Notes on a Murder Trial: October 9-11, 2001

In early October, 2001, with the country still stinging from the terrorist attacks of a month before, I was called for jury duty in Cook County, Illinois. Chicagoans and suburbanites know that being called for Cook County jury duty means that you will be assigned to one of three courthouse locations. The Rolling Meadows courthouse is a few blocks from where I live in the suburbs. This courthouse handles relatively minor crimes and traffic accidents. The Daley Center is in Chicago’s Loop, so it’s located in an interesting area, easy to reach by mass transit. Daley Center trials tend to be white collar crimes and tort cases. The third location is 26th and California, the site of trials for Chicago’s most violent cases, located alongside the maximum security division of the Cook County jail.

I was assigned to 26th and California and seated as a juror for a first-degree murder trial. When the trial was over, I had to write about it. Since then, I’ve shared what follows here with various audiences and readers. Several teachers have asked me for copies of this to use in class, usually in conjunction with their units on Twelve Angry Men or To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m posting it here with the hope that it will be helpful to teachers and students seeking to understand America’s criminal justice system.

Please be aware that the authentic nature of this posting requires the use of some rough language.

Lenard Rogers, aka Marchees al-Fariq, was apparently a pretty despicable human being. At least no one said he wasn’t, including his mama, but she wasn’t asked. He’d been a security guard at a seedy South Side building with around fifty “studio” apartments,that is one room and a bathroom. In early 1998, he was somehow elevated to building manager.
Marchees seemed to get his kicks out of hassling the elderly residents. He wanted to change long-standing rules; he called them crude names; he argued with and berated them rather than address their issues and concerns.

One of the residents, 72-year old James Ferguson, had a particular problem with Marchees. They argued frequently, even though Mr. Ferguson was a pretty simple guy. He had worked as a construction laborer for the same company for forty years. He was retired and had been collecting pension checks for nine years.

The building where Mr. Ferguson lived and which was managed by Marchees had a postman named Mr. Hall. Mr. Hall bent the rules a little bit for the elderly residents of the building. The building had a “hotel” postal designation, which meant that the mail was delivered to the building manager’s office, and it was the manager’s duty to deliver the mail each day to each resident’s apartment. But if Mr. Hall saw a Social Security check or a pension check in the day’s mail, he would drop it off directly to the resident.

Sometime in November, 1998, Mr. Hall was transferred to other postal duties. The new mail carrier followed the rules.

Mr. Ferguson was used to receiving his pension checks on the first, second, or third day of each month. He’d received his pension check like that every month for nine years. On December 3, 1998, he hadn’t yet received his $801 check, his only income. He called the pension office and was told they would stop payment on his original check and send the paperwork necessary to request a replacement check. That arrived in a few days, and Mr. Ferguson filled it out and returned it.

In the meantime, on a daily basis, Mr. Ferguson went down to the manager’s office to see if his original check had come. Marchees didn’t like these visits and called Mr. Ferguson “nigger,” “you old gray sonofabitch,” and “gray motherfucker.”

On December 21, the pension office called Mr. Ferguson to say that a replacement check was just sent to him via certified mail and that it should arrive within two days.

On December 23, Mr. Ferguson’s neighbor called him to say that she had just seen the mail carrier leave the building manager’s office. Mr. Ferguson immediately went down there to ask Marchees if the check was there. Marchees was seated at his desk, and he said, “No, your check isn’t here. Get your old gray motherfucking ass out of here.”

Then James Ferguson reached into the right pocket of his denim overalls, or “jumper” as Mr. Ferguson called it, pulled out a silver-plated semi-automatic .32 caliber pistol, and shot Marchees once in the head as he sat at his desk. The bullet went in the right side of his head between the temple and the ear. It penetrated about four inches into his brain, and he died of the wound on December 26, 1998.

After shooting Marchees, James Ferguson left the office and saw his old friend Charlie McCoy, the building’s janitor. He told Charlie that he had just shot Marchees and tried to give Charlie the pistol, but Charlie wouldn’t take it. So Mr. Ferguson went back up to his apartment and laid the pistol on the bed. Then he turned on his TV and waited for someone to come. Before too long, his friend Cassandra Moore came over and said, “I just heard you shot Marchees.” Mr. Ferguson said he sure did.

The police came and arrested James Ferguson. He cooperated in every way. They took his other pistol too, the one that belonged to his daddy. Down at the station, he was interviewed by two detectives. He told them what happened. He said he would shoot Marchees again if he had it to do over. He told them about the names Marchees had called him, and he told them he thought Marchees had his pension check in his pocket.

Assistant State’s Attorney Karen Kervis came to interview James Ferguson. He cooperated fully with her; he even smiled when she took a Polaroid picture of him for his case file. The only difference in his interview with Miss Kervis was that he wouldn’t say the words Marchees had said to him. He couldn’t do that in front of a lady.

James Ferguson was charged with first-degree murder. His son posted bond, and Mr. Ferguson left the police station.

The next day, when the manager’s office was no longer a crime scene, one of Mr. Ferguson’s friends went to the office. The pile of delivered mail was still there from the day before. On top of the pile was the yellow claim slip for Mr. Ferguson to bring to the post office to get his pension check. She took the claim slip to him. Mr. Ferguson’s son took him to the post office to pick up the check. He got it, and he cashed it.

Those are the facts, at least as I remember them as juror. But facts are slippery things. My impressions though.

First of all, James Ferguson sat across the courtroom from me for three days. Each day he wore clean bib overalls and a clean flannel shirt. One day the shirt was green plaid; another day it was blue plaid; I don’t remember the other day. Mr. Ferguson is a big man with close-cropped gray hair. Cassandra Moore said people called him Big Jim. He sat pensively and quietly, his hands folded on the table or sometimes resting on the head of his cane. He paid attention every moment. When he stood for each jury entry and exit, he rose slowly but found his way to a straight, respectful position. I never saw him talk to his attorney. He just watched what was going on in his murder trial.

Charlie McCoy wore jeans and a white shirt. He was there every day. On the first day of the trial, he was a witness for the prosecution. After all, Mr. Ferguson told Charlie he had shot Marchees, and then he tried to give the gun to Charlie. He was a prosecution witness and the defendant’s friend.

Charlie McCoy was completely incomprehensible. No one in the courtroom could understand a single word he said. He had no teeth and a speech mannerism that might as well have rendered him mute. When he wanted to give an affirmative answer, it came out like, “Hey-hey-upp.” The first time he gave an involved answer, the prosecuting attorney just stood there dumbfounded for thirty seconds or so. He then resorted to yes or no questions. (Although the jury wasn’t supposed to discuss the case, when we got back to the jury room, the only black male on the jury, a funny guy about 30 said, “I wanted to say to him, “What the HELL did you just SAY?!?” I cracked up.)

James Ferguson’s testimony was electrifying. He is stooped by age, so he made his way to the witness stand slowly but with deliberation. When asked why he shot Marchees, he said, “I mostly shot him because he wouldn’t quit calling me those names.”

The prosecuting attorney said, “He’d called you names before. Why didn’t you shoot him earlier?” James said, “I didn’t shoot him earlier because I didn’t want to.”

The prosecutor said, “You called him names too, didn’t you?” Mr. Ferguson proudly said, “I did not.”

In one of the trial’s most poignant moments, the prosecutor said, “You tried to give Charlie McCoy that pistol. You knew you’d done something wrong, didn’t you?” James Ferguson leaned forward and said, “Now I don’t remember doing that, but Charlie McCoy is my friend and a good man. He wouldn’t tell a lie on me. At least I don’t think he would. If Charlie said I done that, I must’ve done it.” And with this statement, James Ferguson gave his endorsement of credibility to his friend, one of the prosecution’s primary witnesses.

Mr. James Ferguson freely admitted to shooting Lenard Rogers, aka Marchees al-Fariq. He felt no remorse. He was and is a simple man who doesn’t look backward. A thing happened, and now some other things would happen because of it.

Our deliberations didn’t take long. Some of the jurors had watched a little too much TV, and they thought the concept of “pre-meditation” was somehow relevant, but it wasn’t. Mr. Ferguson hadn’t really pre-meditated the killing, of course. He said that he didn’t go get a gun to take down to the manager’s office; he always carried a gun. He carried a gun to take out the garbage, he said. He doesn’t live in a very safe neighborhood.

After we got past the pre-meditation issue, things fell into line pretty quickly. In order to be guilty of first-degree murder in Illinois, two circumstances must be proven: (1.) the defendant committed an act which resulted in the death of another person, and (2.) when he committed the act, he knew that the act had the probability of causing death or great bodily harm to the other person. Each was proven.

The prosecution proved by a medical examiner’s testimony that Marchees died from a gunshot wound to the head. A firearms expert testified that the bullet that killed Marchees came from a certain pistol “to the exclusion of all others.” The crime scene officers testified that the identified pistol was the one they got from James Ferguson’s apartment. All of that testimony was a waste of time though because James Ferguson admitted everything.

The second aspect of the charge was only slightly more difficult to process. Mr. Ferguson said that he “pulled and fired, pulled and fired.” How could he not know that such an act had “the probability of causing death or great bodily harm”?

Guilty.

We went back in the courtroom, and I thought of this line from To Kill A Mockingbird: “A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson.”

Well, I looked right at James Ferguson. And when the jury was polled, I looked James Ferguson right in the eye when the judge asked me if I agreed with the verdict, and I said, “Yes, sir.” I thought James Ferguson was the kind of man who would appreciate being looked in the eye when given bad news, and that was all I had to offer him.

I’m not ashamed to admit that over the course of the trial I’d found something to admire in this man I’d just convicted. James Ferguson won’t be cussed. He won’t return swears. He won’t repeat swears in front of a lady. He won’t contradict his friend’s version of things. He only wanted his pension check.

After the trial was concluded, all four of the defense and prosecution attorneys came back to visit us in the jury room. Suddenly they were humans. I asked the lead defense attorney how Mr. Ferguson took the verdict, and he said with a glint of a tear that he had told Mr. Ferguson he was sorry. Mr. Ferguson said, “Don’t worry about it. You did the best you could.”

Another juror asked why this case took almost three years to come to trial. The prosecuting attorney said, “Mr. Ferguson has a tumor under his arm the size of a soda pop can. We kept putting it off, thinking that it would take care of itself. But he’s a tough old man, and he didn’t die.”

So James Ferguson, on December 23, 1998, had reached his limit. He fired a bullet into the brain of Lenard Rogers, aka Marchees al-Fariq, and it killed him. (It wasn’t the first bullet for Marchees. The medical examiner testified that he recovered a bullet fragment from his hip where he had been shot at some point in his past.) A bad guy is dead. A not-too-bad guy is in jail for his third night as I write this.

As I talked with people about the trial and my experience that night and the next day—I needed to talk about it—I said, “We followed the law, but I’m not sure we accomplished justice.”

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3 Responses to Notes on a Murder Trial: October 9-11, 2001

  1. amyrasmussen says:

    Incredible and moving reflection. My only experience being assigned to a trial was not one worthy of reflection, but it haunts me still. Some day perhaps I will write about it. Thank you for this great piece.

    Like

  2. Wow, Gary. This is such a wonderful piece. Thank you for sharing. I’m trying to think where to use this in my class. This passage, right here, made me immediately think of The Stranger: “He felt no remorse. He was and is a simple man who doesn’t look backward. A thing happened, and now some other things would happen because of it.” Even if it doesn’t fit there, I’ll make it fit somewhere else.

    Like

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