This morning, I swung by the trial of ex-Miramar Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman. Based on what I've read about the guy, he sounds like a pretty lousy citizen. Drunk driving down the wrong side of the street, then asking the city to pay his legal bill. Before that, substitute teaching in such a sloppy, irresponsible fashion that he was fired. And now he's being tried for aggravated assault after pulling a gun on a teenager in the middle of a grocery store. A conviction would mean a minimum of three years in prison.
His testimony this morning was pretty unconvincing. On the other hand, he's only on trial for the one offense, and as much as Salesman's a menace, as dangerous as it seems to give this cat another legal life, he doesn't deserve to be convicted. Not in this case.
Before I explain what leads me to that conclusion, a confession: It's a bit hard to take the case seriously, in part because it so vividly resembles one of the great moments in recent American comedy. (See the video after the jump.)
Walter Sobchak in the Big Lebowski. Definitely superior to the grainy security camera video of Salesman's gun-pulling.
This morning, before the jury was invited into the courtroom, the two sides argued about the merits of a defense request to show the jury video of Salesman from Miramar Commission meetings. The idea was to demonstrate that Salesman is an emphatic speaker prone to gesticulating, attributes that (in a soundless security video) make him look angrier than he really is.
Now even if this is a sound legal strategy, don't the comparisons between the two scenes end, vividly, when Salesman pulls the gun?
When Salesman came to the stand, he and attorney Eric Schwartzreich labored to prove that, until the teenaged Lazavius Hudson provoked him, Salesman was a calm, steady voice of reason in an otherwise chaotic shopping scene.
Due to Salesman's exaggerated body language, the video almost works as silent film comedy. We see Salesman in his squash-yellow polo shirt, arriving at the self-checkout aisle, an expression of stunned disbelief at finding the registers closed, leading him to flop his arms and lean on his cart in exasperation. Next, Salesman can be seen talking to a cashier, who summons a manager, and the commissioner grows even more animated. With a Chaplin-esque flourish, he walks to one self-checkout register and pretends to lift it. On the stand, Salesman recalls the manager expressing concern that self-checkout would lead to theft:
"I said, 'Mr. Manager, are you saying that someone is going to walk in here and pick up this 350-pound machine and walk out with it?'"
Salesman denied saying he was going to "shut this bitch down," as has been alleged. Rather, he admitted to saying, "No wonder they're shutting down so many of these Winn-Dixies -- the service is so poor."
Even after heading to one of the three open checkout lanes, Salesman was the picture of frustration, gesticulating to fellow customers. The video shows him pointing at a cart -- belonging to Hudson and Hudson's friend -- coming through an aisle with a few packs of soda, which, according to Salesman's testimony, provided the perfect moment to illustrate his point. "This is exactly what I'm talking about," Salesman recalled saying. "If self-checkout was open, this man wouldn't have to wait in line."
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Salesman continued: "Then I hear Mr. Hudson say, 'I'm not fucking going anywhere.'" This, Salesman insists, caught him by surprise. "I said, 'Hold on... I'm just trying to help here to make the shopping experience more enjoyable.'"
Sorry, that line just doesn't fit the scene. I don't buy it. In any case, Salesman says Hudson replied, "I don't need your fucking help.'"
Now to Salesman's credit, the next few frames show him in a peacemaker's pose, both hands up with palms displayed. And there are two versions of what happened in the next few crucial seconds. Salesman says that Hudson followed him out the store, all the while threatening to "kick your ass," leading Salesman to pull the weapon. Hudson and other witnesses say Salesman walked away from the conflict only to come back to confront Hudson, which is when he drew the gun.
Ultimately, there's just too much room there for reasonable doubt. Especially when three years in prison are on the line.