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Civic Skinny

Tales from the courtroom, the newsroom and a hurricane

11/7/2012

Gerry Spence put on a show last week in Judge Robert Pratt’s federal courtroom. The flamboyant lawyer is representing Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee, who spent 26 years in prison for murder before the Iowa Supreme Court determined their trial was unfair. They were released in 2003 and never tried again. Now they’re suing the City of Council Bluffs and two police officers there. On Wednesday, the 83-year-old Spence began interviewing potential jurors.                

“Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen. I wish you’d all just smile because we’re all very serious here. Your Honor is correct about that, but we start out in these things uptight, and nobody’s more uptight about this case than I. I’ve been at this 30 years — 60 years. 60 years. 60 years, and every time I start a jury trial, I’m afraid, and I get over it. But — all of us will, and we’ll work so much better together if we kind of get gone with the spooks that are inside of us, or at least inside of me. You’d think after all those years, that wouldn’t be the case, but it is.                

“And I think we have to begin with the proposition that we are all human beings, all of us are humans. We’re almost all alike. There are differences, but we have a basic similarity. And I want to start off with myself by saying that I have certain biases and certain prejudices, and I don’t think there’s anybody alive that doesn’t have some bias or some prejudice.                

“For example, I have a bias in favor of the police. My belief is that most cops are good cops, and I grew up believing that if I needed to find — if I got lost — I grew up in a little town called Sheridan, Wyoming, and, Momma used to say, ‘If you get lost, Honey, find a policeman and he’ll get you home.’ And I’ve spent 84 years believing that all policemen — strike ‘all’ — that almost all policeman are good, hard-working, decent, honest people. How many of you agree with that?                

“Well, do you agree with that, too? So that’s my bias, and I’ve been a law and order man all my life. And so my question to you is, if we are biased in favor of the police to begin with, you believe, as I do, that most officers are decent and real, OK, this is a suit against two police officers. Can you make room for the possibility that there are, in our system, two police officers before you who don’t fit that mold? How many of you could make room for that possibility?”                

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And…                

“Now, I’ve got another problem, and that is I told you I was born in a little town in Sheridan, Wyoming. I never saw a black man, or a black woman. I didn’t know what black people looked like, and I went to the University of Wyoming where I never saw any black people. I’ve practiced for 60 years in the town of Jackson Hole, and other towns in Wyoming, where we have hardly any black people, and yet I find that I have something that I’m ashamed of. And that is there is something about me that I don’t like, and I don’t want to admit to. But I have a sense of prejudice, a little bit, against black people, and I don’t know why, and I wish I didn’t have it, and it makes me ashamed to admit it to you. I wonder if anybody else has that feeling. I’m all alone? Yes? Let me just say thank you.”                

And he was off and running in the civil trial in which the one-time prisoners are seeking lots of money to help compensate them for the 26 years they wrongly spent in jail. Soon the jurors too were talking about their own views of police and blacks and money. One thing he didn’t say: The two men already have received $12 million from the county.               

“It was masterful,” says a guy who sat through it all. …                

The Iowa courtroom was the place to be last week. New York was the place not to be. An Iowan who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., was trying to get back to his apartment after he and his wife had an appointment in Manhattan. His tale is not a tale of tragedy, and there are too many of those surrounding Hurricane Sandy, and not a tale of ingenuity, for there are lots of those, too. It’s just kind of interesting. His first strategy was to find a cab; that was laughable. His second was to find a shuttle bus.                

“But the line to get on the shuttle buses — my God, the line — stretches around an entire city block. My conservative estimate is that there are maybe 10,000 people in line waiting to get on one of those buses. The wait time surely must have been hours. This again is just not an option, so now we move on to plan C.”                

Plan C:                

“Walk home. Under normal circumstances, this is not a horrible thing. From where we are, it is about five or six miles, and healthy adults can do this in a couple of hours pretty easily. The two major problems with this plan are my increasingly aching back and the fact that we are now walking south into a vast urban sprawl without electricity while it is quickly getting dark outside.                

“Very dark outside.                

“The main streets at this point are still filled with pedestrians, and the police presence is still very heavy with cops directing traffic every few blocks or so. But I’ll be honest, I am getting a bit nervous about how safe we will be once it gets completely dark. My goal is to get to the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridge as soon as possible because across the river in Brooklyn all the lights are on and everything is much more normal.                

“Cabs are still flying by and in this part of town nobody is even bothering trying to hail them anymore because they know this is futile. Somewhere in the high 20s, my wife and I also start to see a military presence on the streets. Humvees, supply trucks and military personnel decked out in camouflage. Some appear to be patrolling streets while others appear to be setting up checkpoints.                

“It is seriously starting to look like one of those really bad NYC-has-gone-to-hell films. I assume the troops are national guardsmen, but I can’t tell. Some have Navy insignias on their camo uniforms, others have Air Force and others have Army. None have names or ranks on their uniforms, and none is armed as far as I can tell, and many are carrying cases of bottled water. My cynical assumption is that this is a federal government overkill response ordered by an executive branch less than a week away from a presidential election. In any case, none of them harass us about where we are going, so we keep walking downtown. It’s now about 6:30 or 6:45.                

“It’s dark. Really dark.                

“We see an occasional bar or restaurant that has a generator running outside with power on, but for the most part every business is closed and every building is dark. Police are still all over the place on the main streets, as well as the military personnel, so I still am not too worried about my personal safety, though the simple act of crossing streets starts becoming dangerous without any stoplights and with cops working the corners who probably haven’t pulled traffic duty in ages.                

“One smart thing that somebody thought of is to place flares along the middle lines of the busy avenues to help guide traffic. It keeps traffic in the correct lanes and also helps prohibit cabbies from swerving all over the place as they normally do. Good thinking on someone’s part. Somewhere around 20th Street is where we catch our big break. We come across an idling bus, nearly empty, at an intersection on 3rd Avenue.”               

The bus was going to Brooklyn.                

“We hop on and get seats and sit there for another 15 minutes. Everybody who gets on appears to be in a state of shock over their good luck. Back on 34th Street, 10,000 people are still in line waiting to get on one of those F Train shuttle buses heading largely in the same direction as this R Train shuttle bus. So after 15 minutes, we are on our way.”                

Elapsed time: two-and-a-half hours. …                

The most interesting thing in The Des Moines Register last week was Charlie Edwards’ letter to the editor on Saturday. You can live a long time without seeing a former publisher take on — civilly, but firmly — a sitting publisher in a public letter. At the same time, old-timers at the Register don’t ever recall a publisher ordering up a sharp turn in editorial policy.                

Years ago, David Kruidenier and Gil Cranberg and a former editor of the paper were lunching together, long after they all had retired or left the newspaper. The conversation turned to Kruidenier’s years-earlier criticism of a headline on an editorial after Roger Jepsen was elected to the Senate. “The Wrong Man Won,” it said. Kruidenier was upset by that and let his editors know.               

At that lunch, more than 25 years later, the issue came up. Kruidenier said he agreed with the sentiment of the editorial but thought the headline was out of place. It made the paper look like “a sore loser,” he said, and that’s why he complained. To the best of the recollection of any of the three guys, it was the only time the publisher ever criticized an editorial.                

But Kruidenier went on. “I don’t want you to think there weren’t editorials I disagreed with,” he told his editor and editorial-page editor. “I just didn’t say anything to you about them.”                

He was a great publisher. CV

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