The best thing to come out of my time at Servantis, other than the chance to once again work with some truly outstanding people, was Jackson, who was born in September of 1995. If last names are interchangeable, middle names are downright disposable. So Rick and I chose to do something nice with our boys’ middle names. For Charlie, we gave him Paul, in honor of Rick’s dad who had passed on before Rick and I met. Then we surprised my dad by giving Jackson the middle name Edward. Imagine our surprise when one of Jackson’s closest friends growing up was also Jackson Edward.

Near the end of that year, when Jackson was a few months old and I was still gainfully employed at Servantis, I got a knock on my door at home. The mail carrier handed me a jury summons and I had to sign that I’d received it. ‘That’s odd,’ I thought. ‘Don’t these usually just come in the mail?’

Reading over this grand jury summons—more correctly, a subpoena—I noticed the time requirement: two days a week for two months. Are they serious? As a heart attack. And so for two months, instead of heading to Norcross on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would head downtown. On the first day, they excused a small handful of people who claimed this would be an unreasonable hardship. The pool of 50 or so was large enough that there was some wiggle room.

When all was said and done, without answering a single question about what I thought or believed, I was on the 23-person jury. “Are you resident of Fulton County?” was the only question asked. We were hustled into a room where a group picture was taken. Then they told us the drill. Each day, we would hear the evidence for about 100 felonies in Fulton County. After hearing it, we would vote to indict—“true bill”—or not—“no bill.”

It was our call whether we thought there was enough evidence, and also that the evidence was compelling enough to warrant an indictment. Supposedly, in Fulton County, the people tapped for grand jury are “the most experienced, upright and intelligent persons in the county.” It’s a demographic of people who meet measurable criteria—like income or a college degree—indicating one might have enough marbles for the task.

Police officers were most often the ones to tell us what went down. A typical scenario went something like this: “This is what I observed, this is what happened when I apprehended the perpetrator, and this is the evidence we now have.” Basically, if the grand jury didn’t buy their story, the police officer’s efforts had been for naught.

Throughout the day, we could leave and take a short break as long as at least 16 jurors always remained in the room. We’d go straight through lunch to finish by early to mid-afternoon. (I was actually extremely busy at work, so went straight to the office when we were done.) It was a continuous parade of two assistant DAs ushering in cops who would tell us about the bad thing that had happened.

One month in, we got word that a special grand jury was being convened, and we were likely it. The story had been in the local AJC since early December about a kid who was killed and a cop who was shot in a motorcycle shop. I read USAToday and only skimmed the local weekend paper, so I knew of the case but hadn’t followed it closely.

In early February of 1996, District Attorney Lewis Slaton brought charges of murder, felony murder and aggravated assault against the two cops, Officers Waine Pinckney and Willie Sauls. Slaton had been the Atlanta DA since 1965 and was due to retire that year. I had seen one month’s worth of indictments at that point and couldn’t begin to guess all that man had seen.

Ten years previous, when I had lived in downtown Philadelphia, I had come face to face with latent racism that surfaced in me. I now believe this is something I came into this lifetime to heal, and I had made good progress. Admittedly I still lived in a community where nearly everyone was white, but Rick and I loved going down to Little Five Points—an off-beat hodgepodge of people from all walks of life, where Rick had lived for a time—to see plays and musicals at the Horizon Theater. I lived a safe life, but not necessarily a sheltered one.

The jury itself was probably half-black, and I typically sat next to a tall, striking black woman who would practically purr whenever an officer named Julian came in to give testimony. He was a good-looking black guy, usually wearing a form-fitting black jumpsuit, who worked in the Red Dog unit. (Ok, I purred a little too, right along with my neighbor, when he showed up.) Most of the felonies in Fulton County happened in the roughest zones in Atlanta, and the lingo started to become familiar.

As our service got underway, I noticed that the date of the offense was often a year or more earlier. As jurors, we were encouraged to ask questions, so I raised my hand and inquired about this. “That’s just how long it takes for the system to get to this point of issuing an indictment,” they told us. “Many never make it this far, and even after, many then are settled out of court.” So when a case was read about a murder a few miles from my home, I was surprised to realize it had happened just a few weeks prior.

Racial tensions in a big city like Atlanta are not new, even though more recent events across the country have taken things to a whole different level, and racial inequality is an issue underpinning the whole ball of wax. I’d be naïve to say I understood this the way DA Slaton clearly would have. So I have no idea of all the drivers at play in his decision to prosecute these two police officers the way he did. But bottom line, he went after them with everything he had.

Over the course of a day and a half, we heard testimony from 37 people, including those who were directly involved, those who’d witnessed the shooting, and those who were doing the internal investigation. We heard evidence from all sides, but unlike a trial where there are attorneys who help the jurors sort it all out—undoubtedly biased, but still—we were left to make sense of things to the best of our ability. We were encouraged to take notes.

The direction we had been given as grand jurors was to determine if the accusation of a crime was supported by enough evidence to warrant sending the case on to trial. We weren’t just looking for a preponderance of evidence, but rather whether the case appeared to be supported by compelling evidence. There was a learning curve to suss out what this meant, and it helped to see it in action. By then, we’d had about 800 opportunities to get the hang of it (100 felonies a day, two days a week, for a month).

As people presented their evidence and witnesses shared their perspectives, a picture began to develop about what had happened on December 7 in the Moto Cycles Shop. I have a goodly amount of common sense, enough to realize that when stories contradict each other, there is probably some truth in there somewhere.

With all the testimony we heard—some of it contradictory and some of it seemingly lies—the puzzle-maker inside me went to work figuring out what made the most sense. Since I am a writer, I wrote a coherent view of what I thought happened that day, for my own personal use.

District Attorney Slaton had an agenda. I don’t know what it was, but I know he had one. One of his directives to the jury was that we should take a good long time deliberating before returning our verdict of true bill or no bill. In the end, after a few hours of deliberation, we voted not to indict the officers.

After the fire hose of testimony and evidence was presented, some jurors wanted to just go ahead and indict, and let them sort it all out at trial. And for sure, there was a lot we had to wade through. But in my opinion, we hadn’t been asked to vote on whether there was enough evidence. We had been tasked with the responsibility to determine if the case appeared to be supported by compelling evidence. Since the DA had bundled all the charges together, it boiled down to this: Was there compelling evidence that the officers were guilty of murder?

As we jurors deliberated the case in our supposedly private room, this point was discussed. I stated my opinion about it and what I had said resonated with a lot of people. Someone asked me to “stand up and say that again.” So I stood and started to repeat what I had said. Just then, a door at the end of the room opened up and DA Slaton walked in. What?

He said he was just checking on us, wanted to see how things were going, and did we need anything? Any questions? “Nope, we’re good.” He reiterated his point that we should take a long time before coming to a vote. But for the majority of us, our short answer to the essential question was clear: Absolutely not.

When our decision was released, there was no accompanying explanation for how we could have come to this conclusion. We had been given a gag order, told we could be held in contempt, or some such thing, if we talked with the press. I was beside myself, knowing the truth was far from having been told.

Fueled by some inner desire for justice, I called the AJC reporter assigned to this story named Rhonda. Paranoid about the kind of grief I could be pulling onto myself, I made the call as “an anonymous grand juror” using the phone at the Kinkos near my house. Unlike me, Rick read the whole AJC, and he knew this story was a powder keg filled with racial tension. He didn’t want me calling at all, but he especially didn’t want me calling from home.

Rhonda was delighted I was being a crusader. “I love a crusader!” she had crowed. In fact, as I tried to convey the actual facts of the story to Rhonda—a story that had already peaked in the papers and which wouldn’t merit many more column inches—here’s what she asked: “What’s the racial makeup of the jury?” Oh shit. That’s when I remembered the photo they’d taken the first day of grand jury duty. I had a five-month-old and a three-year-old at home; I couldn’t risk doing or saying any more than I already had.

To recap, here I was, a white girl from Northern Wisconsin caring deeply about justice for two black police officers and wanting comeuppance for the white vigilante who had shot one of them in the stomach without even looking at who he was shooting. I was aware that little of what was being reported in the papers was true—or what was true was buried under mounds of misdirection—and that when the truth was offered, the intention turned to inflaming the racial aspect of the situation.

Three people had been shot and one of them was dead. And from where I sat, none of what had happened had had anything to do with the color of anyone’s skin. Then again, it seemed a white DA was on a witch hunt to hang two black cops. Frankly, by the time it was over, it was hard to tell who was on the side of justice and who was not.

What does seem likely is that the police officers involved acted a bit like cowboys. On this point, I am inclined to cut them some slack. They were doing a job in which the pay is relatively low and the odds of getting shot at—relative to the kind of work I do—is quite high. I am grateful there are people in this world with enough cowboy or cowgirl in them to take this on. That doesn’t, however, give them license to abuse their authority.

It’s often crossed my mind that the only reason I am able to own a house and a little patch of land is because of the effective work of our police force, the ones who protect us. It’s not like I can port my house around with me like a camper, so what I really have then is an agreement with society saying no one gets to be in this space unless I say it’s OK. And no one can take or destroy what I have in this space. Without an effective police force, this agreement would be worth nothing; my home would be worth nothing. And I would be far less safe in my home.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t problems that need fixing in our protective services. But as with any other disharmony we encounter, it’s always a call to know more truth, which begins inside ourselves. We must search for our own threads of racism—in whatever form or flavor it appears—along with our rebellion against authority. Then we can turn our attention and our mature desire for change toward the situations that need addressing.

A week after all this business with the grand jury went down, Rick and I held a birthday party for Charlie and invited a boy whose dad was Ken, the art director I had formerly worked with. Atlanta is hardly a small town and yet, true story, the assistant DA who headed up the special investigation was the brother of Ken’s wife. So talking with Nan at the party wasn’t awkward at all.

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

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