/ Nonfiction /
Have you or any member of your family been the victim of a crime?
That was the first question.
Five minutes earlier I had filed through a tunnel-like vestibule into the windowless courtroom with other prospective jurors. Circular light fixtures covered the high ceiling of the pentagon-shaped space which was built in the seventies. We were one hundred and twenty residents of Alameda County, California. I knew exactly how many because I worked at this courthouse. The previous day, I had heard Rhonda, the jury commissioner, speaking on the phone about our group. We language interpreters share an office space with jury staff, and so we overhear them engaging with disgruntled or confused prospective jurors all day, every day.
I had been at dozens of jury selection processes, sitting next to the defendant at counsel table and speaking softly in Spanish into my microphone which feeds into his or her headset. Interpreting their words as each prospective juror talked about what they do for a living, whether they’d ever been victims of crime, knew anyone who’d been arrested, how they feel about domestic violence, if they drink alcohol, what they think of the presumption of innocence, and on and on, depending on the type of case. Now the tables were turned and I was in the mishmash sea of strangers meant to represent a defendant’s community of peers. Although I felt completely comfortable in the courtroom, a second home for me at this point in my career, the nervous energy of the group I was a member of that day was contagious. I was in unfamiliar territory.
“Katherine Van Sant.”
Before we all even had a chance to sit down on the threadbare folding theater seats in the audience, the clerk had begun calling out the first eighteen to come up to the jury box to begin the selection process. I happened to be #1. This meant I would be first to answer all of the questions. Did I want to be a juror? Not really. Did I feel it was a responsibility I should not avoid? Yes, I do believe in that civic duty. Did I think I would be challenged for cause because I knew the judge, the attorneys, the clerk, the court reporter, the bailiff? Yes.
But I wasn’t.
I looked over at counsel table where the defendant sat next to her court-appointed attorney. She was a white woman in her late twenties with frizzy blond hair flowing down her back. This surprised me, as the vast majority of defendants are men of color. She stared straight ahead and never turned towards us. I looked down at the first question on the plastic-sheathed questionnaire we had each been given.
Have you or any member of your family been the victim of a crime?
I waited for the judge to dismiss me. He didn’t. So, being number one, I started answering the questions printed on the page. “My grandfather was murdered and my grandmother was stabbed in the same incident.” Nancy, the clerk, looked up at me for an instant and then immediately looked back down at the paperwork on her desk. The court reporter was already looking at me, but there was no change in her face. We hear so many things in the courtrooms. Over the years one develops a crust, a layering or coating, a shield that comes up. This is not only to maintain decorum, but to protect yourself from the suffering, hurt and frustration expressed daily in our presence. So you’re hearing and taking it in, but you don’t react outwardly, just carry on with your job. Sometimes there’s a crack, like there was at that moment with Nancy, but usually one doesn’t disengage the shield until the session is over. That’s when we sometimes let loose and rehash what we’ve heard, a kind of informal therapy to treat the second-hand trauma we all suffer from. An uneasy feeling settled in my stomach as I imagined the news spreading throughout the courthouse about me. Did you know Katy’s grandfather was murdered? The judge asked me if anyone had been arrested and/or convicted of the murder and stabbing. I said yes. He asked if I had attended the trial. I said no. I was only eight at the time and the trial took place in Florida. He asked if there was anything about that experience that would affect my ability to be fair and impartial if I were chosen to sit on the jury for this murder trial. I said no.
On the one hand I felt relief, like I’d been carrying around a secret that had been weighing on me and I hadn’t even realized it. There was a lightness. But it was mixed with some worry about the possibility of having to answer questions, or navigate the sensation that co-workers were thinking something about me without saying anything directly to me. In the end, none of that ever happened. It is only in my own mind that events of my life become something that others care much about. Most people are concerned mainly with themselves, I’ve learned.
After all eighteen of us finished answering the questionnaire, the District Attorney stood up to voir dire us. This is the process by which the attorneys on both sides ask questions to determine whether to keep or excuse a prospective juror. I had worked with this DA before, interpreting for victims and witnesses. A mother of young children at the beginning of her career, she struck me as driven, someone who wanted to move up in her office. But I could also see the effects of trying to both mother and advance in a profession. The tired eyes, the simple ponytail. Before questioning us individually, she gave a brief explanation of the felony murder rule in California.
“The felony murder rule states that if someone is killed during the commission of a felony, the person or persons committing the felony are guilty of 1st degree murder. It is not necessary for the person to actually have killed someone. As long as that person is in the midst of committing a felony, and during the commission of that felony someone is killed, that person, by law, is guilty of murder.” She walked back and forth in front of us as she spoke, pausing when she reached each side of the courtroom.
“Here is an example. Let’s say a group of four people decide to rob a bank. Three of them go in with masks, and one waits outside in the get-away car. Inside, things go badly for the bank-robbers, and a security guard ends up shooting and killing one of them. This means the other three, the two who were inside and the one who was outside in the get-away car are all guilty of 1st degree murder. For killing the fourth robber, one of their own, who was shot by the security guard.”
Although I had been working in court for a while at that point, I had not heard of the felony murder rule. As I listened to her explain the law, it sounded so wrong to me. How could someone be convicted of murder who had never killed, nor intended to kill anyone? Who wasn’t even in the room or the building when it happened?
The D.A. looked up at me. I steeled myself with a deep breath, thinking she was going to ask me about my grandfather.
“Ms. Van Sant. Keeping in mind the definition of the felony murder law, if I prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Williams was committing a felony and during the commission of that felony the victim in this case was killed, would you return a verdict of guilty?”
Here it was. I was being asked to participate in the enforcement of a law I did not agree with. Asked to help put a woman in prison for who knows how many years for something she didn’t do. Did the D.A. pick me for her first question thinking I would say yes? My heart started beating fast. My armpits dampened. One of the other prospective jurors handed me the microphone so I could answer. My voice was unsteady and I could see the microphone shaking slightly as my hand trembled.
“Well, I wouldn’t feel comfortable returning a guilty verdict on a murder charge for someone who didn’t kill anyone.”
As I spoke, I started to feel something. There was a growing sense of cohesion amongst this group of strangers. There were no sounds, no murmurs or nods that I perceived. It was a silent signaling coming from no single person, but rather a collective joined into one purpose. We were all being thrust together into this uncomfortable position and we found strength in one another. It was a sensation I had never felt before with a group of complete strangers.
The D.A. pressed me. “Despite the fact that you would feel uncomfortable, would you be able to set that aside and follow the law?” I felt a weight of responsibility, as if the others were looking to me for guidance. Expectation floated around the room as people shifted in their seats.
“I don’t know. It would be really difficult.”
“Are you saying you wouldn’t follow the law?”
At this point, I knew that if I said I wouldn’t follow the law, I would be challenged for cause and dismissed. I think that if I didn’t work there, I might have said that. Maybe not. It takes a lot of gumption to sit in a court of law and state before a judge and a room full of people that you are not willing to follow the very law the court exists to enforce. I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I felt like a cornered animal and I sensed many of my fellow prospective jurors felt this way as well.
“I would follow the law.” I said reluctantly, feeling as if I’d failed a test and avoiding eye contact with anyone in the room.
The D.A. moved on to the next prospective juror and my shoulders slowly lowered with each exhale as I relaxed somewhat. My turn in the hot-seat was finished. As I listened to several people repeat my sentiments of discomfort with the felony murder law I wondered if they would have said what they were saying had they not heard me express it first. I had seen this kind of group dynamic in jury pools in the past. Sometimes there are groups where not a single person has a family member who has committed or been the victim of a crime. Other times it seems like they all have a story to tell. Being now on the other side of things, I understood better how this happens. We are social creatures and we want to go along with the majority, be part of the group. What dawned on me in that moment was how random it all was. I happened to go first. I set the tone. I happened to feel one way about this law and expressed that. What if I had said something different? I do believe people would have answered differently. But, I also thought I sensed a feeling of relief in this group at being given permission to express disagreement with the position of the powerful. To question the wisdom of the lawmakers who rest confidently on generations of advanced degrees and political offices.
After both attorneys had an opportunity to speak to and question us, the peremptory challenge phase began. In a murder trial in California each side has the opportunity to challenge ten prospective jurors without stating a reason. The D.A. went first.
“I would like to thank and excuse juror number one, Ms. Van Sant.”
I picked up my coat, purse and questionnaire from my lap, stood, placed the plastic sleeve on the seat, awkwardly scooted between the two closely-spaced rows of people, and walked out of the courtroom. My membership in that community over as quickly as it had begun.
I later learned the details of that sad case. Ruby Williams and her boyfriend went to a motel room to confront a man they claimed owed them money. As her boyfriend held the man down, Ruby took $80 out of his pants pockets. However, it turned out her boyfriend did more than hold the man down. He strangled him to death. Ruby’s boyfriend took a plea bargain and was given eight years. Ruby, however, chose to take her case to trial. She was being charged with first degree murder and she didn’t kill anyone. The jury I would have served on convicted her, and the judge sentenced her to twenty-five to life. Three times what the actual killer got.
I am grateful I didn’t have to sit on that jury. I don’t know what I would have done. Felony murder is an element of the law that has been repealed in every country that previously had it. Except the United States. So far, 11 “non-triggermen” have been executed due to it, and it is unknown how many are currently on death row. An estimated 1 in 5 people in prison with murder convictions right now are there for felony murder. That is roughly 36,000 people. In 2018 California relaxed the felony murder law, but it has not completely disappeared. Only Kentucky, Hawaii and Michigan have abolished the law entirely. Every other state has some form of the law on the books and twenty-seven allow executions of people who participated in a felony that led to someone’s death, but who didn’t carry out the killing themselves.
* * *
Ten years after my experience as a prospective juror, an unapologetic racist was elected to the Whitehouse and during the course of that first year of his presidency, I began to see things to which I had previously been oblivious. My job changed from one day to the next, as I embraced my venue for resistance by surreptitiously providing advice and comfort to clients fearful of being scooped up and detained by immigration as they went about their lives. One evening I posted a link to Facebook about how Trump had called for the execution of the five Black children who were falsely accused of raping a white woman, with a comment about mass incarceration. I paused as I readied my post, feeling something shift inside me. In that moment it dawned on me that two of the men trapped in the system I was criticizing were there because they had been convicted of killing my grandfather. His murder was a story I’d carried with me my whole life, but at that moment, as I sat on the couch, iPhone in hand, I realized I knew very little about what actually happened and why. I knew about the shock and pain my family went through. I knew about my grandmother’s resilience. But I didn’t know what caused two Black men to drive through the citrus groves on a country road at night to the home of one of the men’s elderly white boss. I didn’t know which of the men shot my grandfather. I didn’t know which stabbed my grandmother. I didn’t know why they would do such a thing. At age 44, it occurred to me for the very first time that the two men convicted were still alive and in prison. I wanted to know their side of the story.
I interviewed family members, starting with my mother. On December 26, 2017, I sat on a stool at the kitchen counter at the home I grew up in. I hit record and she began. “They lived way out on this country road. They had sold the motel, bought more groves, and moved out there after we all left home. What I remember about that place was the chain gangs walking by, almost all Black men, chained together.” My mother has a way of saying whatever pops into her head, and she told the story in that meandering style. I’m not sure why she started out by mentioning those chain gangs, but to me it felt meaningful. My mother’s version came from what her mother told her from a hospital bed in Florida the day after it happened. My mother had left California and her three young children in the middle of the night when she got the news. My grandparents were forced to lie face-down on their kitchen floor. My grandfather was shot in the head with his own shotgun. My grandmother, lying next to him, was stabbed in the back, her lung punctured. Face pressed into the linoleum, her husband’s thick blood inching towards her, she pretended to be dead until she was sure they had left. She did not see who stabbed her. She did not see who shot her husband.
My grandparents, Cora and Carman Van Sant, were from Pennsylvania. In 1652 my ancestors traveled from Amsterdam, took the land of the Lenape and named it New Utrecht, now Brooklyn. In 1689 my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather moved to Bensalem Township in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, settling on land swindled from the Lenni Lenape by William Penn. There the Van Sants remained farmers for seven generations. One of eleven siblings in a blended family, my grandfather left school at thirteen to help on the farm, but only lasted a couple of years, unable and unwilling to tolerate his father’s abuse. He left the family farm in favor of factory work where he learned how to run and repair machines. After marrying my grandmother the couple borrowed money from her father, who had means, and started a small factory of their own producing women’s nylon stockings. They worked hard, hired dozens of relatives, and thrived, enjoying a twelve-year period of prosperity. When seamless stockings emerged in the early 1950’s, they could no longer compete. They were in their forties with three daughters and saw the writing on the wall. The factory was no longer feasible and had to be sold. Rather than go back to farming, they chose to move to central Florida, a place where they had vacationed during their years of affluence. They bought a small lakefront motel that came with a one-acre orange grove, neglected and nearly dead. My grandfather, with generations of farming in his blood, was lured back to the land. My grandmother ran the motel with a staff two women and the help of her daughters, and my grandfather got to work learning about citrus and bringing that grove back to life.
All of the family members I interviewed believed in their hearts that it was not Roy, the one who had worked for and with my grandfather, who pulled the trigger. A young man from Mississippi from a family of ten, Roy had left school and his home at age 15 to start working in the Florida’s citrus groves. He had no record whatsoever. My grandfather had lent him money in the past. Roy was described to me by several people as “slow.” Knowing what they did of Roy, which in truth wasn’t very much, central Florida being segregated, none of them could conceive of him having the cold blood required to carry out such a crime. Everyone I spoke with believed that Roy was somehow manipulated by the other guy, who was known as Jinx, a felon and parolee from Detroit.
After the interviews I sent away for court documents. The first one I received was an “Order Denying Motion for Post Conviction Relief” filed March 8, 1996. In it, a judge reviews Edward Roy Richardson’s case, sixteen years after his conviction. I remember receiving it in the mail and reading the document at night after putting my daughter to sleep. On page five I read, “Mr. Van Sant was killed during the commission of that robbery. Under our law and the felony-murder rule in particular, which the State argued, the Defendant is technically guilty of first degree murder. The jury evidently intended to pardon the defendant by not finding him guilty of first degree murder. That is their right and prerogative but in a way the verdict is inconsistent.” The judge who penned the decision continued, “I don’t feel the defendant is entitled to any leniency by the Court, as the jury probably spared his life.”
I stared at the page, reading and rereading the words…felony-murder rule in particular, which the State argued…until the script blurred and my eyes burned. I gulped my wine as the now-familiar dread spread over my body, starting in my heart and moving outward. It is a tension that creeps up on me each time I delve into this history, each time I am suddenly able to see something that had been right in front of me all along. Why did it never occur to me in all these years that the men were convicted under the felony murder rule? Ever since my experience as a prospective juror in Ruby Williams’ trial, ten years prior, I had railed against it.
Later I received a transcript of Roy’s trial. The jury convicted him of robbery and manslaughter. The verdict didn’t seem to follow the law because if they’d found him guilty of the felony of robbery, he would also have to be guilty of 1st degree murder, according to the felony murder rule. Did they not understand this rule? Or did they purposefully defy it, feeling, as I do, that it is unfair, and knowing that the prosecution was seeking the death penalty? Perhaps they felt that his guilt, in terms of pulling the trigger that killed my grandfather, was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps they didn’t want Roy’s blood on their hands. The judge apparently cared not what the jury’s intentions were, but rather concerned himself with giving Roy the severest punishment he could, considering that the jury had chosen not to have him killed.
Years later I got up the nerve to call Roy’s attorney, who happened to be not only still alive, but still practicing law. He explained to me that the jury had payed attention to his closing argument. I had not seen the closing statement because it was not included in the trial transcript. Roy’s attorney argued that the murder happened after the robbery was concluded, not during the course of the robbery. Therefore, the felony murder rule did not apply. The judge, however, did not, or chose not to understand or agree when he sentenced Roy.
Jinx left town with his wife and child on the night of the crime. No one knew if he would ever be found and apprehended. So when Roy’s trial took place, there was only one person who could pay the price for the murder that had shocked the town. Roy took the stand and testified in his own defense. As I read the transcript, I could see him in my mind’s eye – 6 foot 2, massive hands and size 15 feet - his quiet, slow Southern voice. He said he went out there to ask to borrow money from my grandfather. He said he didn’t know that Jinx had followed him. He said he left the house before anyone was shot or stabbed. I don’t know if that is true. Roy was testifying to save his own life. My grandmother also testified, stoically reliving the terror of that night. Roy’s testimony did not contradict my grandmother’s.
Roy spent 31 years in a Florida prison for the murder of my grandfather, even though his jury and the victim’s family all believed he didn’t do it. Jinx was apprehended in Detroit and tried three years later. His attorney, now a judge, told me that there was no doubt in his mind that his client, who died in prison in 2020, was the one who shot my grandfather and stabbed my grandmother.
I think about Roy’s role in the crime. It was said that but for Roy, it wouldn’t have happened. That is true. I also think about my family’s role in Roy’s extended incarceration, the prime of his life. These are not easy questions. I think about the role of our legal system and how it claims to deliver justice. But doesn’t it just expand and build on the infliction of pain that begins outside the institution? Prolonging, increasing, multiplying hurt and harm? I think about a life of toil and struggle stacked on generations of the same, and a drunken Saturday night idea to counter that by robbing the boss man who had a safe in his house from which he paid the workers. Because he had plenty, and they had nothing. I think about my grandmother with a knife to her neck, steadying her shaking hand and opening that safe which contained a mere $200. I think about swimming with her when I was a girl in the pool at the condo she moved into, about the shock and fear I felt at seeing the scars on her back for the first time. I think about my oldest cousin who loved nothing more than to work in the groves with our grandfather, who was never the same after he died. I think about a skewed and immoral system charged with making sense of tragedies like these, and failing by design. I think about what could possibly bring solace to a grieving family.
* Some names have been changed to protect privacy.