Shortly after my nomination was sanctified by the Senate, and I took the oath, I drew my first bank robbery trial. At that time, I was stationed in Omaha
Back then, the federal district court in Omaha used the 8th and 9th floors of a building that also housed the Army Corps of Engineers. Built during the late 1950s or early ’60s, the eyesore rose nine stories above the street. It was adjacent to a highway under which bums slept away the hours. The exterior facade of the building was largely clad in greenish-blue panels. As I look back, I think the building was intended to presage global warming or some other apocalypse. It certainly was frightfully ugly.
Anyway, I had been assigned to the Court of Appeals courtroom on the 9th floor. All the real trial courtrooms had been taken. The curved bench, meant to handle en banc appeals, was gigantic. The room had a jury box that could seat 16 people. The well of the courtroom could have handled a legion of lawyers. It was a big place.
The defendant was an old and broken-down drunk. He had been found residing in a dumpster behind the bank. The homeless man had orange dye on his hands from the exploding money packs that tellers were trained to give bank robbers. But, no one could find the money. To make matters more complicated, the camera in the bank was on the fritz so there was no recording of the robbery. Worse, the teller could not identify the robber. The defendant told a story of finding an empty bank bag covered in wet dye. He said he kept the bag because it might become useful when he was out scavenging. He said the dye didn’t bother him because it was sorta pretty. He steadfastly denied robbing the bank.
Nearing the end of the trial, I sensed something going on to my right. Because the curved bench was so large (being meant to hold multiple judges), I did not have a good view of the entire jury box positioned to my right. Reacting to the commotion, I stiffly turned my head to see what was going on. In the back row, an older lady was slumped over in her chair. It looked for all the world that the woman was dead or nearly so. The middle-aged male juror sitting next to the older lady was gesturing wildly trying to get my attention.
It was at that point that all hell broke loose. I don’t remember the exact sequence of things, but the following is pretty close:
* The male juror stood up.
* Russ M., the prosecutor with a Bronx accent, began to rise.
* I exclaimed, “Marshals.” They looked back blankly just as stunned as I was. Then, they hurried toward the jury box.
* The male juror lifted the older juror and began to carry her out of the jury box.
* Russ M., also trained as a paramedic, rushed into the jury box. I sprinted from the bench, grabbed him around the waist and told him to sit down.
* The male juror, looking now like a real hero, began to descend the two steps at the end of the jury box. The older juror was in his arms.
* Suddenly, he disappeared from sight. The older woman vanished as well.
* With a loud groan, the man fell fracturing his leg. The older juror lay conked out on the courtroom floor.
* The Omaha fire department arrived in two ladder trucks with about 30 firefighters. Why they brought the two big ladder trucks was never explained.
* Ambulances took the two jurors to the Creighton University Hospital which was only a few blocks away.
* The chaos began to subside. I searched for the defendant and found him seated at counsel table. Although he had been left unattended, the defendant had not moved a muscle. But, he did have a wry grin on his face. While he didn’t speak, he seemed to me to be saying, “See, I told you. Shit happens!” Agreeing with him on that point, I declared a mistrial.
Both jurors survived. The older lady had forgotten to take her blood pressure medication and that problem was quickly remedied. She was released that same day. The male juror wasn’t so lucky. With a badly broken leg, he spent several days at the hospital. I am told that he had a complete recovery, although the poor man had to threaten to file a federal tort claim in order to get the government to pay for his medical bills.
Several months later we tried the case again. The second jury returned a verdict of not guilty. In a cosmic sense, I thought the result was just about right.
Over the ensuing decades, I have dealt with many a bank robber. One young punk by the name of Shon Hopwood grew up, turned his life around, wrote a petition for another inmate that resulted in review by the Supreme Court, authored a best-selling book, got married and is now in law school on scholarship. Even so, and all these years later, no other case comes close to my first bank robbery trial.