Chauncey Bailey Project

Judging criminals is civic responsibility, jury forewoman in bakery trial says

Avenal Ave. house in East Oakland where a woman was tortured in 2007 (Oakland Tribune)
Avenal Ave. house in East Oakland where a woman was tortured in 2007 (Oakland Tribune)

Avenal Ave. house in East Oakland where a woman was tortured in 2007 (Oakland Tribune)

By Thomas Peele, The Chauncey Bailey Project

When the Rev. Karen Stokes was called to jury duty and found herself being screened for a long and complex trial involving a member of the former Your Black Muslim Bakery, her first thought was, “I can get out of this.”

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Thomas Reardon said the trial would take about six weeks to complete. The calendar in Stokes’ mind lit up. The schedule corresponded with Lent, the weeks during which Christians prepare for Easter.
 
For Stokes, the pastor of Montclair Presbyterian Church, it was, in simple terms, her busy season.

She listened as Reardon talked to prospective jurors about hardship.

“He said it was a hardship for everyone,” Stokes recalled in a recent interview at her home.

Then, she said, the judge said the standard for dismissal from the jury pool was undue hardship.

Stokes, 57, knew then she was in. She didn’t have a child care problem, or a sick relative to care for, or a job that wouldn’t pay her for time performing a civil duty. That the trial was scheduled for the Lenten season was simply “one of God’s little left-landed jokes,” she said.

Her husband, who is also a minister, told her, “You don’t want a jury made up of people who aren’t smart enough to get out of it.”

So she sat through all the testimony and was chosen as the jury forewoman. The jury eventually convicted Lewis on April 7 of six felonies for the kidnapping of two women in May 2007 and the torture of one of them in what was described in testimony as a failed attempt to learn where a drug dealer hid his money.

In a sermon delivered the Sunday after the Lewis verdict, Stokes told her congregation that it was a civic responsibility to serve on a jury. She provided the congregation a rare glimpse inside the deliberation room, saying jurors agonized over the case and that she tried to maintain an emotional balance, taking frequent breaks when things got tense.

Lewis is to be sentenced in June and is expected to receive life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Jurors are instructed not to consider the possible sentences that result from their verdicts. Stokes said the jury deduced from testimony that Lewis faced life. “It is so huge, we had this guy’s whole future in our hands.”

Both Prosecutor Christopher Lamiero and Lewis’ attorney, Patrick Hetrick, declined to be interviewed. Hetrick said Lewis will appeal the verdict.

Former bakery leader Yusuf Bey IV is scheduled to stand trial later this year for allegedly ordering three men killed in the summer of 2007: Odell Roberson, Michael Wills and journalist Chauncey Bailey. A former follower of Bey IV, Devaughndre Broussard, has pleaded guilty to killing Roberson and Bailey and told a grand jury that another Bey IV follower bragged about shooting Wills.

In an interview last week, Stokes said that Oaklanders, despite a natural and valid fear of the Beys and their followers, have a responsibility to judge them.

“It is really important for this city,” she said. “Being willing to pass judgment is different from being judgmental. What is hypocritical is to judge someone and not have the same rules applied to yourself.”

Her jury judged Lewis’ actions, “not his value as a person,” she said.

He is 26, “the same age as one of my sons.” Stokes said that while Lewis committed horrible acts, she felt empathy for his situation.

“I can feel for Richard Lewis, but I don’t want him on the street,” she said.

Stokes said she was a liberal “who approaches things intellectually,” but two aspects of the trial were especially emotional. The first was the testimony of the victim, who described a terrifying beating and was shown in photographs covered in blood.

That the women admitted to being a small-time drug dealer had no bearing, Stokes said. “Nobody deserves what happened to her.”

The other was the testimony of Bey IV’s half-brother, Joshua Bey, who testified against Lewis after taking a plea deal.

“I really felt for Joshua,” she said. “He obviously had trouble thinking things through. He couldn’t work his way through complex questions.”

She said it was obvious that Bey IV took advantage of Joshua Bey because he “just wanted someone to love him and protect him.”

“He wanted Bey IV and (Yusuf) Bey V (who also testified against Lewis) to respect him. I wanted to ask, ‘Why did you guys put him in that position?’ Big brothers have responsibility. Joshua is not a savvy or conniving kid.”

Stokes, who joined the clergy in 1983 and has been at Montclair Presbyterian for 12 years, said she hoped Lewis could somehow find peace in his life, even as he lives it out in state prison. She said she prays for him.

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