Peter Galligan / Creative Nonfiction 7.1/ Spring, 2019

Peter Galligan lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife and daughter. He is currently pursuing an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies (writing and business administration) from Western New Mexico University. His writing has been published in Mud Season Review. He also produces electronic dance music under the name “Medias Res,” and his songs have been placed on several EDM compilations and downloaded in over 65 countries

Peter Galligan

SENSELESS

A few months after the trial concluded, on a brisk overcast day in Denver, I drove toward the alley at Federal Boulevard and Florida Avenue. I didn’t expect to find any answers, and I struggled to remember why I wanted to visit the alley where Chicon had died. Maybe I wanted some context, some connection.

The alley was near my neighborhood, a ten-minute drive located behind an intersection I’ve sped through innumerable times, behind a street on my wife’s daily commute. I took Federal north, glancing out the window at the people loitering on the street, lingering by bus stops and store fronts, covered in jackets. Among the homeless, who are ever-present along Federal, I looked for the witnesses from the trial, but found none. I turned underneath the sign of the Shell gas station at Florida Avenue and traced the route of the police when they arrived on scene that St. Patrick’s Day morning a year and half ago.

I propped my phone on my dashboard to take photos of the landmarks that I had only seen previously in crime scene photos. I snapped a picture of the day care with a red sun painted on it and of the large sinkhole filled with muddy water. I turned down the alley and studied the fence that the cops had scaled. It had since been repaired, and it felt more familiar than I expected.

A shopping cart with trash and bottles of liquor sat outside Rick Perez’s old encampment. An empty 40 of King Cobra sat on top of the trash. Where Perez once lived now served as a toilet, with feces piled along the base of the fence, some of it dripping from the fence a foot or so above the weeds, so I didn’t get out of my car.

Then I saw something surprising, something obviously placed long after the crime scene cops had finished photographing the area – a large plastic wreath of ivy and roses strung on the fence in the shape of a heart. Inside and around the wreath, plastic flowers were woven into the chain link. A decorative plaster angel and a plastic cross were affixed to the fence above the wreath. I thought of the distraught woman in court, the one with the shawl, the one crying as we heard the sounds of Chicon gurgling on his blood. I let the weight of this small tribute sink in.

In August, seventy-five potential jurors gathered outside Courtroom 5G in the Lyndsey-Flanigan Courthouse, crowding the hallway, gazing out the window to the gold-leafed dome of the Colorado State Capitol a few blocks away. Two clerks, Kenzie and Stanford, directed us into the court when it was ready. I was called as Juror #1, so I led the jury pool inside. I was the first to see the defendant. 

Shane Grant was a large man with a goatee and flattop, black hair peppered with gray. His face was stoic, his eyes narrow and angled above puffy cheeks. He turned his head towards me as I walked by, holding a narrow glare.

As Juror #1, I gladly took a comfortable seat on the top riser in the corner of the jury box, directly across from the prosecution and defense. The rest of the courtroom filled in, with jurors crammed into temporary rows of folding chairs between the judge and defense.

The lucky seventy-five of us looked around this courtroom, this place that we were packed into, by law, on a Friday morning, some of us noting the maple furniture, some following the straight lines of the desks and benches, the large rotunda of recessed lighting in the ceiling above the witness stand – the sole architectural flourish in a room without windows. Some noted the fashion of the attorneys, while others found the wall clock and watched the slowly moving hands.

I noticed the quiet, the sterility of emotion.

Two tall, white men sat at the prosecutors’ table, both wearing suits. The man nearest to the jury box was older, balding, and gangly. The other prosecutor, equally tall, was a younger man with a cropped haircut, wearing a grey tailored suit and 1950’s-era black-rimmed glasses.

The defendant wore a wrinkled white dress shirt. He didn’t wear a belt, which I assumed was for safety.

The judge took his seat at the bench, behind several computer screens, and introduced himself as Judge Laff. He had a persistent quirk, a facial tick that pulled the corners of his mouth into a smile, then relaxed, relenting into a scowl. This happened in a repeated cycle. I wondered if this was some unconscious effort to balance his countenance, to avoid revealing any prejudice for all that proceeded before him. The scales of justice, after all, are never completely still, even when balanced. There is always a small lean on either side, a constant back and forth, wanting for homeostasis, yet always overreaching.

Judge Laff informed the courtroom that the death penalty would not be sought, answering one question in the minds of the potential jurors, but sparking many more. Shane Grant, still expressionless in his beltless trousers, was the defendant of a murder charge.

The defendant was flanked with his own two attorneys, both short. The defense attorney on the left wore a suit that seemed slightly too large. He was a Hispanic man with grey, receding hair. What was left of his hair was combed strait back. We were told his name is Rios. The second defense attorney wore a blue suit. He was pale, around my age, perhaps a little younger, with a full beard. His name was John Galligan (no relation to Juror #1).

Shane Grant’s presence loomed. The jury pool looked him over, studied him, put him on trial in our heads for any number of imaginary crimes. Some of us found in him certain relatable features, like the round belly protruding over his beige slacks. Some found in him the signs of a sociopath, with his glare fixed on the table in front of him. Some of us wanted nothing more than escape the windowless courtroom, to continue our lives outside. And others were curious, desiring the opportunity to weigh the lurid details of a heinous crime.

Voire dire began with Juror #1. I took the wireless microphone and answered a series of questions that the judge would ask each potential juror crowding the court.

“What is your name?”

“Peter Galligan,” I said, confident in my truth. Then the judge inquired about my reading and television tastes, my hobbies and my employment.

“Is there any reason you would not be able to serve on a two-week trial?”

“No sir.”

The questions were rinsed and repeated, down the row, one by one. The microphone traveled around the room, and some prospective jurors spun their answers in attempts to escape. Most answers fell short of dismissal. But a few found a way out of the pool.

“You are excused with the thanks of the court,” the judge informed the man who complained in front of the room that his IBS would create a burden. Justice for all.

After hours of monotonous voire dire, Judge Laff dismissed us for the day. He smiled and frowned, smiled again. “Enjoy your weekend. Please do not discuss the trial. Do not look up the details of the trial.”

So, we spent our weekends across Denver enjoying our freedom. I sunbathed at a swimming pool in my parent’s neighborhood deep in the south suburbs, out of the jurisdiction of the trial. With my wife and daughter, mom and dad, I snacked on popcorn and sprayed sun tan lotion and thought about Shane Grant, wondering who he was accused of killing. I knew I had a good chance of being selected, and I braced myself best I could. How does one prepare for a jury, though? Was fairness an ideal I could commit to? Compassion?

After the weekend, back in the sterile courtroom, the prosecution and defense danced through the hand-wringing procedures of presumptive challenges. Back and forth, prospection and defense dismissed one of us at a time, each with the thanks of the court. The crowd thinned. The pace picked up. Then it was settled. Fourteen sat in padded swivel seats. Fourteen of us – twelve jurors and two alternates – would decide what justice meant for Shane Grant.

This newly designated body of justice was led into the jury room, which was tight, barely large enough to fit a conference table and a small sink for a coffee pot. We formed a line for the single bathroom. We shuffled around the table and bumped into each other to get to our seats. We introduced ourselves, let out breaths, texted out to the world, and leafed through the jury binders in front of us.

After giving us instructions and contact information, Kenzie noted, “Ya’ll seem so bummed out,” to which someone reminded her immediately, “It’s a murder trial.”                

We let that truth sink in during a short break, then we were ushered back into court. Judge Laff announced the case, and opening arguments began. We began taking notes in our new jury binders.

The younger prosecutor spoke. He used all of his height and dramatic skill as he guided us through the prosecution’s case. Shane Grant was accused of a brutal murder, motiveless, random, in the alley behind the Shell station in the early hours of St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2017. The prosecutor proclaimed that evidence would show Shane Grant dropped John Chicon on his head, kicked in John Chicon’s face. The prosecutor’s performance was rehearsed, but not refined. He acted out the kicking of a head on the ground.

Mr. Rios gave the opening arguments for the defense. He stumbled over his words. Mr. Rios’ point, however, came across – that the key witnesses were homeless alcoholics with contradicting, evasive statements.

“When you consider their testimony, ask yourself, who profited from this?” Mr. Rios asked.

It seemed an odd line, one that Mr. Rios pulled out instinctively, a dull arrow in the quiver of an overworked public defender. Profit played no part in this matter. That was obvious.

The brooding statue at the defense table, Shane Grant, played some role in the assault. This fact was clear after the opening arguments. But the crime was still an abstract notion in our minds. That changed quickly with the first witness.

The prosecution called Officer Johnson. After establishing that he was in fact who he said he was, and that he policed Denver’s District 10, Officer Johnson identified his body cam video as it was submitted into evidence. The prosecution rolled a flat screen TV on a cart in front of the jury box.

With Ms. Sharp from the prosecution asking well-rehearsed questions, Officer Johnson led us through the video. It took as much as forty-five minutes for the cops to arrive after the first phone call, according to Johnson, because the caller didn’t identify the location or the situation.

The footage bounced around as the cops pulled behind the Shell station and stopped short of the alley. The officers exited their vehicles, rounded the corner, and found a man on the ground. That man’s pants had been removed, and his boxer shorts were pulled down over one bony hip. His shirt and jacket were wrapped up around the top of his torso. The body cam captured all of this. It recorded the head of the victim. Whether it was the darkness of the alley or the settings of the camera, the footage did not capture the color of the blood pouring out of the victim’s face. The blood was just black on film, and it was too dark to see where the blood was coming from. This was the first and last time I’d see John Chicon alive.

We heard the gurgling of blood captured by the body cam microphone. And I heard the quiet weeping of a woman in the courtroom, one I hadn’t noticed before. She had a handkerchief in her hand and a shawl over her shoulders. The television was facing the jury box, so the woman could not see the video, but we could all hear the gurgling. And each noise from John Chicon wrung more tears out of this woman in the courtroom audience.

On the video, Johnson rotated Chicon onto his side, clearing the throat of the blood. It poured out on the gravel. The cop began chest compressions.

“Keep breathing.”

The choking sounds continued. The woman in the audience held a handkerchief to muffle the sounds of her grief.

“Keep breathing.”

Chicon’s face was mostly black with blood, but we saw the results of the damage, like a rubber Halloween mask discarded on the road. But it wasn’t a mask. It was John Chicon’s face, barely left with enough structure to breath. This was all captured on the video, the body cam bouncing with each chest compression.

Johnson testified with an even, polite tone, watching his own monitor in the witness stand. The judge smiled and frowned behind the bench. Shane Grant, at the defense table, sat unflinching, his stare fixed ahead on nothing at all.

 “Keep breathing.”

Through the magic of body cam technology, we watched cuts of footage from multiple officer cams, and we heard slices of audio, experiencing the intense moments through the raw video, scouring the scene exactly as the officers scoured it. Rick Perez, the 911 caller, appeared from stage right, in front of the day care, holding the phone with dispatch still on the line.

Perez was no more than a hundred yards away from the alley, from the spot in the dirt where the victim was still choking to death on his blood. Perez crossed the parking lot between the liquor store and day care to talk with police. He wore a Denver Broncos sweatshirt and a goatee, the same style as Shane Grant. He was older, maybe fifty, and smaller, maybe a hundred and forty pounds. His eyes were wide, and his jaw was trembling when he spoke, falling open when he didn’t.

Perez directed the police to the alley, where there was a gathering by his encampment earlier in the night, after the liquor store closed. Perez’s “house” was a small area behind the gas station enclosed with chain link fence that had slats blocking the view. Perez told the officers that, in this small area, Shane Grant hid beneath Perez’s cardboard camouflage with Crystal Varga.

We concentrated on the screen in the courtroom and saw the police climb into the crowded camp. We watched as the brave cops shouted for Grant to come out. We held our jury notepads in our laps, and some of us took the occasional note, but otherwise we kept our eyes fixed on the video. Crystal Varga, with crooked glasses and a sweatshirt, rose first from the cardboard cover. She was shaken and asked to grab her belongings, denied by the shouting police.

“Did Crystal Varga seem disheveled when you found her,” Mr. Rios would ask later during cross-examination.

The cop would reply, “I don’t know how Ms. Varga typically keeps herself,” bringing some chuckles from the jury box.

After Crystal Varga had stepped out of the cramped quarters, Shane Grant appeared, unwilling to raise his hands at first, as if he was wiping them clean, out of view. He was strong, but he wasn’t overweight like the present-day Shane Grant sitting on the defense table. Under different circumstances, I may not have even realized they were the same person. The street Grant was muscular but lean, his jaw square. The man at the defense table was large and plump, the beneficiary of three hot meals a day, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and probably some medication.

Prompted with a question from the prosecutor, the cop drew our attention to Shane Grant’s eyes in the video when flashlights on the officer’s guns flooded him with light. Grant looked sideways and paused. Grant was considering whether to attack or whether to attempt an escape. But where and how? The encampment was less than eight feet across, about four feet deep. His eyes refocused.

 “I love you guys,” Grant said, breaking into a smile, before surrendering to arrest, stepping out of the cardboard, wearing a grim reaper t-shirt.

This occurred while John Chicon was clinging to life in an ambulance racing to Denver Health. Shane Grant was hiding just five feet away from John Chicon’s beaten body when the cops arrived, a danger lurking stunningly close to the unknowing cops who rendered aid to John Chicon.

At night, I couldn’t tell my wife that she was driving by the crime scene each day on her way to work. I sat at the dinner table with her, with my daughter, planning a fourth birthday party. I talked about the job I was applying for, my resume, my interviews. I discussed anything but the trial. I couldn’t because I wasn’t allowed, and because I didn’t know how. Thoughts about the gurgling of John Chicon kept coming. The gravity of the trial had landed on me, my wife could tell, and the mystery I imposed only fueled her curiosity more.

Our jury began settling into routines. I bought coffee each morning and during each break at the small shop on the first floor, next to the body odor-infused jury staging room. I bought two Kind coconut almond bars for breakfast and talked longer than intended to the chatty barista who tried to convince me that oatmeal or a breakfast burrito would make a better meal than coconut almond bars.

My fellow jurors waited outside Courtroom 5G each morning, discussing our occupations and family, looking at the floor as the attorneys walked by. There was a social worker among us, and a food marketer, and two political consultants. There was project manager for a commercial contractor and a man who worked at a pizza joint by my house.

Once Kenzie opened the doors, we gathered in the jury room in the back of the court and took our jury binders, reviewed our notes, wondered out loud about the elements of law unfolding before us. We shuffled into our seats in the jury box and noticed the wardrobe changes of the attorneys. Ms. Sharp wore more color today. Shane Grant’s shirt was patterned and more wrinkled than yesterday. Judge Laff and Stanford wore neckties instead of bowties, and the judge’s facial tick didn’t seem so pronounced. The trial settled in.

We pieced together the night of the murder through the eye witness testimony, though it was not readily forthcoming. Rodriquez, Crystal Varga, and another friend who was only briefly in the alley confirmed the general facts – that Shane Grant, Perez, and others were drinking all day at the park, that they gathered outside Perez’s encampment that night to drink more, that Grant was in a mood, coming down from a days-long meth binge. And we learned that John Chicon was an acquaintance, but not a friend, and he wandered down the alley sometime after the liquor store closed. As luck would have it, Grant didn’t take Chicon’s arrival well.

Rodriquez intervened, and Shane Grant bloodied his nose. Rodriquez saw Shane Grant pick up John Chicon and slam in on his head.

“Maybe three, four times,” Rodriquez said, “I already told you. I already told you.”

They all split from the alley once the worst of the violence began, except Perez and Crystal Varga.

Crystal Varga arrived as a witness in court in a conservative suit. She wore her hair back, still had the same glasses. She remembered drinking earlier that day at the park and buying alcohol with Perez shortly before the liquor store closed. She didn’t remember the violence. She said that she was sober now.

The testimony of eye witnesses culminated with Perez. He looked the same as the man in the body cam video, small, his frown framed by a goatee. He gave an emotional account. He noted that Grant left the alley at some point, Grant’s mood had darkened when he returned.

“I tried to calm him down when he got like this” he said, “We were family. I called him cuz.”

“Do you want to be here?” The prosecution asked.

“I do,” Perez answered, nodding with his whole upper body. Shane Grant lifted his eyes during the testimony. He stared down Perez. Perez tried to look back at him but could only manage a glance before returning his gaze to the ground.

According to Perez, the assault on John Chicon took hours. During the assault, Perez hid in his encampment with Crystal Varga. He stayed out of it, trying to ignore the repeated bouts of violence until the sound of the pounding flesh became too much. He called 911, placing the phone in his pocket with the dispatcher on the line.  

“He fucked up my home, man,” Perez said. He shrugged and pounded one hand into the other, “I invited him to my home and he fucked everything up.”

At times during his testimony, Perez was in tears.

Mr. Rios took no sympathy in his cross-examination.

“You were interested in Crystal Varga? And Shane had slept with her?”

Perez nodded.

“Is your answer yes?”

“Yes.”

“You and Mr. Grant weren’t related. You just called each other ‘cuz’ as a slang term, correct?”

Perez nodded.

“Is that a yes?”

“Yes.”

The testimony from Perez painted Grant an angry bully who took it too far on a stranger one night, for no reason other than that Grant was the self-described “regulator.” Perez heard the sounds of pounding flesh. It sickened and frightened him. It destroyed his home. It traumatized.

Perez’ account was confirmed when the 911 call was introduced as evidence. We were handed a transcript to help while listening to the muddled voices. One piece of dialogue that came through clearly on the recording was Grant’s.

In a slow and slurred sentence, he said to Perez, “Because I’m the regulator.”

John Chicon was bleeding out somewhere in the background of that 911 call.

Over the course of the next few days, we heard testimony from those who treated the unconscious John Chicon until he took his last breath. We heard from the ER doctor from Denver Health who placed a shunt in Chicon’s head to drain the fluid and relieve the pressure, the nurse advocate who documented Chicon’s injuries, and the coroner who concluded that the cause of death was homicide. The testimony included photos of Chicon in the hospital. Rows of stitches held his face together. His chin was lacerated in a starburst pattern that, according to the experts, only occurs in powerful blunt force traumas like car accidents. The side of Chicon’s face was imprinted with a hexagonal shoe tread, as if someone stood on his head, trying to crush it.

            The evidence became less about who had committed the crime, but how violent the crime was. Our imaginations were no longer required.

The defense cross-examined the experts with questions about Chicon’s yellow skin in the hospital photos; the aim of the defense seemed to be a desperate explanation of alcohol-induced jaundice secondary to increased loss of blood. John Chicon’s jaw bones were both dislocated, and his brain bled in three out of the four areas of classification. The prosecutor introduced picture after picture, one showing the shunt placed in his head, a couple photos of the ears, both torn.

More medical, scientific, and police witnesses testified to photos of the crime scene, the alley that we were all becoming intimately familiar with. We were introduced to clothing items, to DNA statistics, to the methods of shoe print analysis, to the nuances of chain of custody for evidence, all the little details that the prosecutors must routinely seek to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. The clothing stained with dirt and blood, the DNA evidence, a broken piece of fence with blood, all of it was painstakingly presented in brown bags, cut open by the witnesses, identified, then placed back in the bag and arranged by the prosecutor in front of the court recorder.

Then, after over a week of testimony, the prosecution rested. We looked to the defense. Mr. Rios announced that the defense rested too, without calling any defense witnesses or presenting any exculpatory evidence.

Judge Laff turned to us and announced, “We have come to an important part of the trial where all the evidence that will be considered has been admitted.”

After the tedious days of expert testimony, the sudden transition was jarring. Just as we were relaxing into the routine of taking notes and considering the significance of the advanced stochastic DNA matching, we were staring down the moment of deliberation, and at some point, a decision. Judge Laff dismissed us for the day, to return for closing arguments. We went home and began arranging to resume our lives, a proposition that seemed to me as difficult as arranging for the trial at the start. The deliberation, in my opinion, would not take long.

In the morning, after leading the jury into court one last time, I held in my hand a thick package of paper, the jury instructions. Judge Laff read the instructions, which finally illuminated the charges Shane Grant faced – a charge of assault from blooding Rodriquez’s nose and a charge of homicide. The degree of homicide was up to us. We’d decide whether the crime warranted a first-degree verdict, or some lesser degree for crushing a man’s skull.

The prosecution’s closing argument laid out these homicide degrees in a PowerPoint presentation that probably was recycled for use in everyday, routine murder trials. After Mr. Rios’ wandering closing statement, the prosecution countered with one last piece of drama. The younger prosecutor stood up with a picture of Chicon’s face, the one with the shoe print, and slammed it onto the projector, itching to get it in front of us one last time.

“This was a man who intended to kill.” In the end, there was nothing much to decide back in the jury room. Sure, deliberations took a few hours. We asked a couple of questions of the judge. We reviewed photos and maps and police marks. A few recalcitrant souls debated the merits of the first-degree charge until they no longer saw any point in arguing the finer points of intoxication and head-stomping.

Juror #1, who volunteered to be foreman, signed the verdicts, the simplest government document I’ve ever signed. Guilty of assault. Guilty of murder in the first degree. Luckily, there was no legal requirement of a motive, and no space on the verdict form to venture a guess. 

A year and half after Chicon’s murder, from the shelter of my car, I saw that the encampment hadn’t changed much from the pictures in court, except the human shit dripping from the chain link where Rick Perez once lived, where the Shane Grant the Regulator once roamed and Chicon’s head rested as he saw this crazy world for the last time. But the wreath and plastic flowers were new – the red, orange, and ivory heart arrangement strung from the chain link, the only beautiful thing in the alley at Federal Boulevard and Florida Avenue.

And I wanted to remember that wreath and think of the Chicon’s family, the tragedies that led him to homelessness and the one unlucky encounter that cost him his life. I wanted to be moved out of compassion, but that moment of surprise and appreciation disappeared after I pulled away from the alley and its events and returned to my own nearby home. Now I can’t help but think of that wreath in the context of the rest of the graffiti in an alleyway, the shit and litter and drops of blood leading towards Federal. Even our monuments eventually become nothing more than encroaching waste to strangers. It was a beautiful thing, that wreath, but it was hung on a fence belonging to no one involved, designating the ground where a homeless man died, a man I only knew by body cam video and pictures taken between surgeries. Maybe we make rules to protect each other and maybe we make them only to punish those who’d be unlucky enough to break them. Perhaps I wish I could have done something more, felt something deeper than pity for John Chicon, but maybe I’m only prepared to do what the law requires. And I understand that I’m a lucky one, but I didn’t make it through the trial unscathed.

Author’s Note: The names of the witnesses have been changed for privacy.

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