El Jefe

I, the Jury

It's 11 a.m. in a dusty driveway called Domino Corner in northwest Hallandale Beach, and a crowd ranging in age from 16 to 70 lounges on folding chairs and garbage cans while pondering the recent conviction of a local man for rape, burglary, and stalking. Lenny Hope, a 34-year-old sometime-landscaper,...
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It's 11 a.m. in a dusty driveway called Domino Corner in northwest Hallandale Beach, and a crowd ranging in age from 16 to 70 lounges on folding chairs and garbage cans while pondering the recent conviction of a local man for rape, burglary, and stalking. Lenny Hope, a 34-year-old sometime-landscaper, sometime-cook, will be sentenced December 6.

He'll almost certainly get life.

" 'Course he did it," says an older guy in a billed hat.

"Damn right," replies another.

"Lenny be crazy," adds a teenager in a white T-shirt.

"You shut your face," snaps back a woman, likely the teenager's mother, before turning her angry, bloodshot eyes on me.

I ask for Lula Smith (not her real name), who a neighbor told me lives here. A striking older woman with too-black hair, flat and curly like a cheap wig, swigs from a can of Budweiser, squints, and says: "That's me."

I inquire about her granddaughter, Tina, who was Lenny Hope's victim. Last December 14, Tina told police that Lenny had slipped into her apartment, hid in a closet, and waited for her. When the 29-year-old woman arrived home from work, she undressed and turned on the TV.

Then he surprised her, violently bent her over the side of a couch, rolled on a condom, and violated her twice as her children slept in a nearby bedroom.

"She's still a little upset," Lula says. "She was scared to stay around after the trial. Last Monday, she headed north to take care of her aunt. She's sick."

Then Tina's younger sister, 25-year-old Izzy Smith, walks from the house. She wears black glasses and seems somehow more serious than the rest, more intense. Izzy's son, who is maybe 3 years old, trails behind her. He reaches for my watch and touches it; I take it off and hand it to him.

I ask about the rape. Lenny and Tina had been involved. They had two kids, Izzy explains. Then they broke up.

"Lenny got one of the kids to open the door," she continues. "Even before this, he kept beating her up. It started when they met. He's a violent man.

"Then, when Tina finally pressed charges, she did it because she wanted Lenny to know that it's not right to rape someone. After it was over, she didn't want to be around here anymore. All of his family is here. They aren't happy."

Indeed, half a mile away, in a cramped and tidy apartment, lives Lenny Hope's father, 65-year-old Arthur, a former construction worker. He cares for his wife, Mary, who was partially disabled by a stroke 14 years ago and spends her days in a wheelchair. Both speak affectionately of their middle child. Once a talented baseball player and the strongest boy in the neighborhood, Lenny changed when he fell out of a tree onto his head at age 8, Arthur says. He became less obedient.

The boy had to grow up early, Arthur says. Lenny's first son was born when he was only 17.

None of this had come up at the trial, though Arthur had sat in the rear during the proceedings. Nor had Tina's family's assertions.

Lenny met Tina eight years ago, Arthur explains. Lenny loved his kids, but he and Tina often argued. She would throw him out, then take him back. It happened repeatedly. Arthur opens a curtain and shows me a beat-up 1973 Chevy Impala where his son often spent the night.

"Lenny is a hard-working person, and when he says he is going to do something, he does it," comments Arthur, who wears an Izod polo shirt, torn slightly in the chest. "Sure, he's had problems, but at first we thought Tina was good for him, that she'd straighten him out. Then she started telling lies about him.

"And now this. Lenny ain't no rapist. There wasn't any evidence but her lies."

His eyes narrow, and he fixes me with a quizzical gaze. "You were the foreman of the jury. You found him guilty. Why in hell'd you do that?"

Jury trials are theater, plain and simple. The rules that govern them date back to the Magna Carta, as do the laws that prohibit jurors from knowing much about an accused person's background. Plays like Inherit the Wind, television shows like Law and Order, and lots of movies make the process seem really dramatic.

It ain't. At least, the courtroom part. But go behind the scenes and things change. I have spent the past month investigating a case in which I served as jury foreman. I found myriad lies, omissions, and mistakes. I discovered background that I should have known when deciding Lenny's fate. I also learned a little something about reasonable doubt.

When the notice for jury duty came in the mail, I thought there was little chance I would have to serve. As a well-traveled reporter, I'd covered 50 or more trials in three states, from murder to cocaine smuggling to political corruption. The lawyers wouldn't want someone like me.

I arrived at the Fort Lauderdale justice center on November 5, and the waiting began. When dozens of people were called to courtrooms, I was among those who remained. A brunette woman screamed at the receptionist that she couldn't serve because she had to pick her kids up from school and sports. She had responsibilities. "So does everyone else," the man responded, then returned to his newspaper. She steamed off.

About six hours later, I was finally called, along with a group of 30 people including the complaining brunette, a cancer surgeon, a police department employee, and a TV producer. We were led upstairs to Judge James Cohn's courtroom, number 5750. It wasn't apparent at the time, but I later learned that Cohn is a judge in Recidivist Offender Court, called ROC for short, where only accused felons with lengthy records are sent.

Soon, prosecutor Sherri Zack, a smart woman with a shrill voice, and public defender Bruce Raticoff, a hyper fellow with a wry sense of humor, began questioning jurors. The first lie of the day followed. When Raticoff asked the brunette about her impartiality, she replied: "I just think if anyone is accused of a crime, they are guilty. I could never be fair. Just couldn't."

She wanted to leave. Nothing to be done about it. The judge sent her away.

Next, about six of the potential jurors were eliminated because they had been raped or molested. Others disqualified themselves with stupid statements. I later learned that a guy sitting next to me had privately acknowledged to Cohn that a restraining order had been issued against him for wife-beating. Small world.

I was juror number 29, next to last on the list. Asked what a juror needed, I quoted Ernest Hemingway on the most useful tool for a good writer: "a built-in, shockproof bullshit detector." That line drew a laugh, and both Raticoff and Zack later used it in addressing the jury. It was part of the reason they chose me, Zack told me a week or so after the trial. "I didn't think you were too liberal like many journalists," he said. "You have children, and you're smart, so I figured you'd enforce the law."

The six-person jury and one alternate convened the next morning. We consisted of a 20-year-old Christian singer, a boat captain, a nondenominational Christian minister, an unemployed gay man, and two office workers. Interestingly, only one of us -- an office worker -- was black; the victim, defendant, and most of the witnesses in the case were African-American.

There was an hourlong delay before the trial started. Lots happened. We didn't know it. We weren't allowed backstage.

After proceedings finally began, they lasted less than a day. The charges were rape, burglary with violence, and stalking. We weren't told this, but in ROC, the maximum sentence for each count was between 30 years and life.

Among other witnesses, two detectives and a rape crisis center worker testified. They described Tina's distraught state and her powerful story. She and Lenny had been together for years and had two children, aged 2 and 4. In September, the courts had issued a restraining order against Lenny for domestic violence. Though no detail was provided, we learned a judge had ordered Lenny not to come near Tina.

In many ways, though they were prosecution witnesses, the authorities made a far stronger case for the defense. Here's why:

Lenny was charged with burglary, but there was no sign of forced entry. He even had a key in his pocket when he was arrested.

Lenny's bicycle, which he had used that night, was inside the apartment. So it seemed clear, to me at least, that someone had let him in.

Most significant, Tina had shown no sign of rape when she was inspected the next day. There were no bruises, no damage to her vagina from the allegedly forced sex. Nothing.

The rape crisis center worker, a precise, serious woman with short hair named Jean Swaybee, confirmed that, despite the lack of physical evidence, Tina might still have been raped. "When people are together, as these two had been, there can be a reaction in the woman," she said. "Even if she doesn't want it to happen."

Had a vote been taken among jurors considering only the physical evidence, Lenny surely would have been cleared.

But after a delay, the prosecutor called Tina. Accompanied by a rape counselor, she was shaking when she entered the courtroom. She sobbed intermittently as she described their relationship, placing her hand over her eyes as she spoke.

I looked at Lenny. He remained impassive. I didn't know it then but was later told his legs were manacled.

They had met about eight years ago, Tina said, fighting back tears. Though they had two children, they stopped having sex in the beginning of 2000. Near the start of 2001, she had allowed Lenny to baby-sit the kids when she was at work, at Domino's Pizza. Even after the incident that led to the restraining order, she had asked Lenny to baby-sit once and had seen him publicly on other occasions.

The night of the attack, she had picked up her children from her mother's house and come home around 11 p.m. The door was locked. After putting the kids to bed, she noticed some clothes on the floor outside the closet. She didn't think much of it. She undressed, sat down to watch TV, and lit a cigarette.

Then, a half an hour later, Lenny appeared, standing over her. In a low voice, he threatened her: "Don't say anything or I will kill you." Then he pushed her over the couch, put on a condom, and raped her from behind. A minute later, he pushed her to the floor and did it again. When he finished, he threatened her again, saying that if she testified against him, he would kill the children, himself, and her. Then Lenny fell asleep about 11:45. Tina took a shower to wash away the ugliness.

"It lasted 10 to 15 minutes at most," she sobbed. "I sat up all night because I couldn't sleep. I felt really, really bad, really, really dirty."

Lenny remained in the apartment all night, she said. Because there was no phone, Tina said, she waited until the next day to call police.

Under cross-examination, she explained why she had allowed Lenny to see his kids despite the restraining order. "I grew up without a father," she said. "So I know how that feels."

There was one curious element in Tina's testimony. Raticoff, the defense attorney, pointed out that she had testified against Lenny months before in another case. "I didn't testify against him," she contradicted the lawyer. "I testified for him." The judge had prohibited Raticoff from giving any details of that case, the lawyer later told me.

Lenny didn't testify. The judge told us we couldn't hold that fact against him. None of the other witnesses said anything that seemed meaningful. In the end, the question was: Do you believe Tina?

One juror, the gay man, would have a hard time deciding. He had fallen asleep for several minutes during testimony, but the judge had refused to remove him.

When we entered the jury room, the effect of Tina's testimony hung over us like an emotional cloud that would soon rain down a guilty verdict. I was quickly elected foreman and then polled the other jurors. There were a lot of maybes. Only the black juror wanted to convict on all three counts. All the others, myself included, had questions. In fact, I was the only one to challenge the stalking and burglary charges, which, I later learned, carry penalties akin to those of rape.

It was at first hard for me to pin Lenny with burglary. After all, he had a key, and there was no evidence of a break-in. Don, the minister in our jury, though, convinced me it was enough for him to be in the house against her will.

I also questioned the stalking, which required that he would have repeatedly bothered her. Virtually all the testimony related to a single night. Again, Don swayed me, citing that Lenny had not only been in the house that night but had violated the restraining order.

There was even less unanimity on the rape at first. But eventually, several people brought up the fact that this woman had been brave enough to come forward, that if a woman says no, that means no. After about 90 minutes, everyone came around to that point of view.

When we voted to convict on all three charges, I started to shiver. The responsibility of putting a guy away -- likely for the rest of his life -- made me wonder whether the same thing could have happened to me... whether I really knew anything at all about what had transpired in that Hallandale apartment.

We'd all agreed, but one look at the others showed we all had doubts. When I handed the clerk the verdict and the bailiff read it, Lenny's head hit the table. Then he stood up and yelled: "You all let her get away with something. She lied."

We, the jury, walked to the elevator. All of us were hesitant.

"He's going away for life," I said. "That's the maximum sentence on at least the burglary charge."

"Jeez," said several others all at once.

When the trial was over, questions nagged me. Why the absolute lack of physical evidence? Couldn't there be much more to the story? What had been held from us because of the rules of this theater? Most important, what were these folks' backgrounds, and did Lenny deserve it?

Among the first things I learned after leaving the courtroom was that, apparently, Tina had lied at least once when speaking to officials about Lenny. On August 22, 2000, court records showed, Lenny had been accused of threatening his aunt. A jury acquitted him on the charge. One element of the acquittal, I concluded, was Tina Smith's testimony. That testimony, which Raticoff had asked her about in the rape case, had not been sufficiently described.

Yet the police report filed in the case reads: "Hope picked up a large rock, and raised it above his head, stating, 'I'm gonna bust your face.' The defendant was 1 to 2 feet away from the victim at this time and stated she feared for her safety. Witness, Tina [Smith], verified the victim's version of events."

The contradiction in Tina's statements under oath certainly raised questions about her credibility. But weeks of digging for information on Lenny drew an even more disturbing picture.

First, I learned that the delay in the trial that morning came because of a violent disagreement between Lenny and his attorney, Raticoff, over strategy. "Right before the trial, he and I squared off," Raticoff told me after the trial. "He turned over the defense table and then reared back to punch me. I got ready to punch him before the bailiffs held us back."

"He said, 'I can fuck you up,' to which I answered, 'Not as bad as I can fuck you up. Remember, I'm your lawyer'... He knew he was gonna get zapped." During the hour that we waited, a psychologist interviewed him and declared him fit for trial.

Then I started digging through court records. Lenny's father, it turns out, had been busted and pleaded to charges of trafficking in cocaine and resisting arrest with violence. His younger brother, Shawn, had been arrested four times for felonies -- including one drug arrest -- and had pleaded guilty at least twice. Arthur, Lenny's father, claims they were set up. "This is what happens in our neighborhood," Arthur says. "When the police are out to get you, they do."

The cops have certainly nailed Lenny, the records showed. Since just a few months after he turned 18 years old, when an officer chased him down and discovered that he was carrying bags of crack and marijuana, he had been accused of at least 14 felonies in eight arrests. Most were drug-related. The first ones were possession of cocaine -- the records make Lenny seem like just a guy with a crack problem who can't make it to court.

Then, on November 11, 1994, while Lenny was wanted on a drug charge, a girlfriend accused him of an attack that echoed the one on Tina. Shawanda Cunningham had known Lenny since middle school and been with him five years. She gave birth to two of his children. (Combined, Lenny has five kids by three women.)

Cunningham told police that early that evening, she came home and made several phone calls. Suddenly, Lenny jumped out of the closet and started to threaten her. She ran out the door, but he dragged her back in, hit her several times, once so hard she could not breathe. Then he forced her to strip and sit in the bathtub. She claimed he turned on the hot water to scald her and threatened her with a pair of pliers before ripping the doors from the refrigerator and freezer and tearing a chandelier from the ceiling.

A few weeks later, though, she changed her story. When prosecutors interviewed Cunningham, she said she loved Lenny and had made up the whole story. The interview included the following bizarre exchange:

Prosecutor: Do you remember saying he kidnapped you and kept you in the shower and tortured you with the water and pliers?

Shawanda: OK, that was untrue. I was trying to get Leonard in trouble.

Prosecutor: And the chandelier that was torn from the ceiling?

Shawanda: Oh, I threw something at him, and it hit that chandelier and pulled it down.

Arthur pointed out that Shawanda had a drug problem. Indeed, she has been accused of three felonies, including a cocaine charge that she pleaded guilty to in 2000.

Lenny was sentenced to a year in jail and five years of probation. His problems with the law would continue. The day after we convicted Lenny, he pleaded guilty to battery on Tina for an attack several months before the rape. The judge gave him five years.

The state's numerous other prosecutions of Lenny could not be considered in the rape case. Nor could his background, his family and friends' convictions, or the domestic disputes that allegedly included him hiding in a closet -- a strategy he apparently repeated in raping Tina.

I now believe we did the right thing in convicting Lenny. I also believe he has a real problem -- and that at least part of it was caused by drugs and the time he spent in jail as an impressionable young man. Learning the backstage details, in the end, made me sleep a little easier with my choice. I still hope Lenny's sad life and that of his family changes for the better. But I doubt they will.

Last week, I spoke with Lenny's sister, Amy, who lives in rural north Florida, near Ocala. She is raising two of his children. She says her brother and Tina once planned to escape South Florida for the two-acre plot where she is raising a total of six kids. They never made it.

"Lenny is one of the nicest guys you can meet," Amy Hope says. "He has never been lucky when it comes to women. He could never pick the right one."

This past Sunday, I visited the Broward County main jail, where Lenny is being held. I waited for two-and-a-half hours while dozens of visitors filed through. Most were young women, and virtually everyone except me was black.

When my number finally came up, I walked to the visiting room. Lenny stood there behind the glass. He looked at me and then turned around and walked away. A minute later, the phone rang. "He won't see you," said the guard who picked it up. "He says he doesn't want to see you."

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