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Monday, October 14, 2002

If people were made of paper, this just might work

By Scott Harrison


Wall to Wall Law


For the first day of my jury trial I was told to report to a trial courtroom #15 at two in the afternoon. This was about seven weeks after my arrest. I was still living in the back room of my bookstore. I dressed nicely, brought a book and all my court papers. I brought some pictures of Khadija and some letters she had written me. I arrived on the second floor of the Hall of Justice, that Orwellian building, at the time scheduled. The courtroom was locked. I sat down on a bench in the hallway. As I waited, dozens of people came and stood around or sat and waited. They all appeared to be waiting to go into Courtroom 15. I sat among them. They read books, nibbled on snacks. I saw one man talking on his cell-phone. Slowly a chill ran through me when I realized that all these people were waiting for my case, the case of the People of the State of California against me, Scott Harrison. The prospective jurors were allowed in. I sat alone out in the hall. Eventually Mr. Shoe came and said the news was not good. My wife, Khadija, would be testifying against me. She would have an Arab intepreter.

“But she speaks beautiful English!”

“We know that. We have the tape when the detectives interviewed her. But that’s her right because English is not her first language. In addition to your wife, the D.A. will be presenting four San Francisco police officers who arrived the night of the incident and they also have two battered wife syndrome expert witnesses to testify against you.”

I asked Mr. Shoe what he thought. He said it didn’t look good. It looked like they would find me guilty of one or more of the charges. This could get me maybe six months in jail, four with good behavior. Maybe worse. I went into my usual complaints that this was so unfair and well, in fact, my wife should be on trial, not me. Mr. Shoe looked at me with impatience (or was it indulgence?). We were past all that now. It seemed my innocence was irrelevant. The only thing that was relevant from that point was how strong the case was and what my chances were. Would the jurors pick a sweet young woman or me? My chances were not good. (It was nothing remotely like TV, where the innocent went bravely against the long odds and always won at the final moment before the corn chip or breakfast cereal commercial break.) So with the briefing Mr. Shoe gave me and the realization that no witnesses were called for my side at all, no expert witnesses, no evidence, nothing, nobody but myself, I walked into the filled courtroom. The courtroom was full. All the prospective jurors sat in silence. They all watched me as I walked up to the defense table at the front-right of the courtroom. I felt the weight of their eyes upon me. It generated an indescribable fear in me. Later I counted the people. I counted fifty-three. From that group they were to pick twelve jurors plus two alternates. Judge Mary Weiss explained that this was a case that would take anywhere from three to five days. She explained that the attorneys needed to take care of some pretrial business so everyone would be excused until the next day, when the jury selection process would begin.

My attorney, Mr. Shoe, said I was free to leave. I should have stayed. I should have stayed to watch everything, but I just wanted out of there. I got a small taste of what a man must feel before he is lynched. I politely excused myself and left.

I had a terrible night. A night of waiting. I thought of my wife up on the stand testifying against me. I saw all those people and felt their eyes on me. I pictured jail so vividly. The more people I had asked about my dilemma, the more I heard that innocent people are locked up all the time. Some men are on death row who are innocent. The court system tells people it would rather ten guilty people go free before one innocent person is wrongly convicted. It flatters itself. Whatever horrific thing happens to you, you can be sure everyone has a story of something worse. They told me I was presumed innocent, but I saw that everyone, every step of the way, presumed nothing but that I was guilty. Seven weeks had gone by since the arrest. I couldn’t understand what my wife would have to gain by testifying against me. She had obtained the paperwork she was after. She had silenced a doubter. What did she want from me?

It didn’t matter what anyone else thought, what these strangers thought, what the police thought, or the judges thought, or the attorneys thought, or the “expert” witnesses thought. She and I knew exactly what had happened. I just couldn’t understand: hadn’t she hurt me enough? Hadn’t she done enough damage to my life? Was hurting me something she was enjoying now? Did she feel my criticisms of her religion were reason to destroy me? I pictured those people who murder someone but then stab them fifty extra times. Was that her logic now? There were reasons to stage a fake incident, but there were no reason for her to falsely testify against me other than pure vindictiveness. It occurred to me more then once that maybe my wife had gone totally insane. Maybe she saw me as someone trying to murder her beloved God so she had to go after me. It really saddened me. Words do a bad job of conveying how hurt I felt that she had turned into this cruel person I did not know.

The next day I returned to Courtroom 15. We were asked to come about two o’clock.. I again sat up front at the defense table with the eyes of a full courtroom on my back.

It was a Friday. I had been warned that the jury would be selected and the prosecutor, Allison Grey, might have time to give her opening argument but Mr. Shoe might have to wait over the weekend. I was told that would be bad. The jurors would have an incomplete picture, a false picture set into their minds.

I sat and waited. The attorneys went back to the judge’s chambers. The prospective jurors sat attentive and quiet. Seconds ticking like a little hammer on my head. My heart beating. Those eyes upon me. How could these people know me? How could they know even a sliver of all my wife Khadija and I had gone through?

The lawyers came out from the back. Mr. Shoe asked me to accompany him alone out into the hall. We walked out there. The courtroom doors closed behind us. We sat down on the wood benches out in the hallway.

“They have made another offer.”


“The D.A. They are willing to let you plead to one count of battery. You would have three years probation. Fifty-two weeks of counseling. A fine. Some community service. The stay-away order would stay in place for three years. You’d have no jail time.”

“So, what do you think?” I asked him.

“If you want my personal opinion, I think it’s a good offer.”

“So tell me. Does ‘battery’ mean that I hurt my wife?”

“Yes. That means you caused an injury to her.”

“Then I can not accept the offer.”

“It’s up to you, Scott, but if you want my honest opinion, I think they probably will find you guilty of one or more of the charges even if you are innocent. You have to understand that you might be innocent but still be found technically guilty. The way battery is defined is any uninvited contact. You could bump against someone in an elevator and you are guilty of battery. That’s the law because it’s uninvited contact. All I can tell you is that if a jury finds you guilty instead of you pleading guilty, you might face jail time. Your wife is also going to introduce copies of your journal where she alleges you made threats.”

I told him I never made threats so I don’t know what she was referring to.

“Take it from me, Scott, you do not want them entering your journal into evidence, no telling what you might have written down not intending the D.A. to look over it.”

“But I don’t think there is anything incriminating in there. If anything, I think it would help prove my case.”

“Do you want to accept their offer or not?”

“No, I cannot accept their offer. I will not accept any offer that says I harmed her. I never harmed her.”

“They have one final offer. They made two. You can pick the one you like. The judge tried to work a deal where you wouldn’t plead to anything but she wanted to make sure you get counseling. The other offer is to plead to the one count of dissuading your wife from calling the police, 136 in the penal code.”

“I only told her that she should not call the police, she should call her friend Najet or her friend Fatima. I never stopped her from calling the police. I never took the phone out of her hands. I never hung up. In fact, she was on the phone with the police when the police arrived.”

“That is still dissuading her.”

“Is that against the law?”


“She was on the phone to the police when the police arrived.” I repeated.

“Doesn’t matter. If you plead to this charge, you would also have to fulfill all the other conditions of probation I mentioned before.”

So these were the cards dealt to me. Mr. Shoe himself was telling me I very likely would be found guilty, although for technical legal reasons. I saw how overloaded he was. I saw how the police were. I saw how the detectives were. I saw what the counselors thought. I imagined this woman whom I loved throwing dirt on my grave. I still wanted to get past this disaster and get back to something wholesome, peaceful, loving, and good with her. And I thought of Victoria, who had been coming to the bookstore for five years, and I imagined her going by an empty and vacant bookstore, me in jail because I was just too proud to bow. I hadn’t planned on taking any deal, but I told Mr. Shoe I would accept it. I would plea “no contest.”

The judge politely thanked all the people in the courtroom and the room full of prospective jurors was dismissed. One older man with bushy white hair said to me, “I hope you made a good deal.” I wish I could have answered him, “I just want these insane people to let me go. I don’t ever want to step into another courtroom for the rest of my life.” After the courtroom was emptied, the judge read the charge and the various rights I was giving up. She asked Mr. Shoe if there was a factual basis for my plea. Mr. Shoe said there was. (Where, Mr. Shoe? Where?) My plea was accepted. I thanked Allison Grey, the deputy D.A., because I felt at the time I had been released from the presumption that I had hurt my wife and I would not go to jail. So I wanted to thank her. She said to me, “No, thank you.” She had scored another conviction. The ballgame had gone her way.

Mr. Shoe personally took me down the hall to the probation office. He said the years would go quickly and before I knew it, it would be past.

Walking up 7th Street toward BART, I felt rotten. I felt this plea bargain in no way addressed what had been done to me. It was not justice. It did not reveal anything about what had really happened. This deal memorialized a lie. Yet I was happy to not be heading into jail. I was glad to keep my modest bookstore afloat. I wanted to spend my days looking at books, not bars. It was later that night that I was served with divorce papers.

In the months that have gone by, with the horror of counseling and all the threats of being sent for a year in jail if I don’t admit I was violent to my wife, I’ve learned many things about the law. Officially I was guilty of a minor charge, but unofficially the system considered me guilty of everything my wife and the police report said.

I also learned about this curious thing called a “plea bargain.” In theory, a person guilty of a few violations could have one or more of those violations dropped in exchange for saving the state the time and money of a full-dress jury trial. On paper, it looks like a way to give criminals a break. But in my case, I saw this was a pure illusion. The police had done a perfectly horrible, negligent job. Not only had they coddled the criminal and trotted the victim off to jail; they had also used duress during “unofficial” questioning, they forgot to read Miranda rights, they seriously misrepresented what I had said in their abbreviated report, they neglected to gather evidence critical to my ability to prove my innocence, and they had smugly and arrogantly refused to give my protests and grievances any consideration. Because a plea bargain was made, no jury ever could review any of this. No judge could be aware of the deficiencies. Not only that, but it gave them an insurance policy, preventing me from suing them and freeing them from even looking at any wrongdoing by my wife. And because of the plea bargain, I had no right to challenge the legal representation I was given and no chance to appeal mistakes made by lawyer, judges, or detectives. So in the shadow of plea bargains, a filthy corruption of due process has grown. It allows the system to eliminate checks, balances, and accountability. Is it any wonder that as years pass the police, the detectives, and the D.A. get bolder and bolder in their abuse of authority? I fear to think of the thousands of people behind bars who would not be there if the system itself had retained its integrity and been more honest.

D.A.’s have no reason in the world to play with a full deck of cards. They are rewarded when they beef up charges. They are rewarded for picking out technical legal rules and statues. It all seems somehow legitimate until any reasonable person stops to consider that if these technical violations were always imposed indiscrimately, then everyone would be in jail. Even the judges. Push someone in an elevator; go to jail. Mention to anyone at any time, “Do not call the police,” and you have committed P.C. #136. Have an argument and experts will be called in to testify that you are classifiable as a wife abuser. And when the laws don’t seem to decrease crime, then turn the screws harder. Silence the howls. Just build more prisons. It makes someone ask why, in a country like Japan, one person is behind bars for every seventeen we have (per capita). And if the books are to be taken so literally and if it is against the health and safety code to sell a known dangerous substance that may injure or kill them, then why are cigarettes sold everywhere? Maybe I’m missing some point. There must be some logic that evades me, but when individuals in a society misstep and are antisocial and the system comes with vindictive rules and massive force and mutilates them in a broken-down criminal justice system that is as blind as it is bureaucratic, why is it so hard for that society to see why these people never get better? Maybe I’m not the sharpest tool in the toolshed, but honestly I just can’t figure it out.