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Juror Examines Failings Of System Designed To Help The Man He Convicted For Murder

For Efrem Sigel, serving on a jury was life-changing — and eye-opening. Sigel was one of 12 who sat in the jury box in 2017 and ultimately convicted Abraham Cucuta.

Cucuta had been charged in the fatal shootings of two men at a dice game between rival gang-affiliated drug dealers in East Harlem.

Sigel, who lives part-time in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, said he was empaneled as "Juror Number 2," which is also the name of his new book.

Efrem Sigel, author: In the first half of the book, I tell the story of the trial. And that essentially revolves around the testimony of the two eyewitnesses.

The assistant district attorney, in their direct examinations of those two witnesses, brought out all of the terrible things that had happened to them and all of the bad things that they had done.

In essence, we heard the story of their lives from a young age until their early 30s. We heard about, in the case of Gabriel Washington, the fact that both his parents died when he was 12 years old, and he was out on the street cutting school almost every day.

In each case, the lack of supervision led to hanging out with people doing the wrong things, joining gangs for self-protection. It led to breaking the law. It led to being arrested and sent to jail, getting released, doing the same thing, going back to jail. This is what we heard.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: I imagine it was difficult to hear the stories of all of the times that different decisions really could have been made. Did that make you squirm? Was it hard to hear?

The testimony itself was riveting. While it was going on, I was focused on the young man on the stand, and the words that were coming out of his mouth — particularly when Gabriel Washington described minute by minute the early hours of June 7, 2007 — because the murders took place 10 years before the trial.

Listening to his words was really an unforgettable experience. And I think it had a big effect on jurors.

There was lots of boring testimony. There was lots of repetitious testimony. And yes, your attention may wander. But on the key testimony of the two eyewitnesses, I don't think anybody was doing anything but watching and listening and squirming.

Afterwards, I would look at my fellow jurors. I could see by their acknowledgment of what I was displaying in my own face that this was an experience beyond anything that they had ever encountered.

While you were on the jury, is there anything that caught you by surprise?

I don't know why I was surprised by this. But I was surprised at how seriously I and my fellow jurors took the judge's instructions, and followed them.

In the age of the internet and instant information, it would have been very easy for any of us to look up the background of the defendant, to visit the scene of the crime, to consult newspaper stories and other accounts of the crime and the neighborhood and so on.

But I certainly didn't do that. And I don't believe anybody on the jury did that. So, I think I was impressed by the seriousness with which jurors undertook their work.

The first half of the book is the jury trial. The second half of the book is really what happens afterwards. That's when you went to talk to people in the housing projects, schools, the criminal justice system, and really exposed some failures of the system. Looking back, what did you take away from those conversations?

I took away that the institutions of society — notably the schools, the criminal justice system and public housing — are not doing the job that they could be doing, that they should be doing, even though this particular neighborhood, and other poor neighborhoods, present a series of problems that are interrelated and very difficult to address.

Nevertheless, when we have laws requiring every person to be in school to age 16, how is it that so many of these young people in East Harlem reach the eighth grade or high school without being able to read proficiently? Without being able to do arithmetic proficiently? There has to be a better way.

Would you say that this problem is only happening to those in New York City or do you extrapolate this more widely?

No, I think it's a societal problem. I have a particular interest in urban education.

I look at statistics on the success of schools in urban systems around the country, their graduation rates, their rates of children reaching so-called levels of proficiency in the basic skills. New York's situation is very similar to other big cities.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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