’t know if they were there to support Mr. James or the person he’s charged with killing. And then I was cut loose. I have no idea what happened next.
Back at the office Wednesday, having completed my civic duty, I learned that the shooting location was in a particularly deadly section of East Baltimore; The Sun’s homicide map shows multiple victims in that area last year. I also learned that Mr. James had turned 26 last week, according to online court records, and that the murder charge was in the second degree, meaning it wasn’t premeditated. I don’t know if he has a juvenile record; that information isn’t public. But he has a limited adult record: various traffic violations, a dropped drug possession charge and this case. Quite a leap.
The man he’s accused of shooting, discovered by matching the incident location and date to The Sun’s homicide database, was barely a man: Kahlil Alston, 18. Kahlil’s girlfriend memorialized him on Instagram the day after he was killed, posting pictures and video and scores of broken hearts.
“Mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn everybody telling me be strong HOWWWWWWWWW ??? I just was taking these pics with you the other day,” she wrote.
Maybe Mr. James’ lawyer didn’t trust that I wouldn’t look up his client before rendering a verdict. If I were in his position, I’m not sure I would fully trust me, either. As I told the lawyers during voir dire, I once covered courts in Baltimore as a reporter. It’s what we’re trained to do. But then again, it’s what everyone’s trained to do these days — to “google,” as the judge put it.
Whatever the reason I was let go, I was relieved, as were many others set loose in the final moments of jury selection. “Thank you, Jesus,” one women muttered, to laughter that felt both natural after several hours of sitting and out of place considering the circumstances. The trial was scheduled to last three to four days, the judge had said, and, given the charges, the defendant was facing decades in prison if convicted.
Choosing that fate for someone is a heavy responsibility to bear — especially knowing the problems with policing and simply existing in certain parts of the city. When we were moved across the street from one courthouse to another, each of us wearing our juror number name tag, a black man passing by called out to us: “The system is evil, let them brothers go, jurors! Let them brothers go!”
It’s a fraught process, selecting a jury of someone’s supposed peers. What can you really tell from a person’s appearance and voluntary answers to a short list of questions about their relationships to crime and law enforcement? Race, but that’s not supposed to be a consideration. Economic status to a degree, or maybe marital status if they’re wearing a ring. You can see if they remembered to bring a book, and possibly judge its cover, but so what? You can’t see an unreported rape or child lost to opioid addiction or a life bootstrapped into success without any shortcuts or any other number of experiences that color a person’s perception.
At higher profile trials — like former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s in 2009 — defense attorneys search the web for clues about potential jurors before selecting them, in the same way I sought details on Mr. James afterward. What I found was scant.
The actual jurors will have days of testimony to consider; the names of more than two dozen potential witnesses, most of them law enforcement, were read during jury selection. And they will make of it what they will, perhaps even beyond a reasonable doubt — the best we can do for justice.
One certainty: Kahlil will still be gone.
Tricia Bishop is The Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @triciabishop.