New York

The Education of a Juror


Paula Thomson never could have predicted that she would someday crusade on behalf of an accused drug dealer. But on May 8, there she was, standing on the back of a pickup truck outside Governor George Pataki’s office in midtown Manhattan, shouting about overzealous cops and indifferent jurors. Thomson was a star speaker at a rally marking the 28th anniversary of New York’s so-called Rockefeller drug laws.

Thomson’s path to activism began on March 20, when she reported for jury duty. At the time, the 54-year-old graphic designer worked for the American Kennel Club, laying out brochures for pedigreed dog events. Thomson wound up in the jury box at the trial of Calvin Baker, 37, who had been accused of selling a $10 packet of heroin in front of an apartment building on West 127th Street in Harlem.

During the trial, a cop testified he had seen the drug sale through binoculars from 270 feet away. A few hours into their deliberations, the jurors voted 11 to 1 to convict Baker.

The lone holdout was Thomson. By then, Baker had been in jail for 15 months awaiting trial. Because he had a prior felony on his record, Baker faced a maximum of four and a half to nine years in prison if convicted. Thomson stood her ground for three days, and eventually the judge declared a mistrial.

A few days later, Thomson bailed Baker out of jail. A juror posting bail for a defendant is unheard of, and Thomson’s generosity sparked media interest. Here, Thomson talks about her wild, seven-week ride from stubborn juror to prisoner’s savior to anti-drug law crusader.

Why did you think Baker was not guilty? I thought the evidence was so weak. The detective said he saw money pass hands, and then he saw a small object pass hands. This was the shady part of the street, and it was the time of day when it would have been in the shade. I didn’t think he was a very strong witness. Calvin had no drugs on him. The police officer said there was an M&M container with six or so bags of heroin inside the [apartment building] lobby, [but] the evidence was never really tied to Calvin. There were no fingerprints, and it was never explained why fingerprints were not taken.

What did you think of the defendant? One thing that impressed me was that he was following the trial and making notes on paper, so I knew he was literate. He had immaculate white shoes. He had different clothes every day. I couldn’t tell if he was in jail or not.

What went on in the jury room? It was ugly from early on. The jury was all white, except for two Hispanic women, and we had an African American defendant. Behind closed doors, people exhibit some pretty interesting behavior. It was unconscious white racism as I have never seen it before.

After a few days, we saw that Calvin had a lot of gold in his mouth. Even I was a little taken aback by this. The jurors would say, “Well, how did he pay for the gold teeth? He must have paid for the gold teeth by dealing drugs.” It turns out, I later found out, that gold teeth are cheaper than the typical filling because they show more.

One of the women said he’s already been found guilty by the grand jury so we should find him guilty. I said, “Well, if that’s the way it works, then there’s no reason to be here.” In the early ’90s, I had served on a grand jury, so I knew the grand jury is almost a rubber stamp. A lot of the reasoning the jurors engaged in was at that level. We had one juror who would say, “I hate to see that dirtbag go free.”

If Calvin had had a job at a big Wall Street office, it might have made a big difference. At one point, I stopped the jury deliberations and I said, “Just imagine if I, Paula Thomson, was [arrested] on 34th Street, and the rest of the case was the same. Would you find me guilty?” And they said, “Oh yes, we’d find you guilty. We’re not racist.”

I think that some jurors by the end might have come over to my side, but why would they want to come over just to get dumped on? The last day, I was still trying to turn them around and to defend myself as a person. They wasted time talking about me instead of talking about the case. They asked, “Can you hold a job? Do you have any friends? Why did you get a divorce?”

When I tried to get close to explaining why I thought Calvin should be voted innocent, they would start talking over me. I said [to the forewoman], “Will you please get people to talk one at a time?” And she said, “I stopped listening days ago.” The forewoman was doing all these doodles—women with curly hair and little geometric things.

How did you get picked to be a juror? I said I lived in Murray Hill for over 20 years. I said I’m not against the police. They ask if you’ve been involved in any protests. I said I protested against the U.S. involvement in Central America. It’s easy to say something negative about the police and get rejected. People pretend they can’t hear to get rejected. By the time I was questioned, I had the idea that I wanted to be chosen.

Why did you post bail for Baker? After the trial, I called his lawyer and said, “When he gets out, I’ll help him find a job.” [Then] I said, “By the way, how much is bail?” He said, “About $30,000.” Then I got a call from him a few days later and he said, “Bail is only $2500, but they’re getting ready to increase it.” To me, $2500 is not a tiny bit of money, but it’s definitely doable. That’s what I spent on two weeks of vacation. I thought it was a little like reparations. There’s been so much injustice that it’s like putting one little brick toward building a healthy society.

How did you pay the bail? The lawyer told me to go to [Criminal Court at] 100 Centre Street, but he didn’t know what room. Calvin was in a hearing. I didn’t even know about bail bondsmen, so I just walked up there with the $2500 cash.

When I was in the [courthouse] lobby, they told me to go to 125 White Street. There is a room there where you post bail. I waited two hours. Then they said Calvin had already been sent back to Rikers, so come back at 9 p.m. or tomorrow morning. Then I went back to 100 Centre Street. I said I want to post bail, and they said you can do it here.

I found out later that Calvin got out at 4 a.m. the next morning. He was out for 10 days. On the 16th, he was yanked back in for an early hearing and put back in jail.

After you bailed out Baker, the judge raised his bail to $10,000. Then two anti-drug law activists paid his new bail, though the judge refused to free him. What happened to your money? I was told it takes six to eight weeks to get it back, and the city keeps 3 percent of that [if the defendant is convicted]. I guess they have another incentive to have high bails.

Have you seen Baker since the trial? After Calvin was back in jail, I had told the lawyer that I wanted Calvin to feel free to call me. I got a call from Calvin and I arranged to go the next visiting day. Everyone in the public should have a trip to Rikers. It’s an education.

How did your jail visit go? We had a nice meeting. He is very polite. He always calls me “Miss Thomson.” He kept saying, “Thank you, thank you.” He thanked me very much for my involvement. I said it was easy for me to do. I had plenty of advantages in life. Why shouldn’t I pass them on? I got Calvin’s permission to help him find additional legal representation. I’m interviewing lawyers.

I’ve been to Rikers to see Calvin three times. I brought some grapes the first time. Little did I know, I couldn’t even walk in with jewelry. I bought him two poetry books, too. They were signed. There was a poetry festival right after the trial. I know Robert Bly a little bit so he signed one book, and one was signed by an Eritrean poet. I don’t know if Calvin read them. But one said, “Free Calvin,” and the other said, “Good luck on your case.”

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