A few years ago we briefed an appeal from probably the worst trial since Sacco and Vanzetti. When Judge “This-is-MY-courtroom” Napaloni wasn’t screaming at the defendant and his lawyer, he was encouraging the prosecutor to put in outrageously prejudicial-not-remotely-probative evidence. All to keep the jury from being “misled” into returning the wrong verdict.
The last straw was when a police witness started reading to the jury a list of guns confiscated in an unrelated case, which just happened to include the same kind of guns (but not the same ones) as in the defendant’s case. “That wasn’t my shit!” protested our young man. “That wasn’t my house!” “Quiet!” roared His Honor. “If you don’t like it, why don’t you get up and testify?”
The judge kicked him out of the courtroom for the rest of the trial, blowing off the defense lawyer’s pleas that it wouldn’t happen again and that the Constitution frowns on trials in absentia. But after the trial was over, he graciously allowed the defendant back into the courtroom to hear his sentence.
When asked if he had anything to say, the soon-to-be-our-client observed that the judge and the prosecutor had been sucking each other off for the whole trial. An accurate assessment in our opinion, although we wouldn’t have put it that way. Judge Napaloni, with a merry twinkle in his eye, sentenced him to 107 years.
So imagine our horror last week when we were summoned for jury duty and found ourselves in the bailiwick of none other than Judge Napaloni. Even more shocking was that instead of the usual strapping presumed-innocent at the defense table was a frail old man. Murder with a justification defense, they said.
“Does anyone recognize me?” asked the judge of the 50 potential jurors in the courtroom. We raised our hand. We recognized him from his picture. “Is it still up in the Post Office?” he chortled and went on to something else. Giving us no chance to tell everybody that not too long ago the NY Post featured a huge photo of him on the bench surreptitiously vaping behind his beard.
OMG, he was just a great big lovable teddy bear, cracking jokes, some of them funny, and very sincere indeed about the importance of jury duty. This is the only country in the world, he explained, where a criminal – er- an accused – is entitled to the judgment of 12 of his peers. And it’s very, very important not to pre-judge cops, but see them as individuals who put on their pants one leg at a time.
Back at the office, our colleagues opined with much hilarity, “You’ll never get picked for a jury!” But dammit, jury duty is important! We’ve seen how the People routinely reduce the charges for the very purpose of depriving the defendant of his right to a jury. (You’re not entitled to a jury for “petty” misdemeanors). And how, when no sensible jury would have convicted, the judge who tries the case is afraid to acquit for fear of getting his picture in the NY Post with a caption like JUDGE FREES PERV CHILD MURDERER. Even if it’s only a subway fare beat.
And why assume we can’t be fair and impartial just because we’re a defense attorney? Don’t we put on our pants one leg at a time, just like any other juror? Well, yeah, except. . . we know Judge Napaloni’s penchant for handing out 100+ year sentences. Should we say something when he asks if we promise not to consider the sentence? Of course that would get us instantly sent back to Central Jury and put onto some eye-glazing civil case that goes on for three months before they settle. But could registering our disapproval at least make him think twice about handing a century to that little old man if he’s convicted? We thought about it all weekend.
Back in court on Monday morning, there were only about 30 potential jurors left. We recognized our deli man from the Flatbush Food Co-op. Good to see a familiar face, although our only exchanges up to then had been along the lines of, “Do you want collards or kale?”
It was our turn to be individually questioned. We’d each been given a questionnaire to which we had to answer aloud, “Number two, yes, number three, no,” and so on. But if your answer to “Are you employed?” is yes, you have to say what you do. So we did.
Judge Napaloni, fixing us with a terrible eye, bellowed, “You’re not going to second-guess my rulings, are you?” “Absolutely not, Your Honor,” we bravely squeaked.
What happened to our resolve to explain that we should be seen as an individual, fair and impartial, putting on our pants one leg at a time, etc.? Alas, neither the prosecutor nor the defense attorney so much as looked at us while questioning the other jurors. It was like there was a bee over our head.
So we didn’t get picked. But maybe it was because we answered “Flatbush Food Co-op” when asked what organizations we belonged to. The lawyers so obviously liked the deli man, it was no contest between him and us. Poor guy, he’ll be in court for a good three weeks. But eventually we’ll get to hear about the verdict over the collards and kale.