OCTOBER 7, 2018
WHILE I WAS A juror in the month-long criminal trial People v. Cohen, I thought the cafeteria at the Airport Courthouse on La Cienega was the most erotic place in Los Angeles. Those nougat-colored floor tiles with flecks of tinny glitter; those fast-food-joint two-tops and metal chairs with red vinyl seats; that steel serving counter. At least once per hour the same speed-freak Flamenco version of The Godfather’s theme song jangled from the playlist, a deranged choice for a courthouse. The object of my desire? High-profile criminal defense attorney Andrew Reed Flier: magnetic, trim, mid-50s, almost as tan as a Manzanita branch. Several of Flier’s past clients have included the former Mets outfielder Lenny Dykstra, who posted Craigslist ads for personal assistants and exposed his genitals to applicants; Swedish former video game executive Bo Stefan Eriksson, who crashed a stolen Ferrari Enzo on the Pacific Coast Highway at 160 miles per hour; and convicted murderer Victor Paleologus, who lured aspiring actresses to isolated locations by offering them roles in James Bond films.
In two different true crime books, Meet Me for Murderand Date with the Devil, author Don Lasseter likens Flier’s “dark, wavy hair and handsomely chiseled features” to JFK Jr.’s, although my best friend, inspecting the image-search results, describes Flier’s vibe differently: “Mercedes salesman.” I followed Flier’s rhythmic hand gestures in court like a mesmerized Romanov. I recited his favorite cross-examination phrases for my husband David, never the jealous type. “With respect to,” I’d say, moving my loosely cupped hands back and forth on different planes near my naval. “Is that a fair statement?” I’d ask, mimicking Flier’s brisk, nasal “a.” “Do you have an independent recollection,” I’d say, tapping imaginary, folded glasses midair as if smacking the accented syllables like whack-a-moles.
Becoming a juror means leaving your old identity outside of the courtroom. When you take your teal swivel-seat in the jury box you’re no longer the creative writing professor who hasn’t finished a decent poem or essay since the presidential election, who lost 10 pounds and forgot how to sleep, who pored over the newspaper at breakfast each day, thinking: Apocalypse. Being a juror counters the chaos of Trumpism: its toppling of norms, its destabilization of institutions, its lack of accountability. The courtroom offers a microcosm of structure and order, laws and verdicts, moral rigor and righteousness. You’re freed from even the routine sound of your own name. You’re known by your seat number; your whole being merges with a single, high purpose; and the trial becomes your life: your ordinance, your creed. New phrases coil on your tongue like tensile springs: “taxi cam,” “area of impact,” “chop shop.” Being a juror also means navigating the psychologically fraught dynamic of a trial, which, in its role-play and power structure, can at times seem strangely erotic. The moment the judge, Commissioner Mark Zuckman, of Department 92, explained the rules for courtroom conduct, Flier became an eroticized figure, an instant taboo. “Don’t smile at or talk to the lawyers,” Zuckman said, “and they’re not supposed to smile at or talk to you.”
I began spying on Flier before I knew who he was, before I realized he’d be the defense attorney on my case, before I was aware that I’d become a juror for any trial at all. After reporting for jury duty and reading in the fourth-floor assembly room for two hours, yawning and mossy-eyed, I rode the elevator downstairs to the first-floor cafeteria for the scheduled break. Halfway through my lunch, three men in gray suits strolled in: Flier; his paralegal, Gerry Gittelson, a garrulous man in his mid-50s who is a rock journalist and former band manager from Sunset Strip’s ’80s glam metal scene; and their handsome, clean-shaven client, Eugene Cohen, who resembles a dark-haired frat boy in a lavender tie, although at that time he was my age: 36. They pulled out chairs at a table catty-corner from mine. Flier shrugged off his suit jacket, boasting to Cohen about one of his former trials, saying the phrase “death penalty case.” At first I mistook the trio for three defense attorneys: two senior partners and their junior associate. Bored, I texted David my thoughts on Flier’s blue-and-white-checkered dress shirt. “Princeton-preppie checkers?” David asked. “No,” I replied, “like I’m about to open my picnic basket and eat a ham sandwich off him.” After lunch I reported with 60 other potential jurors to the ninth-floor hallway outside of Nine West, Department 92, where we clogged the corridor, most of us standing and peering down at our cell phones. Soon Flier glided through the crowd, flanked by Gittelson and Cohen, and jiggled the handle of one of the courtroom’s double-doors, which were locked. “Checkers just tried the door,” I texted David. “I heard him talking about a former death penalty case at lunch. I bet this means this trial has a body.”
There was a body. You’d imagine that by now I’d have addressed that fact. Yet even in the earliest days of the trial, a grotesque sense of my own role consumed me. Carly Simon’s song boomed through my head on a loop, the lyrics slightly revised: “You’re so vain / You probably think this trial is about you, / Don’t you?” Later, in my notebook, I wrote of the cafeteria:
It becomes a space of illicit watching — forbidden looks — not allowed to smile or talk to each other. … Aware of eyes: each time I get up to toss a napkin in the trash can, each time I enter or exit I feel like a stage light shines on me — egotistic. Each time I strut across the cafeteria & go to the restroom, I imagine F studying me.
Each day at lunch I’d peek at Flier from across the cafeteria as I raised my coffee, facing him so he stayed anchored in my peripheral vision. The no-contact rule and its institutional setting perfectly recreated the context of a raging middle school crush, complete with my backpack and a peanut butter and jelly on wheat: pretending not to see the guy you like as you walk past him in the cafeteria. Even in his tailored suits, Flier could be any eighth-grade boy I adored from a distance in James W. Robinson Secondary. He was also rarely over 25 feet away, which meant I both constantly watched him and imagined what he must think of me. “He sees my special emanations!” I cried to David.
Sometimes I felt as if I’d manifested my own real-life episode of crime TV. I’d just watched the five-part O. J. Simpson documentary the previous week. I’d speed-walk on my treadmill in the evenings to two episodes of Forensic Files. I’d even spotted an actual actress from Law & Order: SVUin the jury pool; she’d guest-starred as a Fox News–type anchor who brings down the Roger Ailes–like network executive for sexual harassment. Each player in People v. Cohencould be a stock character from a courtroom procedural. Andrew Flier: the seasoned defense attorney in a slim-fit Prussian blue suit. Yasmin Fardghassemi: the forceful and gorgeous deputy district attorney, in her late 20s, who had glossy black hair and knack for PowerPoint presentations. Commissioner Mark Zuckman: the amiable black-robed judge, in his early 60s, who exuded a paternal yet playful charm. Eugene Cohen: the boyish defendant from a prominent Sherman Oaks family, one of 10 children of the wealthy developer Ivan Cohen, the latter of whom had founded Calabasas-based IIC Financial & Development Inc.
Santa Monica detectives first arrested Eugene Cohen, owner of the now-defunct doggy daycare Puppy Luv, in April 2014, in connection with the hit-and-run death, two weeks earlier, of 61-year-old pedestrian KT. On March 22, 2014, T was crossing the 1600 block of Ocean Avenue with her daughter, EN, just before one in the morning. They were struck by the passenger-side front end of an oncoming car and ejected into the parking lane. T died that night from multiple blunt-force traumatic injuries, while N survived. At the time of Cohen’s first arrest, officers found him in a rented sedan, with a grand in cash, two cell phones, and two passports (his own and one belonging to a similar-looking brother). The police soon released Cohen from custody, waiting to file charges until they’d built a stronger case. Over the next months, they recovered parts of his Infiniti G35 from a Van Nuys auto body shop that dismantled cars for the scrap metal: a “chop shop.” After Cohen’s second arrest, on January 22, 2015, 10 months since the collision, his initial bail was set at 10 million dollars.
On the first day of jury selection, three years after the incident, I sat with the other potential jurors in the audience section of Nine West. Windowless and wood-paneled, the courtroom looked like a set, complete with the round, hot-tub-sized seal of California emblazoned on the wall. From his raised bench in the corner Zuckman greeted us and introduced the clerk and bailiff to his left, and the court reporter, who sat with her laptop in front of the witness stand, transcribing the proceedings. Zuckman explained that People v. Cohenhad “a two-count information,” or charging document. The first count: misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence. The second count: felony hit-and-run. “The defendant pleads not guilty,” Zuckman told us. As a judge, he said, his role is to be impartial, that if he’d designed the courtroom, he’d have scooted his desk to the middle of the floor to reflect his neutrality. He also added, peering over his glasses as he surveyed the room: “Being a juror makes you a better person.”
The jury box along the courtroom’s left wall resembled a window-planter for geraniums. Our box contained 14 seats, with four additional chairs positioned outside of the oak enclosure for alternate jurors. During the jury selection process, called voir dire(from the French: “to see, to speak”), the judge and attorneys interview candidates from the jury pool, systematically eliminating people seated in the box and replacing them with new candidates from the audience. For our trial, we’d have a total of 12 jurors and three alternates. Attorneys may seek to reject jurors by mounting a “challenge for cause”: a reason a juror may not be able to be fair and impartial, such as having a previous encounter with a hit-and-run driver or a family member in law enforcement. In our case Fardghassemi and Flier could each make 10 “peremptory challenges,” too: the right to strike a juror without stating a reason.
The US legal system relies on two standards of proof. In a civil case, the standard is a “preponderance of evidence,” which means a majority of jurors must agree that the defendant more likely than not committed the crime; consensus isn’t required. In a civil case, then, 11 to one is a verdict. So is seven to five. Criminal cases rely on a more rigorous standard, “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” since the stakes are higher: depriving citizens of their liberty. The jury in a criminal trial must deliver a unanimous verdict; anything less is a hung jury.
In order to illustrate the concept of reasonable doubt, Fardghassemi rose from her chair behind the plaintiff’s desk, at which the lead detective on the case, Investigator Jason Olson, of the Santa Monica Police Department, also sat. She began pacing in front of the potential jurors in the box. Fardghassemi asked them to imagine a bank robbery: the man dressed in all black, with a matching bandana; he wore sunglasses; he carried a gun; he said to the teller: “Give me all the money.” After his arrest, he offers the police a number of excuses: black is my favorite color; I wore a bandana because my head was cold; I kept the sunglasses on because my eyes are sensitive to light; I was just resting my gun on the counter — I didn’t mean to scare anyone; I was asking for all the money in myaccount. “Are these reasonabledoubts?” Fardghassemi asked, singling out particular people in the box. “Juror Number Three? Juror Number Seven?” I glanced at Flier, who’d angled his body toward the jury box, propping his right elbow on the desk, his thumb and pointer beneath his jaw.
Next, Fardghassemi illustrated what we should expect in terms of her responsibility to meet the burden of proof. “Imagine you’re in a packed restaurant,” she said, “and you really want a BLT.” “Juror Number 12,” she said, pausing to address a young woman in the box, “what are the ingredients in a BLT?” “Bacon, lettuce, and tomato,” the woman replied. “Juror Number Nine,” Fardghassemi asked a middle-aged man, “What else?” “I don’t know,” he said, trailing off. “Maybe mayonnaise?” Fardghassemi raised her right hand for emphasis, scanned the jurors, and slowly said: “Two slices of bread.” “But maybe you love avocado,” she continued, turning to walk toward the audience before swiveling back to the box. “Maybe you really want avocado on your sandwich. You really want it, but say I brought you a sandwich with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and two slices of bread. What did I bring you?” she asked, halting to address a juror: “Number Four?” “Uh, a BLT?” “I brought you a BLT,” Fardghassemi said, “but I didn’t bring you the avocado.” She then addressed the group: “How many of you would like to see the police report for this case before making a decision?” Everyone in the box raised a hand. Fardghassemi explained that we weren’t allowed to see the reports, but we’d hear plenty of testimony from police officers. So the reports, she said, were like the avocado. The parable of the BLT.
It was now Flier’s turn. After a string of “maybe” or “I think I can” equivocations from jurors about whether they could be fair and impartial, Flier delivered his own analogy. “I was invited to a bachelor party in Vegas,” he began, standing and tucking his hands behind his hips. He had his back to Zuckman’s bench, aligning his body between the jury box and the audience. “My fiancée was nervous,” he said. “You know what can happen in Vegas. She asked me, Andy, will you behave yourself?” He glanced at the audience slyly, as if we were gathered with him on a patio at happy hour. “I said, Maybe.” He turned to the box, then back toward the audience. “Guess what?” He grinned, giving a gesture that was part-shrug, part-ta-da!“I didn’t end up going to Vegas.” A laugh rippled through the room as I looked down, adding his nickname to my notebook: Andy.
By the third day of voir dire, so many people had claimed prior experiences with hit-and-run drivers that Zuckman summoned an additional 30 jurors to the pool, for a total of 90. I’d watched dozens of people pout and scowl, overdoing their total unacceptability. I rolled my eyes at their attempts at getting out of jury duty, feeling increasingly superior. “I don’t know, Your Honor,” one woman said. “He just looks guilty!” The woman next to her exclaimed: “I keep giving him dirty looks!” Another said: “I’m from New York, so I really don’t think I can be impartial about L.A.’s car culture.” “Are you kidding me?” I muttered to the elderly woman next to me in the audience. We’d reached the front row, with only a few people ahead of us in the queue. So far, the following jurors had lasted for several rounds in the box, many of them white men in their 30s or 40s: the ex-actor nanny employed by a famous couple in Malibu; the high school math teacher who carried a backpack; the skinny character actor; the quiet elementary school teacher; the Latino fashion designer; the Filipina nurse in a plaid shirt; the woman who worked for a social services organization; the retired guy who drove for Uber; the early 20s blond producer. For the past three days, I’d chanted in my head: Pick me! Pick me! As if Zuckman could hear me, he dismissed several jurors and I took my place in the box: seat number 13.
On the fourth day ofvoir dire, I’d popped a beta-blocker before my public questioning. Each juror had to respond to a list of prompts from a poster tacked to the wall, then Zuckman asked a few questions, followed by each of the attorneys. I’d noticed Zuckman asked most jurors whether they’d ever been charged with a crime. I was nervous that Fardghassemi would cut me if I disclosed the minor misdemeanor drug charge I’d received at 19. (The year 2000, post-Phish concert, a highway somewhere in rural Ohio.) I was amused and embarrassed that I’d finally have to admit to the charge. Job applications only ask about felonies! Now I’d have to describe my criminal record to a full courtroom, and the D.A. would strike me since I’ve slummed it on the other side of the law with her cartoon bandit: Give me all the money!
“Juror Number 13,” Zuckman said, nodding at me. I turned my head to read the poster’s prompts. “My badge number is 0410. I live in Venice. I’m married. No children. I’m a creative writing professor at USC. My husband is also a creative writing professor at USC. No prior jury experience.” I looked at Zuckman, laced my fingers in my lap, and breathed. “Any family or friends in law enforcement?” “No, Your Honor.” “Would you trust police officers more than other people, just because they’re cops?” “No, sir.” “Are you able to be fair and impartial toward the defendant?” “Yes, sir.” “What was your first reaction when you heard the charges?” he asked, leaning toward me. “I was surprised at the seriousness of the case,” I said. He sat back in his chair, giving me what I hoped was a look of approval. I waited for him to ask about my criminal charge and began rehearsing my joke: Your Honor, I was 19, the cops pulled us over, and I tried to hide a glass bong under my dress. I was unsuccessful in this endeavor. Instead, Zuckman said: “Some people in this trial are connected to USC. But that shouldn’t affect your ability to be impartial.” I exhaled. “Yes, Your Honor.” Nodding, Zuckman moved on to the next juror.
During the final round of eliminations, Fardghassemi cut the groundskeeper of a high school and Flier dismissed the bus driver in seat number one who’d trained to be a sheriff’s deputy. Neither attorney had any direct questions for me. “Juror Number 13,” Zuckman said, “take seat number one.” As I grabbed my backpack and stood up, I tried not to look like I was silently channeling a manic football fan: Number One! Number One! I settled into my seat (back row, left corner) and draped my palms over the ends of the armrests, as if the chair were my throne. Had Flier, like a chess pro, deliberately cut the bus driver just as I’d reached seat 13, in order to make me Juror Number One?
The first skill I learned as a juror was taming my active listener habits (warm eyes, quick nods, encouraging smiles) to make a poker face. I called mine my “mask of attentive neutrality.” Don’t give away that you dreamed of Flier over the weekend, that, in the scene, you ran into him at a crowded party, smiled, said Hi, then stumbled back, hand over your mouth. Don’t react to the claim from Fardghassemi’s opening statement: “The strongest bone in the human body — the femur — shattered.” Don’t blanche as the former UCLA student describes the impact of T’s body thrown against her parked Lexus: Earthquake. Don’t shake your foot at the ankle. Don’t squint at the slow-witted tabloid reporter — the witness who’d driven next to Cohen for several blocks on Ocean before the crash. Don’t smirk as Flier gives “type-one diabetic episode” as the reason Cohen didn’t know he’d hit the pedestrians, why he’d flipped on his turn signal, made the first available right.
On the day of T’s daughter’s testimony, I stepped into the first-floor elevator with Juror Number Eight. He had a kind face and tidy apricot-colored beard. “I’m Jeremiah,” he said, reaching out to shake my hand. “Right,” I said, “you’re the caretaker for the star couple’s two boys in Malibu?” “I’m the nanny!” he laughed. “I don’t know if we’re allowed to know each other’s names,” he added. “I’ve thought about that, too,” I said, “but then I’d be Number One — the pee — and the guy next to me, Rob, would be Number Two — the poop!” “Oh, my god,” he gasped. “The creative writing professor went there!” We both cracked up. “I’m so glad you went there!” he said as the elevator reached the ninth floor and chimed.
As soon as Jeremiah and I crossed the threshold of Nine West, my face erased all traces of my joke and dropped into its frozen stoicism. Today’s going to be rough, I thought. Don’t break the poker face. “The people call EN to the witness stand,” Fardghassemi said. A blonde woman in a blue-and-white sundress rose from the audience, walked to the front of the courtroom, and repeated the oath read to her by the clerk. N, a 35-year-old film and television producer with a round face and honey-colored bob, began by describing her relationship to her mother, KT. T had worked variously as a real estate agent, attorney, accounting executive, indie-bookstore owner, and adjunct professor, and she’d held a master’s degree in Creation Spirituality from Naropa University Oakland. Before T had moved from Los Angeles to Madison, Wisconsin, she and N had lived in separate apartments in the same beachfront building on Seaside Terrace, near the tourist-swarmed Santa Monica Pier. “She was my best friend,” N said. “I’d dump my laundry in the wash, run some errands, and when I got back my clothes would be folded in a pile on top of the washing machine.” “I know it sounds weird,” she added, “to be an adult and have your mom still doing your laundry.” My lips twitched. I hadn’t expected N to joke around.
N was about to move from her apartment in the building they’d once shared, she explained, so T flew from Madison to Los Angeles to spend a last visit there. On Friday, March 21, 2014, N met her mother and some of their friends at approximately 6:00 p.m., at Big Dean’s Ocean Front Café, the sports bar on the Santa Monica Boardwalk around the corner from the apartment. N estimated that she and her mother each drank five or six beers. Around 11:00, they crossed Ocean Avenue on foot to reach the dive bar Chez Jay (pronounced “Shay Jay”), where they stayed for two hours. N had another couple of drinks while T had a glass of Prosecco and two Fireball whiskey shots. N described T as “drunk” and herself as “buzzed,” but she felt safe navigating that strip of Ocean outside of a crosswalk. The blocks near the pier were thronged with tourists — drivers knew to watch for pedestrians, N thought — and, as past customers at both bars, they’d made this same crossing many times before. At approximately 12:55 a.m. — now early March 22 — N and her mother said goodbye to their friends, left Chez Jay, and, linking arms, attempted to cross four lanes of sporadic traffic, pausing in the middle of the street to make sure a taxi in the left southbound lane saw them. The cab driver stopped, waving them across. N raised her hand — Thank you — and walked with T in front of the taxi, then stepped from the near left lane into the far right one. She hadn’t realized an oncoming vehicle was beginning to accelerate. As she noticed Cohen’s car, N yanked her mother after her, thinking they’d make it. A second taxi, which was driving behind Cohen, had a video recorder mounted on its dashboard. Fardghassemi projected the grainy black-and-white “taxi cam” footage from her laptop onto a large screen, which shows the Infiniti G35 accelerating past the stopped cab. The Infiniti strikes the pedestrians (black silhouettes), brakes, continues, and flashes its turn signal. The car takes an immediate right onto Pacific Terrace, a small side street, disappearing from view. Just before the crash, N said, she’d had her arm still raised from waving thanks to the cab driver when she braced for the Infiniti’s impact. “I straight-armed it,” she said, “like a Heisman Trophy.” N’s rigid arm bounced her off the car, she explained, and she caught herself, hard, on the pavement. The sound of her mother’s body being hit was “somewhere between a boom and a thump.” “To this day,” N said, “I’m so grateful I didn’t see it.” T’s body wrapped around the passenger side’s front fender before side-vaulting into the parking lane, where she struck the UCLA student’s parked Lexus as the young woman sat in her car. In the seconds after the impact, N watched her mother’s backless white sun-visor spin like a top in the street. She glimpsed two pairs of shoes lying on the asphalt — they’d been knocked out of them — which she stooped to pick up, tucking them into her purse. She’d begun screaming and waving to prevent other cars from hitting her mother, and, by then, a crowd of people had surrounded them. Someone was talking to the 911 operator. The paramedics soon came. Of the shoes, N said: “I thought we would need them later.”
Throughout N’s testimony — during direct-examination by the D.A. and cross-examination by the defense — the attorneys made objections straight out of TV shows: “Objection! Argumentative”; “Objection! Asked and answered”; “Objection! Misstates the testimony.” After Fardghassemi stretched out the first vowel in “objection,” elongating the “uh” and tossing her head, Flier glanced over his shoulder and said: “That was a dramatic objection.” At one point, we watched a tense exchange as the attorneys huddled in a far corner with the judge during a sidebar. I could hear Flier fume about the D.A.’s sighs and sarcasm; on the way up to the sidebar he’d crumpled a piece of paper and flung it into a metal trashcan with a loud thunk. Zuckman scolded Fardghassemi for her “snarky” tone. “Mr. Flier,” he added, “you’re shouting.” During cross, Flier asked N: “You were both intoxicated. Is that a fair statement?” “I’m not the one on trial,” she replied. That night I dreamed I tried to carry my own mother across a busy street.
“I’ve noticed,” I told Jeremiah as we waited in the hallway before the trial’s morning session began, “that my language has grown more lawyer-like. I’ve been saying things to my husband like: Our neighbor’s fence is missing the top two slats: Is that correct?My tone’s almost prosecutorial.” I’d also noticed that I no longer agonized over the daily outrages of the Trump administration. I read about the president’s plans to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord with an uncharacteristic calm. Instead of fretting over Trump’s gaffes and transgressions I obsessed over the trial, my brain swirling with jargon and names: Side-vaulted. Southbound on Ocean. Chez Jay. “My text messages are blunter, more direct,” Jeremiah said, “and I keep replaying the testimony.” “When I was touring with a Shakespeare troupe,” he continued, “we’d do five plays a season. We’d have to show up to the first rehearsal with all of them memorized. I kept replaying EN’s testimony last night until I finally had to have a drink.” We paused, turning to watch Flier walk past, followed by Cohen and the paralegal Gittelson. “I have a confession,” Jeremiah said in a stage whisper. “I think the defendant is so flipping handsome. I’ve developed this — I don’t know — carefor him.”
What did I know about Eugene Cohen? I wasn’t allowed to Google him during the trial or inspect his traces on Facebook. His scruffy mug shot in the six-person police lineup (the “six-pack”) showed he’d shaved his dark goatee. His Harvard-educated doctor told us about insulin-dependent diabetes, which Cohen had had since he was a teenager. Could Cohen have grown hypoglycemic as he drove down Ocean, Flier asked, and hit the pedestrians without knowing it? “It’s possible,” the doctor said. What else did I know about Cohen? He favored gray suits and lavender ties. He had three sisters and six brothers, a father who’s a prominent developer. I knew Cohen must work as hard as I did on maintaining a poker face. His was impeccable: alert, impersonal. I noticed he carried his insulated blue lunchbox by the handle-strap everywhere — to the courtroom, to the cafeteria, even to the bathroom. “The way he swings his little lunch pail does have,” I told Jeremiah, “a certain pathos.” Yet unlike Jeremiah, I never developed strong feelings toward Cohen. I avoided his eyes at the defense table and pushed off any thoughts of pre-courtroom Cohen, owner of Puppy Luv, rubbing the bellies of beagles and golden retrievers.
Next to Cohen’s childlike lunchbox and impassive face, Flier filled up most of the space. While questioning a witness, Flier would stand at the podium, jabbing his hands, repeating a phrase in his hypnotic cadence: “With respectto Ms. T’s blood alcohol level”; “With respectto the measurement logs”; “With respectto the speed calculations.” He’d keep his tone firm: adamant but not hostile. When he questioned Fardghassemi’s medical expert, who’d received a degree from Ross University, based on the Caribbean island of Dominica (the school’s graduates are licensed in only four states), Flier asked, deadpan: “Have you ever heard of Harvard Medical School?” If Flier was talking, I was watching him instead of the witness. He knew what to do with his body to control our eyes, and this skill, sensual and deliberate, kept me fantasizing. I devoted a whole series of imagined scenes to the elevator: Flier and I stand on opposite sides; as the doors close, he moves forward, presses me against the glass. Or we ride the packed elevator down, and, as the crowd exits, one by one, we decide, without saying anything, to stay behind. Or maybe Flier makes just one understated gesture: as I step from the elevator, he reaches for my wrist, pulls me back.
During the second week of the trial our juror-world swirled faster with further testimony. In addition to the former UCLA student, the tabloid reporter, and EN, Fardghassemi called an employee at Valencia Self-Storage Too (another business owned by Cohen, where he’d stowed his Infiniti after removing the security system’s DVRs); the security consultant who’d installed the storage facility’s original system and replaced it the month after T’s death; the apartment manager who’d received Cohen’s possibly post-dated letter of intent to vacate; and the employee from Puppy Luv who Cohen had phoned to ask about body shops. (Cohen closed his doggy daycare in the weeks after the hit-and-run.) One person’s name kept coming up: Josh Pomerantz, the defendant’s best friend. We’d glimpsed Pomerantz, briefly, when Fardghassemi flashed a photograph of him during her opening statement, in which she’d implicated him in the alleged cover-up. On the night of the incident, Cohen had left Pomerantz’s house in Sherman Oaks and driven on the 405 back to his apartment in Santa Monica, where he lived at the time. Cell phone records showed Cohen tried to reach his friend in the minutes after the crash and that Pomerantz returned the call around 1:30 in the morning. They spoke for 38 minutes. I kept expecting Pomerantz to take the stand and occasionally scanned for candidates in the audience: Him? No, another Cohen brother in a gray suit. Him? No, too old. Pomerantz, Fardghassemi told us, had lawyered up. I began to think he’d invoked his right not to incriminate himself and would probably never testify.
Zuckman had warned us not to visit the old crime scene to do our own investigating. If we lived in the area and happened to pass through the scene, that was okay, he said, but we shouldn’t linger, we should just move on through. On the afternoon of our sixth anniversary, David and I drove to Santa Monica for lunch and a movie, and, as we normally would, took Ocean Avenue southbound back to our house in Venice. For once, I cheered the slow trudge of traffic near the pier: the sunburned tourists in cargo shorts swarming the crosswalks, the five-o’clock jam of cars coming back from the beach. As we neared the 1600 block of Ocean, I began saying street names to myself as we crossed them: Broadway, Colorado, Moomat Ahiko. We crawled our Subaru through the site of the crash as if in slow motion. I ticked off familiar spots: there’s the dive bar Chez Jay; there’s the place where the first cab probably stopped; there’s the right lane out of which they almost made it; there’s the likely area of impact; there’s where the yellow caution-tape flapped. I felt as if we were moving through a secret. I was electrified, and, at the same time, ashamed for needing to see it.
By the third week of the trial my Flier dreams had intensified. In one of them, David and I slide into a middle booth at a small Italian restaurant. The defense team shows up and claims a table by the front window. They keep looking at us, whispering. Flier and I spend the whole dinner peeking over the slope of the red vinyl booths, only our eyes exposed. Then David jokes: “Anna’s not here!” We all laugh and start repeating, in unison: “Anna’s not here! Anna’s not here!”
Fardghassemi continued to call witness after witness: the car rental guy, the tow truck driver, the woman from Progressive Insurance, the Texan man from T-Mobile, the officer from the Major Accident Response Team, the lead investigator, the mechanic who’d chopped up Cohen’s car in a Van Nuys lot, the sassy Russian cab driver. Several experts on cell phones lectured about text messages, data records, and prepaid “burner phones,” after which a police sergeant showed us blown-up maps, charts, and diagrams of Cohen’s calls. Before his first arrest, Cohen had replaced his smartphone with a new one and bought a burner phone, the latter of which he used to call five people, including his father and best friend. Still no Josh Pomerantz in the courthouse, though.
After a bathroom break one morning, I waited in the hall between Jeremiah and Alternate Juror Number 14, a Serbian woman named Mila who had long platinum-streaked hair and an Eastern European’s wry, and slightly bemused, demeanor. She worked for a nonprofit organization focused on bringing educational and mental health services to children and families. Mila understood Russian and told Jeremiah and me that the language interpreter didn’t translate all of the cab driver Manuk’s outraged phrases. When Flier had asked Manuk if he remembered the color of T’s clothing, the driver scoffed: “Are you crazy? It was dark!” “The translator changed the crazy part,” Mila said, “to What was I supposed to do?” The jury had snickered throughout Manuk’s colorful testimony, laughing outright when Zuckman sat forward and said, with an amused smile: “Sir, so then the answer would be No.” “You guys, want to hear something really crazy?” I said, suddenly reminded of how I’d started my morning. “As I got out of bed today I realized I was chanting in my head: Josh Pomerantz, Josh Pomerantz, Josh Pomerantz.” “He’s never going to show,” Mila said dryly, shaking her head. “I know,” I said. “Waiting for Josh Pomerantz,” I added, “is like Waiting for Godot.” Jeremiah laughed. “Waiting for Josh Pomerantz — that’s what we’ll title our screenplay.”
Sometimes I wondered if my crush on Flier meant I was an irredeemable creep. Here I was imagining elevator trysts at lunch just after I’d listened to N cry softly in the audience for her dead mother. I even felt guilty for daydreaming about Cohen’s lawyer while his own liberty was at stake. This trial’s called People v. Cohen, I’d tell myself, not Juror Number One. Other times, I justified my behavior. What else was I supposed to do from noon to 1:30 in the cafeteria? Most jurors dispersed and drove somewhere else for lunch, leaving the young producer, the high school math teacher, and me. We sat at separate tables, headphones on, occasionally nodding at each other while guarding our alone-time. Newbie jurors, unfamiliar attorneys, and suited-up clients showed up but soon vanished; their legal matters lasted only a day or two.
The defense team always staked out a table at the front and center of the cafeteria, while Fardghassemi spent her lunch hour upstairs. Flier sat with his back to the serving counter, so he could survey the whole room. Cohen faced Flier, while Gittelson alternated sides. Earlier in the trial, I’d claimed my seat: a two-top pressed against the middle of the near wall, where I’d sit facing forward. I didn’t want Flier’s eyes laser-pointing at the back of my cranium. I had to pass him every time I entered or left the room, pumped coffee from an air-pot at the serving counter, or moved to and from the cash register, which was situated along the far wall. Flier’s making me circle him, I thought. I decided he’d placed his team in the front of the room for at least three reasons: so they wouldn’t seem furtive or covert (Here we are: nothing to hide); so Flier might humanize Cohen and himself through casual behavior and banter (Look: we’re unwrapping sandwiches and laughing); and so he could scrutinize jurors for sympathetic signs (Juror Number One: watchful, proximate). I realized Flier was manipulating me with his blunt, psychological tactics, but instead of feeling slighted I admired him.
On the day of the autopsy photos I began to grow less patient with myself, less inclined to idealize Flier. I looked away as he euphemistically described T’s thrown corpse: “The body came to its final resting place.” Final resting placesounded like a plot in a riverside cemetery, not the asphalt on which a woman’s smashed body stopped. I knew both attorneys would Rorschachmy face’s shadows and crannies for answers as I studied the photographs of T’s body: the square, saffron bruise overlapping half of her forehead; the long rip in the fatty tissue above her right hip; the gruesome pucker of her crushed femur. Her belly was battered in red “road rash” from the asphalt. I kept my hands relaxed, my fingers fanned across the armrests, my expression flat. At one point, Flier acted out the moment of impact. “I wanna be Ms. T,” he’d said, tipping forward as if lightly “clipped” by Cohen’s side-mirror. Wanna?N got up and fled the courtroom, letting the double-doors crash. During a bathroom break, Jeremiah and I stood side by side in the glass-walled hallway, watching the slow mob of traffic clog the 405. “Six years ago,” he said, “I had to identify my father’s body.” I turned to look at him. “He shot himself in the head.” From this far up we could see but not hear the cars as they streamed across the freeway. “The weird thing was the funeral director’s appearance: this gorgeous blonde woman in a pencil skirt instead of some pale hunchback in a black suit.” “Really?” I said. Jeremiah and I were beginning to resemble war buddies. He smiled, still watching the distant traffic. “My mom told me: At least, at the end, he got to have a young, beautiful woman’s hands on his body.”
Mila grabbed my elbow in the hallway on the day of Cohen’s testimony. I was leaning the back of my skull against the wall, eyes closed, listening to Fleetwood Mac on my iPhone. Jeremiah sat on the floor to my right reading a Buddhist-inflected book about embracing solitude as a lifestyle choice. “I was making dinner last night,” Mila said as I tugged out an earbud, “and I began saying, as I chopped an onion: Josh Pomerantz, Josh Pomerantz, Josh Pomerantz.” “No way!” I laughed. “Think he’ll show up today?” joked Jeremiah, dropping his bookmark in place. Josh Pomerantz was becoming our imaginary rock star. “I wore my tear-away panties to throw at him,” I said, with the enthusiasm of a crazed Beatles fan. Jeremiah nodded. “Tear-away panties? Well, it isMonday.” “If a Josh Pomerantz falls in the forest,” I added, stroking my chin, “and there’s no one there to hear it, does he still exist?” The bailiff poked his head out of the double-doors and called us in.
“The defense calls Eugene Morris Cohen,” Flier said. I made my face look bland and relaxed, as if this last defense witness were an ordinary one. Cohen stood, grabbing his lunchbox by the strap, and walked from the defense table to the front of the courtroom. After the clerk swore him in, Cohen took a seat, plunking his lunchbox in front of him on the stand. By then, Flier had called several other witnesses, including one of Cohen’s brothers, who talked about growing up with a diabetic sibling; a criminalist and toxicologist with the L.A. coroner’s office, who explained the different blood alcohol content measurements in T’s femoral blood (0.17) and heart blood (0.21); and a retired cop turned traffic collision reconstructionist who wore a white walrus-mustache. Cohen said he’d gone to Josh Pomerantz’s house in Sherman Oaks around 10:00 on the evening of March 21, 2014. “You and Josh were partying, right?” Fardghassemi asked during cross. “Drinking beer? Smoking pot?” Cohen looked at the jury box. “Absolutely not.” He left Pomerantz’s place in the Valley around 11:30, he explained, heading back to his apartment in Santa Monica. There was a closure on the 405 that night, which rerouted him to San Vicente: an unfamiliar way home. While driving along San Vicente, Cohen said, he began to feel off. He described pulling over to check his blood sugar, which was within the normal range, so he decided to continue driving. “And what’s that in front of you?” Flier asked, as I glanced at the lunchbox. “My diabetes kit. In case I need it.”
According to Cohen, at some point after he turned onto Ocean Avenue he began to feel disoriented. He had no memory of the collision, he said, or how he got home that night, and that he must’ve called Pomerantz to tell him about his emergency diabetic episode. Cohen described waking up the next day around 10, going outside to retrieve his wallet from his car, and noticing the front-end damage and missing passenger-side mirror. “How did you feel when you saw the vehicle?” Flier asked. I noticed Flier had folded his hands behind his hips and deliberately stood several steps back from the podium; it was the only time during the trial in which he seemed small-scale, nondescript. Instead of looking at him, I was finally staring at Cohen. “I was surprised and frustrated,” Cohen replied. Later that day, Cohen said, he learned from local news reports about a fatal hit-and-run on Ocean. The police had released a description of his gray Infiniti G35, including its front-end damage and missing mirror.
Cohen turned toward us again, looking from juror to juror. I kept my eyes centered on the knot in his lavender tie. “I was horrified,” he said, his voice shaking. His jaw muscles tensed before he opened his mouth again. Was he swallowing or beginning to cry? “I can’t imagine losing a loved one like that,” he continued, “how horrible it must be for a daughter to lose her mother.” Cohen’s low baritone cracked like an adolescent’s on the second “lose.” I wondered if Flier had told him to use that word instead of “die” or “dead.” “What did you do next?” Flier said. “I removed the DVRs from the storage facility and hid my car.” “I was scared,” Cohen said. “I made the wrong decision.” The police had first arrested Cohen, two weeks after the crash, based on a lead from an anonymous tip that the driver of the Infiniti might be the owner of Puppy Luv. They released him from custody several days later since they hadn’t yet found the missing vehicle. Cohen claimed that one of the investigators had threatened him with “big time” in prison. This was why, Cohen explained, he’d panicked and had his car towed from Valencia Self-Storage Too to a chop shop. “I was scared and I made the wrong decision,” he repeated. “I’m ashamed.”
At the end of the day, after Cohen’s testimony, I stepped into one of the empty elevators. Since I usually scurried straight to the ninth-floor restroom as soon as Zuckman dismissed us, while the other jurors left together, I almost always rode down alone. The defense team would hang back, waiting until we’d all gone, so as not to mingle with us in such close quarters. Talking with or smiling at jurors could prompt allegations of jury tampering, which could trigger a mistrial. As the elevator began to shut, I heard heavy footfalls, as if someone were racing to catch the doors. I reflexively hit the “open” button. Gittelson charged into the elevator, along with Cohen and two of his brothers: the clean-shaven one who could be his twin and the younger brother with the full hipster beard who’d testified about Cohen’s diabetes. Flier followed behind them. “Uh-oh!” he said, as I looked down and stifled a laugh. “We can’t talk about anything,” Flier added as he turned and stood in front of me. “Except baseball. We can talk about baseball.” This was as close as I’d gotten to Flier all month. I would’ve leaned in to sniff his cologne like a crazy person if Gittelson hadn’t been watching me. I could feel the paralegal’s frank gaze on my face’s left side. The twin-like Cohen brother brought up the Dodgers. “I’ve had to miss several games,” Flier replied. Finally, we arrived at the ground floor. Gittelson and the three Cohens marched out, but as Flier stepped from the doors, he turned back toward me. I froze in the middle of the elevator. Flier kept his eyes lowered as he reached out his right arm and pressed his wrist against the edge of the door. He was holding it for me. I would’ve laughed at the elaborate performance of chivalry, but I was mute from the adrenaline shooting through my chest. Several seconds ticked by as we stared at the air in front of us, standing as still as mannequins in a display window. Flier continued to hold the door until my body cooperated and I walked — I’d like to say calmly — out.
A few days after Cohen’s guilty verdicts, I dreamed about him: I’m holding a bottle of IPA at a small house party in Sherman Oaks. Cohen’s there, too, and, as he notices me, he pulls something from his jacket and people start screaming. I feel an impact in my head, collapse. I’m no longer able to see. I realize he’s shot me.
I know it’s my own guilt, and not Cohen’s, breaking open my face. It’s the same face — that “mask of attentive neutrality” — that I’d worked, for four straight weeks, to keep in place. Besides a racier elevator brush with Flier, hadn’t I finally achieved what I’d wanted: becoming the jury’s foreperson? The head juror. The real Number One. I’d wanted to run the deliberations, fill out the verdict paperwork, stand in the courtroom on that last day and say: “Your Honor, we find the defendant, Eugene Cohen,_________.” I hadn’t known, until the final Friday, whether Zuckman or the other jurors would pick the foreperson (it was the latter), but I dressed for court as if the role had always been mine: black jeans, black blazer rolled below the elbows, motorcycle boots, white shirt. I was the Patti Smith juror. In addition to me, there were only two other women in the box: the elementary school teacher and the nurse, three if you counted Mila, who, as an alternate, wouldn’t get to deliberate or vote. “Did you know,” I’d asked Jeremiah the previous week, “most jury forepersons are white men, ages 45 to 65?” Seeking out the role was, I’d decided, my private ego trip andmy broader feminist responsibility.
The first part was easy. All I had to do was say, as soon as the bailiff shut the door to the deliberation room: “I’d like to volunteer myself as the possible foreperson. Is anyone else interested?” No one else volunteered. “Can you tell us about your qualifications?” Jeremiah asked in a faux-interviewer tone, folding his hands on top of the seminar table. I explained that, as a professor, I was used to working with groups of people, that in fact my writing workshops were each capped at 12 students — the exact size of our jury; I’d make sure every voice was heard. Soon the conversation veered into silliness. “And where did you get your degree?” Jeremiah asked. “I hold a PhD,” I said, “from Trump University!” The mock-interview became our icebreaker as a jury. We’d only chatted in small groups before — about ourselves or the apocryphal Josh Pomerantz since we weren’t allowed to discuss the case. Besides Jeremiah and Mila (and Rob, Number Two), I knew the other jurors only by their numbers or professions. “Okay,” I said, waiting for a break in the laughter, “all in favor of me serving as foreperson raise your hands.”
I savored the bailiff’s shocked expression when he returned to the locked deliberation room with stacks of exhibits and a manila folder for the foreperson. “You’re the foreman?” he said, handing me the jury instructions and verdict forms. I hoped Fardghassemi, Flier, and Zuckman would be impressed, too. That Juror Number One, Flier might think, I saw her special emanations!I loved saying things like: “Let’s hold a nonbinding, anonymous poll, just to take the temperature.” I’d suddenly become someone who says take the temperaturewhen I meant: see which way we’re leaning re: empowering the state to revoke someone’s liberty. I was sunny, organized, thoughtful. I’d brought neon pink Post-it notes from home. I slapped the stack on the seminar table, saying, “Everybody take two and pass them on.” Instead of scrawling Whole Foods items or to-do lists on these Post-its, we’d label them with a felony or misdemeanor. Beneath each count: “guilty,” “not guilty,” or “undecided.” I sorted the tentative opinions on the hit-and-run charge (11 guilty, one undecided) while Jeremiah tallied those for the vehicular manslaughter count (seven guilty, four not guilty, one undecided).
We only needed an hour to reach a consensus on the hit-and-run, the more serious of the two counts — a felony that would come with multiple years in state prison. “I don’t know about you guys,” I said, opening the discussion, “but, I mean: You had me at taxi cam. You know? The cover-up was just gravy.” My metaphors had morphed into the language of corny understatement — take the temperature — and cliché — just gravy. The undecided juror, Number Four, the producer, had wanted to view the taxi cam footage again before he voiced even a tentative opinion, and, once he saw the Infiniti’s brake lights flare at the moment of impact and the black silhouettes drop he was ready. None of us believed a sudden diabetic episode had made Cohen so loopy that he blew through two people without knowing it. Juror Number 12, the nurse, told us she believed that if Cohen’s blood sugar had dipped low enough for him to hit pedestrians and not know it, then he wouldn’t have been able to make a precise right turn onto Pacific Terrace. “He would’ve crashed his car,” she said. Juror Number Six, the character actor, wondered if Cohen had been drunk — maybe he was afraid he’d get busted for a DUI. “We don’t have evidence for that,” I replied, “so we can’t speculate. We need to decide whether or not he knew he was involved in an accident and chose to leave the scene.” Before we broke for lunch, it was time for our first binding vote. “All those in favor of a guilty verdict for the felony hit-and-run raise your hands,” I said. “I see all hands.”
I’d written not guilty in the initial poll for the manslaughter charge. The jury was divided on this count — seven to five, and I was in the minority. I’d been troubled all month by the collision’s context. Couldn’t Cohen be guilty of fleeing the scene, without having caused KT’s death by criminally negligent driving? Who decides to cross four lanes of traffic, at one in the morning, after having eight or nine drinks? T’s blood alcohol content was over twice the legal limit, if she’d been driving. Why didn’t she and EN walk another block to a crosswalk? Why did that first taxi stop and wave them across when a car in the next lane was coming? Couldn’t that cab have obscured the pedestrians from Cohen’s view — when N had raised her hand, saying, Thank you? What if Cohen had assumed the taxi rolled to a stop near Chez Jay to pick up a fare? And just how fast was Cohen going down Ocean? Zuckman had struck the word speedingafter Fardghassemi used it and Flier objected. Zuckman said: “Instead of speeding, say faster than the other cars on the road.” If Fardghassemi couldn’t say speeding, how were we supposed to determine whether or not Cohen was doing exactly that? Experts from both the prosecution and defense agreed on an estimated speed of travel: 37 miles per hour. Is driving 37 in a 30 zone vehicular manslaughter territory? What if drunk people step out in front of your car?
“I’ve been watching my speed for the past few weeks,” said Juror Number Seven, the elementary school teacher, “and every time I reach 37, I think: It’s not that fast.” Jeremiah and Rob nodded. Juror Number Three, the high school math teacher, began to explain rates of speed and velocity. He said that the experts’ calculations were accurate, but that they measured the distance from points A and B on Ocean and how long it took the Infiniti to travel between them, according to the taxi cam video. Both points fell short of the area of impact, however, the precise location of which remained indefinite. This meant that Cohen’s car had reached 37 miles per hour before the site of the collision. “Cohen’s estimated averagespeed,” the math teacher said, “was 37, but you can see him accelerate beyond point B so, by the time he hit the pedestrians, he was going faster than that.” Juror Number 10 added that if Cohen were going a constant rate of speed, a steady 37, then his driving wouldn’t have been so dangerous. “It’s the rapid acceleration past the cab that’s negligent,” he said. As jurors we had to apply the “reasonable person” standard to assess whether or not Cohen’s behavior counted as criminal negligence. He wasn’t charged with gross negligence, just ordinary negligence. What would a reasonable person do if she were driving and spotted a taxi stopped in the adjacent lane? All of the jurors, without exception, said they’d slow down, to find out if there was a hazard. A reasonable person, then, should be cautious enough to avoid pedestrians, even drunk ones stepping, without a crosswalk, into the middle of the street. The pedestrians’ intoxication and improper crossing could be classified as “contributory negligence,” but unless their behavior was the “sole proximate cause” of T’s death, Cohen’s ordinary negligence while operating a vehicle meant he was guilty.
It took us three hours to reach a unanimous verdict on the manslaughter count. We watched the taxi cam footage over and over again on Fardghassemi’s laptop. We played the video in real time and in slow motion. Each time the shadowy pedestrians flickered into view and the Infiniti sped up I wanted to shout: Stop! I also recalled what Flier had said: Life doesn’t happen in slow motion. We watched the footage with the lights on and in the dark. We paused several frames to study them: the rapid acceleration, the moment of impact, the flash of Cohen’s brake lights. The 12 of us huddled around the glowing screen in the dark. We then split into small groups of four or five, to rewatch the clips, so each juror could shove her face just inches from the laptop. If I watch the taxi cam video enough times, I thought,maybe I can finally feel okay with my votes.
By the time Juror Number 10 punched the button on the wall to summon the bailiff, my foreperson-persona had eroded so completely that I could barely speak. After I’d held the final vote on the manslaughter count, I stared at the verdict paperwork, my pen hovering. There were two sets of forms: one to convict Cohen (with GUILTY printed in huge, all-caps font across the center of each page) and the other to acquit him (with NOT GUILTY instead). Each sheet listed the criminal charge at the top. I’d pulled out the two “guilty” forms. I had to fill in the date. “What day is it?” I asked, even though my cell phone lay in front of me on the table. “June 23,” said Jeremiah. I needed to write “Number One” in the blank space after “Foreman” and add the last four digits on my juror badge. As soon I’d slipped the completed forms in the manila folder, my tears started. I got up, blinking, and headed for the single-stall restroom in the hall. The bailiff was opening the locked outer door to the small hallway to escort the jury back to the box when he saw my face. “Real quick,” he said, nodding at the bathroom, “right?” “Real quick,” I said, shutting the stall’s door. It was almost 4:15 and court always ended at 4:30. You can cry all you want after this is over, I told myself, but not right now. I blotted my lower lashes with bunched rosettes of toilet paper, hoping the whites of my eyes wouldn’t turn red, and hurried back to the deliberation room, where I couldn’t bear to look at anyone. The bailiff led us, single file, toward the back entrance of Nine West. I knew everyone — Zuckman, the attorneys, Cohen, his siblings in the audience, N and her friends — would search my face for the verdicts. I followed the bailiff into the courtroom. I was the first juror to step through the door.
Afterward, I walked to a circular enclosure of benches set off from the side of the courthouse, on a small paved terrace between the two front lots for metered parking, to wait for David to pick me up. Although there were benches inside the ground-floor doors, those seats were too exposed. I needed somewhere to hide. The outdoor benches were bordered by a low concrete wall, with a horseshoe-gap entrance, and planters of evergreen shrubs lined the circle’s inner perimeter: a labyrinth whose interior maze had been erased. I could hold still and fade into the topiary. Was it possible that the last part of the day had taken 15 minutes? Could it have been 10? Since the trial’s abrupt end, I’d cried in two other bathrooms and — between those hideouts — retrieved my jury service paperwork from the fourth-floor assembly room. As I’d sobbed in a stall in the ninth-floor restroom, just after Zuckman had dismissed the jury, I worried that at any minute EN would walk in, hear me, and think I was crying for Cohen, when I was crying for myself. I hadn’t known, until I’d completed the verdict forms, how deeply the burden of being a juror would affect me. I’d judged another person. I’d held the votes. I’d physically signed away someone’s liberty.
I remember leaning forward in my familiar seat in the jury box, my chin tipped so low it almost knocked my throat. My tongue was as dry and blunt as a brick. I could hear Zuckman shuffle the paperwork, then say: “Juror Number One served as the foreman.” I’d stared at my hands in my lap. He passed the forms back to the bailiff, who gave them to the clerk. She stood and read the verdicts. I couldn’t believe I’d wanted to read them. At the first “guilty,” N gasped and began to cry. After Zuckman asked Flier if he’d like the clerk to poll the jury, the clerk asked each of us, one by one: “Juror Number____, is this your verdict?” Since Yestook only one syllable, my voice didn’t shake. “I said this at the start of the trial,” Zuckman told the jury as he thanked us for our service, “but it’s true: being a juror makes you a better person.” I didn’t feel like a better person as I bawled in the ninth-floor bathroom, bracing my spine against one side of the locked stall, or as I waited with the other dazed jurors in the assembly room to pick up our paperwork. We’d been given the option of going back upstairs to talk with the lawyers — we were finally allowed to speak to them — but I couldn’t stop crying. I figured Flier wouldn’t want to talk to me, anyway, given the verdicts. I’d handed Jeremiah two pink Post-it notes with my name, juror number, and contact information, asking him to give one to each attorney. I remember saying, “Call me,” as he stepped into the elevator, going up to Nine West. I’d reached out, awkwardly, as if to squeeze his arm or hug him, but the doors began to close and I yanked my hand out. I rode a different elevator down to the ground floor with Juror Number Six, the character actor. Throughout deliberations he’d been so vocal about Cohen’s guilt on both counts. In the elevator he leaned forward, as if he were stretching his shoulders, and gripped the steel handrail between both fists. As he stared through the glass at the rush-hour traffic on the 405, I realized that he was crying, too. When the doors opened, we stepped out, no goodbye. I hurried into the first-floor bathroom to shut myself in a stall once more — I didn’t think I could make it to the front doors without breaking down. On my way out of the courthouse, I passed the security guards by the metal detector. “You okay, ma’am?” one of them asked.
Outside, on my bench, I slipped on my sunglasses and inspected my cell phone. A text message from David: Stuck in traffic on Lincoln. I glanced back at the courthouse. Flier and Gittelson were just stepping from the sidewalk’s curb, about 45 feet to my right, headed into the front parking lot. I’d usually see them, at the end of the day, cutting across the metered lot with Cohen toward Flier’s dark blue sedan. Flier’s law office was based in Encino, so he’d drive Cohen, who at that point also lived in the Valley, to and from court. This time, though, Cohen wasn’t with them; he was in custody. It would be ridiculous, I decided, even offensive, if I waved. I looked away. This will be my last memory of the trial, I thought. The defense team walking to their car without their client.
As I stared grimly at my cell phone, listening for the start of Flier’s car, I recognized his voice instead. It sounded close: “Excuse me.” He and Gittelson were standing on the other side of the concrete wall. “You teach at USC?” Flier said, peering at me over the evergreen hedge. He began speed-talking: he has four kids; his daughter goes to USC; she should take one of my classes! I looked up through my sunglasses, stunned by his friendly chatter and thrumming with a sudden euphoria. I realized I should get up, go stand with them. I walked over to Flier, pulling off my sunglasses and stuffing them in my bag. “Aw, why are you crying?” he asked. Flier seemed relaxed, unfazed by the verdicts. “Don’t cry,” Gittelson said gently. “Our client didn’t cry.” How crazy is it, I thought,that the defense teamis comforting me?
“I thought I could handle being the foreperson,” I said, dabbing at my eyes with a fingertip, “but it was so heavy.” From the very first day, I explained, I’d wanted to be on the jury. When I was in the audience, I wanted to be in the box; when I was in the box, I wanted to be Number One; when I was Number One, I wanted to be the foreperson. Flier had been watching me as I spoke; his direct gaze had a startling visceral intensity. He didn’t appear at all surprised. Gittelson nodded, saying, “That’s why we put you in one.” “I don’t usually talk to jurors,” Flier said, “but I wanted to talk to you.” He asked me a few questions about the trial: What evidence couldn’t the jury overlook? (Taxi cam.) Was I troubled by the pedestrians’ alcohol consumption? (Of course.) What did I think of the D.A.’s medical expert? (The guy who went to Ross University? Licensed in four whole states!) Flier told me that in addition to the felony hit-and-run and vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence counts, Cohen had initially been charged with two others: vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Cohen had faced a potential 15- to 20-year sentence, but Flier had gotten the latter two charges dismissed: a “big win” for the firm. Flier also mentioned that Cohen had been offered a plea bargain: two years, with six months time served. (I later learned Cohen had spent three and a half months in custody before his bail was dropped from 10 to five million dollars and his father posted the five-hundred-thousand-dollar bond. Cohen’s days in remand were doubled for the time served credits.) If Cohen had accepted the plea bargain, he would serve another four to six months. I shook my head. “He should’ve taken that deal, Flier,” I said. Flier and Gittelson glanced at each other and burst into loud cackles. “What?” I asked. “Flier!” he said, leaning backward as he laughed, as if I’d hurled his last name, like a basketball, at his chest. “That’s what I call you in my head,” I said. “You’re Flier.”
We stood together for a while longer, joking like friends instead of the defense team and the foreperson who’d presided over the jury that convicted their client. I learned that Flier had started out as a D.A.; that he was getting married that fall; that his late father had been both a criminal defense attorney and his former law partner. I hoped David was stuck in the slowest traffic jam in all of Los Angeles so I could linger by the benches with them. Eventually, David turned into the front lot, and, as the maroon Subaru passed us, I saw that Flier recognized the car. Before we said goodbye, I told Flier that I’d planned to write him in a couple of weeks, and he immediately pulled a business card from his jacket. As I walked toward David, the courthouse behind me, I still carried the shock and sorrow of the trial’s last day, but, at that moment, my most acute feeling was gratitude. Flier and Gittelson could’ve walked past and left me there, hiding in a bleak concrete circle, spiraling into my own grief. Instead, they offered me camaraderie. My last memory of the trial is standing with them, the three of us talking, the glass hall of Nine West above us a sea-green in the late afternoon light, while the traffic along the 405 continued to move, unhurriedly, on.
Two weeks after People v. Cohenended, Jeremiah and I met for lunch on the back patio of a restaurant in Venice. “We served on a jury together,” Jeremiah had told our server, “and now we’re having a reunion!” When the server returned to our table, he asked, by way of taking our order: “What’s the verdict?” Jeremiah told me he had cried in court while the clerk read the verdicts. “I was leaning forward,” he said, “so no one would see.” I wondered how many other jurors — in addition to the character actor and me — had been in tears that final day. Since everyone had quickly dispersed from the assembly room, I wasn’t able to say a proper goodbye to Mila, though I’d texted her the following afternoon. She replied: “I had all of them in my dreams last night.”
By the time I met Jeremiah for lunch, David knew almost as much about the case as any juror. David indulged my need to talk repetitively and obsessively about the trial, but he hadn’t beenthere. Jeremiah and I shared the experience of the trial as well as an automatic understanding of its aftermath. I told him that I’d flown to DC two days after the verdicts to visit my family in northern Virginia, and that they kept remarking on my unnerving expression. “What’s wrong?” my mother asked. “You look hostile,” my sister said. “Ah,” Jeremiah said, “resting juror-face.” He didn’t think it was odd that I missed the trial; he missed it, too. People v. Cohenhad given structure and meaning to our lives, a high-stakes moral agency. Jeremiah also grieved the loss of his courtroom identity. “I’ll never get over it,” he said. As jurors, we’d felt uniquely competent, challenged, transformed. Being a juror, Jeremiah said, had shattered the story he’d been telling about himself since high school: that he wasn’t smart or capable of processing complicated information or remembering details, despite his high IQ. Although he loved being a nanny to “his boys” in Malibu, serving as a juror fulfilled him in deeper, more complicated ways. “I’m thinking of applying to MA programs in counseling,” he said, “or getting my PhD in child psychology.” He’d already begun studying for the GRE.
I told him that being a juror had revised my story, too: the one in which I’m a painfully shy introvert. I hid in coatrooms at literary cocktail parties. I studied embarrassing tips on how to make small talk (“Do you like guacamole?”). I popped beta-blockers before I gave readings so my hands wouldn’t shake. And yet, as a juror, I’d immediately volunteered myself as the foreperson. I’d run the deliberations with confidence and authority. I’d held the votes, even the agonizing one on the manslaughter count. Although signing the verdict forms was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, being a juror enlarged me. I’d been asked to play serious roles before — empathetic listener during my best friend’s divorce, supportive student to a close mentor after his brother’s suicide, brave daughter who had to call 911 when her mother fell through the attic floor and shattered her vertebrae — but serving as a juror, in its social and moral dimensions, was a calling of a different order.
Jeremiah and I both imagined post-trial contact with our crushes. “Maybe I’ll write Cohen or visit him in prison,” Jeremiah said. “He’d always look at me,” he added, “to see how we were reacting to the testimony.” I’d already mailed a letter to Flier telling him I hoped to write a piece about being a juror and asked if he’d meet with me at his law office in Encino. “I’d like to ask you a few questions,” I’d written, “about yourself as well as the dynamic of a courtroom, in order to help me better understand and articulate my experience as a juror.” Or if Flier wanted to meet me at Hotel Erwin’s rooftop lounge overlooking the beach, I joked to Jeremiah, as we sipped our white wine cocktails, tart with ginger and lime, that’d be fine, too.
After two weeks went by without a reply from Flier, I decided he’d gone on vacation. He’s playing golf in Palm Springs. After three weeks, I called the cell phone number on his business card and left a short follow-up message. He’s busy preparing for a new trial, I reasoned. After four weeks, I left a second voicemail, suggesting a particular day and location: how about I meet him at the courthouse after Cohen’s sentencing hearing? I could wait for him in the cafeteria. I’d scripted my voicemail message and practiced it: “I happen to be an expertat waiting in that cafeteria!” I hoped my tone seemed breezy rather than frantic. I cursed myself for telling Flier I was a writer. That’s why he’s freezing me out, I thought, staring at his business card. At first its embossed letters had conjured that almost magical moment outside of the courthouse. Now the black font of Flier’s name only reminded me of his silence. The back of the card says, “GIVE THIS CARD TO ARRESTING OFFICER,” and advises me on what to do if I’m pulled over for a DUI. “Upon the advice of my attorney, Andrew Reed Flier,” the first paragraph begins, “I hereby invoke my Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment Rights against search and seizure, remaining silent and requesting my attorney to be present during any questioning.” “Maybe he’ll call me back,” I told David, “if I go get a DUI.”
Curious about Cohen’s sentence, I called the clerk in Department 92 to find out the details. On July 21, almost a month after the verdicts, Zuckman sentenced Cohen to four years in state prison for the felony hit-and-run charge and one year, to run concurrently, for the vehicular manslaughter conviction. Cohen would receive credit for 244 days time served. He’d also have to pay restitution to the victim’s family. “You’re Juror Number One?” the clerk had asked me. “The D.A. wants to talk to you.”
“I worried about you,” Fardghassemi told me over the phone when she called. “You were so stoic.” “I worked hard on my juror-face,” I said, pleased. I asked if she’d mind breaking down Cohen’s sentence for me. Due to California’s overcrowded prisons, Fardghassemi explained, Cohen would serve his four years at 50 percent: a total of two years. With his credit for time served, he’d spend approximately one more year in prison. “I’ll have to tell Juror Number Eight,” I said. “The nanny!” Fardghassemi cried. “I always knew he was with me.” She’d spoken with Jeremiah after the trial, when he’d gone back up to Nine West, and assured him that we’d made the right choice in convicting Cohen on both counts. I’d wanted to talk with her, too, I told her, but I’d been a wreck after the verdicts. I did get to speak to Flier, though, I said, telling her about the unexpected conversation. Fardghassemi then brought up Cohen’s sentencing hearing during which Flier had announced that a juror had contacted him. “Was it you?” she asked. I hesitated. I realized that this must’ve been the reason she’d called me. She wanted to know about the juror whose sympathies may have crossed to the other side. “I did contact Flier,” I said, “but I didn’t say anything about feeling sorry for Cohen. I didn’t say anything about his potential sentence.” “Besides,” I added, feeling increasingly foolish, “he never replied.” “What did he say, exactly?” I asked. “That was it,” she said, “but he mentioned it in the context of requesting leniency for his client.” Why did he give me his business card, I’d wondered for weeks, if he never intended to reply? Maybe this was why.
Waiting for Andrew Flier, I’ve come to realize, had always been like waiting for Josh Pomerantz: they were both mostly imaginary. As jurors, we hadn’t known what role — if any — Pomerantz may have played in his best friend’s attempts to cover up the hit-and-run. What must he and Cohen have talked about on the phone, for 38 minutes, only half an hour after the collision? Because we weren’t allowed to discuss the case’s details before deliberations, Jeremiah, Mila, and I had invented our own character: Pomerantz was a rock star, Zen koan, shibboleth, our running joke that kept some measure of levity amid the trial’s grim procedural. The act of imagining him helped us become something more than strangers waiting in the hallway outside of Nine West — it bound us together as friends. The loony humor and warmth of our alliance also helped me negotiate my identity as a juror. After sitting for hours in court each day, keeping my expression unreadable in front of gruesome autopsy photos or repetitious testimony, I needed a way to counter both the gravity and seriousness of my obligations as well as the constant strain of embodying neutrality.
Unlike Pomerantz, who never testified or attended (as far as I know) any part of the trial, throughout that month Flier remained a constant physical presence. In many ways, however, he was just as fictional as Pomerantz. From the day I took my seat in the jury box, I’d imbued Flier with exceptional abilities, ascribed to him a mighty clairvoyance: he could look at me across the courtroom and see my competence and capabilities, my radiant desirability. As Fardghassemi, Flier, and Zuckman questioned potential jurors and singled me out of the crowd of 90 people, I’d fantasized that they could intuit all of my latent magnificent qualities. It wasn’t just Flier the person I wanted to embrace in the elevator: I wanted to possess a new version of myself.
I’d told Flier in my letter that I’d like to ask him some questions in order to help me better understand my experiences as a juror. I’ve realized, though, that I’d wanted much more than that. I’d hoped he would say some magic words that would make the psychological and emotional burden of the trial, specifically my anguish at signing the verdict paperwork, easier to bear. My surprise conversation with the defense team outside of the courthouse had left me dazzled with gratitude, convinced that Flier had saved me from the full force of my despair at having become the agent of someone’s judgment and incarceration. If talking with Flier for 10 minutes had felt so transformative, then surely meeting with him one-on-one would feel even more radical. It took several months before I realized I was waiting for the wrong person to rescue me.
The first time I heard Zuckman say that being a juror makes you a better person, I thought he was being corny and paternalistic, trying to make the dry-sounding business of jury duty seem more desirable. The second time he said it, I was too shattered to believe the words were true. I can’t look at the leftover pink Post-it notes on my desk without seeing those guiltys flash past — most in print, several in cursive, and one stark abbreviation: G. My grief at becoming the literal hand that signed away Cohen’s liberty will always stay with me. Yet the sudden rupture of my self-assured persona in the deliberation room eventually grew into a relief and a revelation. I’d spent all month believing in the fiction of my own objectivity. I’d told myself that if I avoided looking at Cohen and considered only the evidence presented in court, my involvement in his complicated life could be simpler, less messy. To make my role as a juror easier, I’d resisted Cohen’s humanity, and, in the process, I’d denied a large part of my own. I’ve wondered, too, whether I displaced my wild subjectivities and speculations onto Flier, my crush on him a lavish distraction in which I might hide from the horrors of the trial. Ultimately, I couldn’t protect myself from my role’s harsh inevitability. My stoic mask cracked as I signed the paperwork and the empathy I’d tried to fight came crashing through.
I’m still trying to figure out what being Juror Number One may mean for me, post-verdict. It’s not just my guilt that I own — it’s a quality of greater gravitas and agency, a feeling that I’m no longer standing by in these socially and politically unstable times. I want to connect more directly with my community, to take on new roles with a juror’s grit and searching verve. Although I’m not sure I can answer the question implicit in Zuckman’s pronouncement, I’d start by saying this: being a juror makes you a better person because you’re asked to reveal your very best self. The nature of that process is as halting and paradoxical as it is powerful: I’ve felt emboldened and humbled, fractured and made whole from the ways I had to grow. Early in the trial, I’d said to David, “Who will I be when I’m no longer Juror Number One?” At the time, I thought I was mostly joking. Since then I’ve begun to repeat his reply like a promise: “You’ll always be Juror Number One.”
In my most recent trial-related dream Andrew Flier is absent, and I decide to reach out to Eugene Cohen. In the dream Cohen has a month before he must report to custody. None of my friends understand why I’m hanging out with the felon I helped to convict, but, for some reason, Cohen and I feel bound, without animosity, by the judgment. We’re lying on our stomachs in the middle of my queen bed, our elbows propped on the blue duvet, chins in our hands. Cohen turns to me and says he’s worried about not being able to sleep in prison because of the clanging iron doors and the correction officers’ footsteps and all of the men coughing and tossing at night. I nod and walk to my dresser on top of which sits a small black box. It’s my white noise machine, I say, patting the contraption. I press different buttons to show Cohen the range of sounds — the whirring fans, the crackling static — turning the volume up to the max. How can I sleep at night? I might caption the scene. How can I finally put this trial to rest?
Anna Journey’s most recent book is the essay collection An Arrangement of Skin(Counterpoint, 2017). She’s an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California.