Conscience of the Community

by Mara Taub

177 pages, soft cover, $19 postage paid
CPR Books; P0 Box 1911; Santa Fe, NM 87504

Reviewed  by C. C. Simmons, JD Correspondent
Justice:Denied, Issue 27, Winter 2005, p. 8

Cover PhotoHere’s an extraordinary book by an ordinary citizen who served on the jury of one of the longest running criminal trials in the history of New Mexico. From voir dire through verdicts Mara Taub tells the story of a federal district court trial that ran for 6 months and convicted none of the nine defendants.  With a view from the inside looking out, Taub’s real-life report of the operation of the criminal justice system is a refreshing departure from the stultifying discourse on juries found in most law school text books.

The author, a school teacher, and community activist of more than .35 years, sat on the jury of United States of America vs. Gabriel Rodriquez-Aguirre, et al. At the outset, jurors were told to expect an 8-to-10 week trial; the trial actually ran 4 months and jury deliberations continued for an additional 2 months.

There were 300 witnesses, 4,000 exhibits, nine defendants, 17 counts, and 31 charges against the various defendants. The single charge common to all defendants was that each had engaged in “the unlawful, knowing, and intentional distribution of 100 kilograms of marijuana.” If found guilty, the defendants faced prison terms of from 10 years to life.

In her well documented and insightful analysis of the govern­ment’s case, Taub found flaw after flaw. As a sitting juror, she observed that while the prosecutors alleged “vast amounts” of marijuana had been bought and sold by the defendants - 10,000 to 12,000 kilos - no marijuana was ever admitted into evidence at trial. The government did introduce photographs of marijuana but those photographs didn’t show any of the defendants or the arresting officers.

Prosecutors also alleged that one of the defendants buried $1.7 million in his back yard but it was unclear how much money had actually ally been dug up or who buried it. Because local prosecutors lacked the staff to manually count the cash, the recovered money had been sent to Dallas where there was a money-counting machine. Jurors were shown a video of the machine but there was no way to tell if the money being counted was connected to the Aguirre case,. Only two worn $50 bills were introduced as evidence at trial.

The jurors were also invited to believe that the two large empty holes in the ground shown in the government’s photographs were actually storage vaults used by the defendants to store marijuana.

None of the horses, more than 200 of them, whose purchase was purported to have been part of the money laundering operation, was trotted into court. There were not even photographs of most of the horses although one, assertedly owned by one of the defendants, won the All American Futurity at Ruidoso, New Mexico. That race’s  $1 million purse is the largest in the country:.

As the trial lurched from weeks to months, Taub’s wry observations of the criminal justice system and its cast of characters became more pointed. She noted that the deputy marshals in the courtroom behaved as if they were guards to restrain the jury from doing anything wrong; they acted as if the defendants were guilty and deserved any punishment they got. Nor, she wrote, did the judge appear to have any doubt about the guilt of the defendants.

Of more than 300 witnesses, those who testified the longest were the informants or “snitches” who cut a deal with the prosecutors. Some had originally been defendants but, with a goal of self-preserva­tion, realigned their allegiances.

The jury learned that any scrap of paper with words on it could be referred to as a “document” and thus introduced as an exhibit.
More than 4,000 exhibits were presented at trial, most by the prose­cution. The defendants, five men and four women, were all Hispanic and related to one southern New Mexico family. Although the defendants supposedly made millions of dollars in their marijuana operation, eight were found to be indigent and thus qualified for court-appointed defense lawyers at trial.

After a four month trial, the judge read the jury 69 pages of instructions. Their deliberations began on May 5 and the verdicts were returned on July 12.

About half of the jury of 11 women and one man were over 50 years of age. Several jurors were Hispanics, two Navajos, and three Anglos. Ten of the 12 were, in some capacity, employed outside the home. All jurors resided in Albuquerque or in the northern part of New Mexico.

During deliberations, one juror said that people should be con­sidered guilty until proven innocent. Another woman opined that jurors were suffering stress because of witchcraft that might be coming from Mexico. Two jurors were frightened by the reputations of the defendants who might come after them in some way.

There was also a woman who felt God was displeased by what the defendants had done and she saw to it that the jurors began delibera­tions every morning with a silent prayer while holding hands around the table.

The jurors agreed that the prosecutors’ case was lengthy, de­tailed, and unclear. The first 3 weeks of deliberations were spent going through notes and exhibits and attempting to put the govern­ment’s case together. The next 2 weeks were devoted to trying to organize and clarify the vague, inconsistent, and contradictory testi­mony of 25 informant witnesses. Thereafter, deliberations began in earnest.

After 2 months of deliberations, Taub’s jury did not convict any of the nine defendants. Three were acquitted while the jury hung on the other six. The judge was furious with the verdicts. He later said he would have thrown the book at all defendants.

When there is a hung jury, the prosecution decides whether to try the defendants again. In the Aguirre case, the government decided to do so. The second trial began with six defendants, a different jury, and the same insubstantial evidence that was insuf­ficient to produce convictions at the first trial.

During the second trial, one defendant became ill and accepted a plea bargain deal. The other five defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison. Taub was present for the sentencing phase, the only juror from either trial to attend.

As with the first trial, the second was held in the same court with the same prosecutors, the same evidence, and six of the same defendants. Only the jury was different. One might conclude that defendants are better served when a jury is populated by citizens with the intelligence, personality, and communication skills necessary to guide a jury to discover the deficiencies in the government’s case.

Taub skillfully interweaves her chronology of the Aguirre trial with brief but instructive excerpts from scholarly works, news reports, and appellate court opinions. She presents learned commentary on wrongful convictions, mandatory minimum sen­tencing, jury nullification, reasonable doubt, and the death penalty.
Toney Anaya, the former Governor and Attorney General of New Mexico, said of Taub’s Juries, “A unique glimpse into the mind of a juror with values she would not compromise who voted her conscience and dared to judge a criminal justice system that discriminates against people of color and the poor. Must readings for potential jurors and anyone truly interested in doing what is right.”

Conscience of the Community can be ordered for a $19 (postage included) check or money order from:
CPR Books
P. 0. Box 1911
Santa Fe, NM  87504