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D.C.’s most notorious judge takes a turn in the jury box.
The jurors started out by going around the windowless room and stating where each stood on the charges against Rojay Richard. Most of them, including Eric Kleiman, opened with an equivocal “I’m leaning toward convicting…” But Kleiman says that one juror—a petite, 50-ish woman who wore close-cropped black-and-gray hair—never hedged. When it was her turn, says Kleiman, she spoke up confidently. “This man is guilty on all four counts,” she said.
The case was all too ordinary. The day before the 1999 Super Bowl, Richard allegedly hit his girlfriend of 10 years with sticks. The next day, he allegedly hit her in the head with a gun. She soon called 911, and she subsequently repeated her story to a grand jury. When police picked Richard up, he was allegedly in possession of marijuana. Federal prosecutors charged him with two counts of assault, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence, and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
In Courtroom JM-1, however, the government’s case hit a major stumbling block: When prosecutors called the girlfriend to the stand, she recanted, insisting she had made up the story of the assaults. But in light of a recording of the 911 call, her grand jury testimony, and pictures of her injuries, none of the jurors believed her revised version of events.
12 Angry Men, it wasn’t. Without too much quibbling, the jurors agreed to convict the defendant on three of four counts. But throughout the deliberation, the outspoken female juror with the short hair took on a bit of the Henry Fonda role, unflaggingly pushing other jurors to stick to the facts of the case and a close reading of the law. “She was very opinionated and talked a lot,” Kleiman recalls. At times, he says, she talked so much that the foreman had to cut her off.
Still, the woman held people’s attention. “She had this Maya Angelou-type voice with extra enunciation on certain words. She had the kind of power behind her voice that made you think she was right,” Kleiman says. “Of all the people on the jury, I agreed with the substance of what she had to say the most.”
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In fact, there were only two things the outspoken juror was tight-lipped about: her name and what she did for a living. Only after the jury had rendered its verdict, Kleiman says, did she tip her hand. “‘I just want to thank everyone for
giving me an experience that I’ve wanted to have for so long,’” he recalls her saying. “That’s when she told us she was a judge who worked in the building.”
But Kleiman wouldn’t know her name until he picked up the Washington Post on Feb. 10 and saw her face on the front page. The mystery juror was none other than Evelyn E.C. Queen, the Superior Court judge whose December decision to return 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond to her natural mother—in whose care Brianna died on Jan. 6—has perhaps turned her into the city’s most reviled jurist.
Last week, Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose filed a formal complaint against Queen with the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, which oversees judicial appointees. “I’m gagging about what happened to this child,” Mayor Anthony A. Williams has said. And the front-page Post profile painted Queen as “a judge who can be blunt and abrasive, erratic and arrogant.”
Up close, however, Kleiman says he saw an entirely different side of Queen. “I was left with a favorable impression of her. She’s not someone who takes her responsibility lightly. She did seem quirky and hard to define. She had so much to say. Most, I agreed with.”
Like most jurisdictions, the District allows attorneys—and hence judges—to sit on juries, according to Tom Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts. “Our judges serve all the time. They’re residents of the District,” says Suzanne Bailey-Jones, jury clerk for D.C. Superior Court.
In general, though, most lawyers will strike anyone with legal training from a jury. “The problem with leaving lawyers on a jury is, jurors will bow to the legal expertise of the lawyer. If you don’t convince the lawyer, that leaves the lawyer in a position of power with the other jurors,” says defense attorney James L. Lyons, who
represented Richard in an unrelated 1991 federal court case.
At Richard’s more recent trial, however, Queen was careful not to drop credentials like her J.D. from Howard University or her 14 years on the Superior Court bench. Rather, she gave herself away in little ways. Alternate juror Amy Lesser recalls that one morning during the two-day trial, Queen showed up at JM-1 carrying coffee in a foam cup. When Lesser asked Queen where she had gotten the coffee, Queen replied, “I work in the building.”
Judge Queen, who hears criminal cases as well as child-welfare ones, confirms that she recently served on a jury, but refuses to discuss details. “I will not comment on my jury service at this time, as the case is still before Judge Combs Greene,” Queen says.
Judge Natalia M. Combs Greene let Queen sit on the jury even though she, as well as attorneys for the defense and prosecution and the clerks all recognized Queen, one of the judge’s clerks told Lesser.
“Everybody knew who she was, except for us,” says Lesser.
But once deliberations started, Queen’s legal training was hard to hide. Kleiman remembers when the jury was grappling with the concept of “constructive possession” of a weapon, Queen rattled off a definition. When the jurors remained skeptical, she insisted that they go to Combs Greene. Queen “wanted to ask the judge something every five minutes,” Kleiman says. “She constantly wanted clarification. ‘Ask her to list examples,’ she’d say, and we’d tell her, ‘Nah, the judge isn’t going to list any examples.’ But she would say, ‘It can’t hurt to ask.’” When the jurors finally went to Combs Greene, the judge not only defined the concept in terms nearly identical to Queen’s, but acted out an example using her pen.
The Post story cast Queen in a harsh light for sympathizing too much with one defendant and running out of her courtroom to console a crying witness. Kleiman says that in the Richard case, though, Queen clearly empathized with the girlfriend, who met Richard when she was 14. “She made a big deal about the fact that they met when she was 14 and that this life of abuse was the only life she’d known,” Kleiman recalls. “Judge Queen argued that putting this guy away could be really liberating to this woman: She might not know it now, but it could be in her best interest.”
Queen’s opinions aside, Kleiman credits her with keeping the jury on track. “She was always measured in her remarks. She never really let her emotions get away. She just plodded on with the way she thought about things. People would bring in their own personal experiences, and she made a lot of comments to the effect: ‘We really have to look at the facts of this case.’ She was thinking in legalistic terms more than anybody else besides me,” says Kleiman, who has a year of law school under his belt.
Queen’s nudging may not have guaranteed a challenge-proof verdict, though. Despite the fact that Judge Combs Greene made it clear to the jurors that they couldn’t find Richard guilty of assaulting his girlfriend with a gun while finding him not guilty of possessing the same gun, the jury returned an inconsistent verdict. It convicted Richard of the drug possession charge and two assault charges, including the assault with the gun, but acquitted him on the charge of possession of a firearm during commission of a crime of violence. Kleiman says it was bartering among the jurors that led them to split the verdict.
Kleiman says Queen tried to sell the jury on returning guilty verdicts for three of the charges and reporting a hung jury on the firearm charge, but many of the jurors were eager for a resolution. The bulk of deliberations fell on a Friday, and no one wanted to come back the following Monday. So rather than invite an order to return to the deliberation room, jurors agreed to acquit Richard on the firearm charge.
“When I read that [Post] article I thought, She’s definitely made some wacky decisions in the past,” Kleiman says, adding, “She didn’t have any real wacky views in this case.” CP