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, 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.

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse