It was a hot July day, and I was lazily sipping iced coffee when I picked up the phone to hear my mother fighting back tears. Her moment had come. She’d gotten jury duty.
When my mom—a law-abiding, Annie Hall–turns-savvy-business-woman type—was chosen to be on the jury for the recent John Gotti Jr. case, my family became bizarrely intertwined with the Family. The trial ended two weeks ago in a hung jury.
But during the weeks that it lasted, jokes about cement shoes and sleeping with the fishes started to take on a whole new meaning at family meals and parties.
My mom, I should note for her own safety as well as mine, was one of the five alternate jurors—something like the courthouse version of “always the bridesmaid.” So while she wasn’t present for deliberations, she was there for the entire trial. Indeed, she became something of a den mother for the mob’s jury. Now that the trial’s ended and she’s been free to talk, her tales of the inner workings of the Cosa Nostra have satiated our Sopranos cravings, at least between episodes of Law & Order.
Mom, first of all, why didn’t you get out of this?
“I let fate take its course. On the one hand, I thought it could be fascinating; on the other hand, I felt that it would be self-indulgent as a business owner to not be in the office for six weeks. On the third hand, I didn’t know how to get out of it. What was I supposed to say?”
Well, I suggested you tell them your daughter up until recently worked at the New York Post. I’ve heard lawyers don’t pick people associated with papers.
“You wrote about weddings and restaurants, not crime.”
But still—I mean, I knew people who wrote about the Gottis. I also once met [the plaintiff, and head of the Guardian Angels] Curtis Sliwa.
“You met him at a matzo-ball-eating competition.”
So? I read one woman tried to get out of it by saying she’d worked in an office where she once saw the guy who wrote The Godfather.
“Yeah, that was dumb. It might not have been the brightest group of people. We had to fill out this 25-page questionnaire, and one question was: ‘Name three living people you’re not related to whom you admire.’”
Who did you put?
“Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Oprah. But a lot of people wrote ‘My mother.’ One guy put down Sean Combs and P. Diddy.”
That’s the same person.
“I know that!”
So, after you were picked, what happened?
“At the courthouse, they made us leave our cell phones and newspapers in a used cardboard Nabisco cookie box before directing us through a metal detector. One woman’s bra had an underwire that kept setting it off, and we thought that was pretty funny.”
Did you all get along?
“At first no one talked, because we weren’t supposed to know each other’s names. Then I brought in a coffee pot, and people seemed to really appreciate that. During lunch, people mainly played Su DoKu or did crossword puzzles. I knit, and some other jurors wanted to learn how to do it, so I brought in extra yarn and needles. I started to teach one woman, but just as she was getting the hang of it, she had to resign from the jury for personal reasons.”
And when you got sick, they didn’t dismiss you?
“No. I just kept orchestrating when I would cough or sneeze so I wouldn’t interfere with the interrogation. A few times, I coughed during a witness response and the court reporter had to ask for something to be repeated. But the judge had to ask things to be repeated a lot, too.”
Because of your coughing?
“No. A lot of the time, her attention was on her computer. She sat there eating matzo, drinking soda and typing. I kept wondering what she was typing. Notes? Or was she IM-ing someone?”
Well, were you paying complete attention the whole time?
“I tried. I drew pictures of everyone so I could try to keep track of who was who. They also gave us a book with 100 mug shots of all the people they were talking about. After a few weeks, it felt like it was a family photo album and I knew each person’s name. There were some really bad people in that book!”
Yes, I gather. That’s why they’re in the mob.
“It was like learning about a whole new culture. A topsy-turvy culture.”
What do you mean?
“It’s a society with its own behavioral codes within our society. Extortion is merely a tax to their own mob government. In our world, from the time you’re in kindergarten you’re taught to use your words to work out differences. But for them, there are three ways to deal with differences: hurting someone, hurting someone bad enough to put them in the hospital, and killing someone.”
“No! And socially they’re totally different, too.”
“No! Like, they’d say, ‘Why should I take my wife to a party when I can take my girlfriend?’ And when they baptize their kids, they give them mob godfathers who are clearly sinners. You know, John Gotti Jr. has five kids and the youngest is 5?”
“Well, he’s been in jail since 1999, so I wondered how he has a 5-year-old. It made me think about conjugal visits and how weird that must be: ‘Hi, I’m here for my husband’s monthly screw.’ ‘Oh, sorry, ma’am. He already had someone come yesterday for that purpose ….’ ”
Right. Could you follow all the legal stuff?
“There’s this whole legal language that I’d never encountered before. Or maybe it’s a mob language? All the witnesses would say ‘I believe,’ which allowed for a less definitive statement. ‘Did you take a knife to your wife’s throat and threaten her?’ ‘I believe I might have done that.’ Also, they’d say ‘recollect’ instead of ‘remember,’ as in, ‘May I look at the evidence to refresh my recollection?’ It always sounded funny to me, formal and erudite, coming from these galoots.”
Did you feel at all nervous being in a room with all those mobsters?
“Not at all. A few people on the jury were worried about being recognized and followed, and at one point there was concern our photos would be taken with camera phones. But the judge assured us no one has phones. There was a time when one witness was late, and for a second I wondered if he’d been kidnapped or killed.”
“No, he showed up. I couldn’t help but giggle to myself when he finally arrived.”
All in all, would you say it was a positive experience?
“It was an education. I’ve been dreaming about it a lot ever since I read about Gotti’s release. There were things that were just really funny: At the start of the trial, there was a ‘bang!’ from the loudspeaker and one of the jurors screamed, and then Gotti threw up his hands and said, ‘I didn’t do it!’ Everyone cracked up. Another time, I sneezed and Gotti said, ‘God bless you.’”
John Gotti Jr. blessed you?
“Yeah. You know, honestly, he seemed like a nice guy.”