Friday, February 11, 2011

Twelve Average Citizens

by Ramona DeFelice Long

On a Tuesday night in a small town, three men plan a drug deal. For the purposes of this post, I will call the three men the Driver, the Passenger, and the Shooter.

The trio rendezvous with a dealer at McDonald’s, but the deal goes awry and a gun is fired. The local police get a 911 call. Two officers respond and there’s a chase through downtown. Finally, the getaway car pulls over.

The Driver sits alone in the front seat. The Passenger and the Shooter are in the back. As the police cruiser pulls alongside, the Shooter raises a 9mm pistol and fires one shot through the open side window. The bullet hits the face of the police officer in the passenger seat. A fragment hits the neck of the officer who is driving.

The Driver jumps out of the car, runs across the street and darts into the nearby woods.

The Shooter also runs. He takes the gun with him while the wounded second cop places a frantic officer down call.

The Passenger stays at the scene. He moves the getaway car forward, opens the door of the police cruiser and helps the badly bleeding officer out onto the grass.

Soon, the area is inundated with law enforcement and citizens drawn to the chaos. The town is surrounded and virtually shut down while a hunt for the Shooter and the Driver begins. Heavily armed officers knock on doors; a K-9 unit struggles in the dense woods while a state police helicopter with heat sensors flies overhead.

Before long, the Shooter is captured at a nearby residence—the home of strangers who allowed him to use their telephone. The 9mm is in his possession when the police find him. While handcuffed, the Shooter falls off the front porch of the house. In the mug shot taken that night, the Shooter’s face is bruised and swollen.

The manhunt for the Driver continues for days. He finally turns himself in at the urging of his mother.

At the scene of the shooting, the wounded first officer dies in the arms of a stranger.

This is not a work of fiction. This is a very simplistic account of September 1, 2009 in Georgetown, Delaware, and the killing of Patrolman Chad Spicer and the wounding of his partner, Shawn Brittingham.

Seventeen months have passed. The trial for this case began two weeks ago. The Shooter is charged with, among other things, capital murder. The Driver is charged with a slew of serious but lesser crimes. The Passenger is charged with nothing at all.

I am writing this on Tuesday morning. The case rested yesterday afternoon. Right now, the jury deciding the fate of the Shooter is—literally—still out.

Delaware is a small state. It would be hard to find anyone unfamiliar with blond, smiling, home town boy Chad Spicer, or his adorable three-year-old daughter Aubrey, or his distraught, devastated parents. Images of flowers, balloons and “Rest in Peace” notes near the spot where he died, and of Vice President Joe Biden covering his face and sobbing into his hands at the memorial service, are heart-rendering reminders of that night.

During the trial, graphic autopsy photos were shown. Expletive-filled text messages about drugs and money were read. Veteran police officers choked up on the witness stand. The Driver and the Passenger testified, as did the drug dealer. The Shooter did not.

Hard questions were asked about the Shooter’s bruises and the chain of custody for evidence. Gunshot residue found on both the Shooter and the Passenger was hashed over. The credibility of witnesses, the absence of charges, the making of deals in exchange for testimony were all discussed.

And through it all, the family of Patrolman Spicer sat in the courtroom.

I have followed this case closely, and one thing has become very, very clear.

I would not want to be on this jury.

Last year, I was called to jury duty. I blogged about the experience, which was both enlightening and encouraging. I assume the jurors in Georgetown want to do the right thing.

The title of this post references a famous play about a jury that tries a case in the deliberation room. That’s fiction. Jurors are not supposed to solve the crime. A real jury is only to consider the evidence presented.

As I read accounts of the Georgetown trial, I realized that the mystery writer in me would find that a challenge. How fairly could I weigh just the evidence when my day job requires me to look deeper and be creative and imaginative? Could I look at the defendant and believe only what is told to me? Could I not wonder about his motivation? Do I pretend I never heard the yuk-yuk “he fell down the courthouse steps, Your Honor”? Is it possible to turn all of that off?

A verdict may come at any time, and I cowardly admit that I’m glad I’m not deciding it.

Can a mystery writer be a fair juror? Could you? I never wondered this before, but the trial in the killing of Patrolman Chad Spicer has filled me with more than reasonable doubt about it.

Addendum: A short time after I finished writing this post, a verdict was delivered. The Shooter was found guilty.


Annette said...

Ramona, I find stories like this so heartbreaking. Here in Pittsburgh, we lost three officers in a shooting that happened not long after I completed the city's Citizen's Police Academy, and I helped work the funeral. It was horrendous.

I'm glad the jury came back with a guilty verdict, but it's small compensation to that brave boy's family.

NancyM said...

I don't think I could be an unbiased juror. As you point out, Ramona, I'd be trying to "solve" the case, not judge the evidence---with is a fine line, but a line nonetheless.

Plus---although I have concluded that I could never condemn anyone to the death penalty, I am completely blinded by emotion in a case of a police officer. It must be the definition of a heinous crime.

NancyM said...

ps. Great blog!

Maryann said...

I have been on juries several times in my life. Deciding someone's fate, whether for drunk driving or criminal action, is not a comfortable feeling. I've even served as fore-person on one. No one else would do it, so I volunteered in the interest of getting us out of the courthouse before we all got too old. Thankfully in that case the evidence was both testimony and videotape, which made the decision a little easier (except for the one person who thought the cop's dashboard camera could be construed as invasion of privacy). A murder trial? Please no. I'm fearful that I would have already made up my mind, especially in a case such as you describe. It's a human failing, at least in my case. It takes courage to judge, and more courage to impose death in that judgement. Plus, Chuck has worked with the police in a forensic capacity several times...I think I'd be excused. Guilty sounds like the right call in this case, though. But Annette said it...small compensation to the family.

Laurie said...


Thanks for thought provoking post. What a tragedy.

Joyce Tremel said...

Excellent post, Ramona.

I'm glad the jury found the shooter guilty. And I have absolutely NO problem with him being bruised from "falling down the steps."

The only time I was called for jury duty was for federal court. I didn't get picked. The trial was for someone suing a police officer for false arrest. As soon as they heard I worked for a PD, I was dismissed.

Karen in Ohio said...

I'd like to think I could be impartial and unbiased. But it's one of those you-don't-really-know-until-it-happens kind of things, isn't it?

Having spent nearly two years as a Police Science major, married to a cop for three years, and being friends with cops for many more, I also know that cops are equally human, and also make mistakes. It's not the easiest job in the world, by a long shot, and police officers, even though they may be well-trained, still bring all-too human failings into the job with them, and sometimes with heart-breaking results, one way or the other. The daily sacrifices that police officers make, in both their jobs and their private lives, make their jobs almost impossible, and yet they manage to do them, and mostly do them well.

I'm on the fence about the death penalty. On the one hand I think it's barbaric; on the other hand there are some crimes so senseless and horrific that putting the perpetrator to death seems to be the only fitting punishment. Again, a difficult call to make, and one I hope I never need to decide.

C.L. Phillips said...

I found this story riveting - and one details surprises me. Why was the Passenger not charged? I thought if you were in the company of those committing a crime, it was one for all and all for one.

My prayers go out to all involved in the case, jurors included. This cannot be an easy thing to carry in your heart.

Ramona said...

Now that the post is posted, I can say that I do believe, from all accounts I read in the case, that the Shooter was guilty. I think his defenders did a good job in their efforts to provide him with a worthy defense, which was their job and is his right as a citizen.

I think a lot of people here expected this to be the proverbial open and shut case, and that didn't happen. I think that's a good thing. Everyone did what they were supposed to do, and none of it was easy. Although this is probably little comfort to Patrolman Spicer's family, justice and the lawful process do mean something.

Ramona said...

Annette, your experiences with the CPA have really led you into unexpected places. I remember when you were asked to help with that funeral. A small way to pay back.

Nancy, Karen, Maryann--I realize now that I probably have shot to hell any chance of ever being on a jury, just by posting this! Last year, when I was in the jury pool for a capital murder trial, I did the soul-searching about whether or not I could vote for the death penalty. I decided then that I could.

C.L., the reason the Passenger wasn't charged was two-fold. First, he stayed to aid the fallen officer, which I'm sure went a long way in his favor. Most importantly, he was a primary witness against the Shooter, as they were together in the back seat. The state struck a deal with him for his testimony. But that has not been a popular decision, by any means. A lot of "fry all three of them" comments have flown around.

Patg said...

I think it is the obligation of any of us being called for jury duty to advise the judge that we have warped ideas about murder cases. I'd probably have ten scenerios over what happened in my mind even before I got up on the stand.
Not good.

Ellis Vidler said...

Fascinating and tragic. I can see why the Passenger wasn't charged, and it seems clear that the Shooter shot the police officers without warning. In that case, I could accept the death penalty. The times I can't are when the evidence is all circumstantial. The shadow of doubt is not something to take lightly, no matter what my imagination fills in. Really good post.