Juror Number 2: The Story of a Murder, the Agony of a Neighborhood
Efrem Sigel (Ivory Coast 1965-67)
Writers Press Publisher
$19.00 (Hardcover), $15.95 (paperback), $9.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Dick Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64)
This valuable short book about the author’s experience with the New York City criminal justice system is more like a long New Yorker article than a book. But that’s fine — it’s the kind of well-thought-out and well-written reporting you get drawn into and read all the way through and know afterwards that you’ve learned something.
Picked as a juror in a trial involving a Bloods vs. Cripps double homicide outside an East Harlem public housing project, Sigel becomes puzzled over why Abraham Cucuta has gunned down two other young men during a supposed gang truce in what starts out as a friendly dice game. It becomes clear during the three-week trial that all the gang members involved have lived lives so fraught and empty of family and institutional stability that prison or a violent early death seems all but inevitable.
The main witness against Cucuta, Alejandro Alverez, was a fatherless kid with a crack addict mother who made his way to the streets early, finding self-protection, an income, and a kind of family in a drug gang. It was how he survived. In and out of jail constantly, Alverez agrees to testify against his old buddy in return for a lighter sentence in another case. He does this despite his awareness that “snitches get stitches.”
The first half of the book recounts the trial itself. There’s a competent and fair-minded judge, and Sigel’s fellow jurors are a reassuringly good mix of intelligent men and women trying to get it right. (Cucuta is convicted of first-degree murder, and that seems justified.) There are also some nice vignettes of the prosecutor and the defense attorney, both of whom Sigel interviewed later. Dawn Florio, defending Cucuto despite a solid case against him, is a smart, hard-working 55-year-old woman with bad knees who sells beauty products and health supplements on the side. The meticulous assistant district attorney, Dafra Yoran, is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who is dedicating her life to holding murderers accountable.
After the trial, Sigel is haunted by what he has learned, and he keeps asking himself why this bloody murder of two young people had to happen. His dogged search for answers takes up the second half of the book. The combination of disastrous family conditions, bad housing, indifferent schools, and a criminal justice system bent on punishment and little else conspired to doom Cucuto and Alverez from the start.
Sigel concludes, though, that things don’t have to turn out that way. The murder happened ten years earlier (the trial was delayed by Alverez’s belated willingness to testify), and in those ten years conditions have improved in New York, he says. Sigel cites examples of progress in community policing and bail reforms, better schools under Bloomberg (though backsliding under DeBlasio), and the arrival on the scene of non-profit groups like GOSO, Getting Out and Staying Out, where former offenders work with young parolees to provide the skills and confidence to make non-criminal lives for themselves.
Sigel is a good writer and an exemplary citizen, and he’s written a thoughtful, honest, and unsentimental book that ends on a convincing note of hope.
Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64, Washington staff 1964-67) is a former editorial writer at The Berkshire Eagle. He reviews mysteries for The Washington Post and writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.