My nerves were singing and I was certain I hadn’t ever been this anxious…ever. Anxiety is a strange thing. Have a little bit of it and thinking can be tack-sharp, your reaction times crisp and fast. A person can feel high-toned and ready for anything. Ramps it up to the redline and one can feel like they’re losing their mind, skin is crawling, just wanting to run…somewhere…anywhere but here. In that moment, I was burying the needle.
I’d always had anxiety issues growing up. Even into adulthood. It wasn’t until my latter years that I finally felt I’d gotten a handle on managing my anxiety (that is until the FBI polygraph test … but that’s for another essay, perhaps.)
My emotions have always been close to the surface a lot of the time and, as an adult, when something went sideways at work, I’d lead with those emotions which would ramp up my anxiety making things very uncomfortable. For survival, I had to teach myself to manage; cover it up. That’s worked out pretty well, so far. It was just a necessary adaptation to make my way. But how do you adapt to a situation that is completely foreign, very intimidating, a little scary because it’s such an unknown, yet something you’d chosen to do? Well, I’ll tell you how you adapt: You fuck it up so delightfully that anything that comes after becomes a piece of cake. If not the cake, then a walk in the park. Pick your metaphor.
2016. I’d decided to make a career change. Or at least I’d thought I would. Multimedia Forensics, which meant working with digital and analog images, video, and audio evidence, looked fascinating. It was Darla who’d discovered it one night when we were looking at possible options. Options that would still be technical, but also allow for creativity and problem solving. Who hasn’t seen CSI Miami, or NCIS? How fun would that be? A lot of fun and fascinating, I thought. The problem was, Multimedia Forensics doesn’t pay that well, especially if you work in the public sector. But the discipline was indeed interesting and so I pursued it anyway. After completing a Master’s Degree in Multimedia Forensics in 2018, I found myself working for a Crime Lab at a Denver Metropolitan Area police department. I loved the work. There was just something about the process, the details, and the precision of what I was doing that appealed to me. Law enforcement had always had a certain attraction for me with its formality, structure, and uniqueness; even despite the news that had been surfacing around the country. I became a part of it and could see what goes on behind the scenes. How crime scenes were actually processed. How investigations worked.
I would have taken a 75% pay cut to work there, which wasn’t ideal, so it was clear I wasn’t going to be able to quit my day job. Thus, instead of completely changing careers, I ended up kind of straddling the fence. I’d work at the lab one or two days a week, and make the real money the rest of the time. These days I call it my side hustle, but that doesn’t quite do it. It’s more than that, although I’m hard pressed to say what that “more” is; the people I work with, the absolutely bizarre and sometimes quite disturbing lunchtime conversations, the laughter because of those conversations, the incredibly indelicate ways people do stupid things. It’s fun in a mentally unstable kind of way. Perfect for me!
Now, let’s get one thing clear about this kind of job. It is not TV. It is not this silliness nor this utter bullshit. In fact, a lot of the time, especially with license plates, you can’t get the clarity you want and it’s frustrating. And, to be clear, you certainly can-not get the reflection of someone’s face off some dude’s bald head or sunglasses and say, “That’s the guy! Put out a BOLO, we got ‘im!” Although I joke with the detectives about being able to do just that (I also offered to add fart noises to interrogation audio once, too. That’s just the way it works around there. Comedic relief.)
I have written about some of my experiences in this job here in the past. This essay is not about those kinds of things though. This is about going into a courtroom for the first time. It’s about walking into a courtroom all done up in a crisp shirt, a jacket, and a tie (something I haven’t worn but a few times in over a decade), having only set foot in one once for jury duty (and I wasn’t even chosen.) A witness for the prosecution.
2019. I’m there to testify; to sit in the witness box and answer questions while everyone is focused on me. It has been said that public speaking is more terrifying to some people than death. When there’s an accused criminal sitting two meters away and there is a lot of importance afforded the answers I give, to me, this makes public speaking look like a booger.
In this case, it was a jury trial for a man accused of felony assault (it was road rage and, yeah, he did it), I found myself pacing alone in the waiting room just outside the back of the courtroom. It felt like 10 hours but it was just half an hour at most. I was doing a lot of pacing and deep breathing, trying unsuccessfully to calm myself down. I was awash in anxiety.
I didn’t hear them call my name. I couldn’t hear anything because the room was soundproofed. Someone came to the door for me. I walked into the courtroom, which was utterly silent, knowing everyone was looking at the next witness…me. I focused on the floor three meters in front of me. I made a beeline for the judge who swore me in. So far so good. I hadn’t flubbed my “lines.” Taking my seat in the witness box, I noticed the evidence book and a pitcher of water with small cups next to it. I took another, secret, deep breath to try to calm myself. It didn’t help. The jury, the trier of fact, sat across from me and all eyes were upon me.
The initial questions were about my training, my education, my experience. I don’t know why but the Deputy District Attorney had decided to qualify me as an expert witness. On my first ever testimony! Being an expert witness merely means that you have more knowledge and training about the subject about which you are testifying and can offer opinions that other, reasonable people cannot. That’s the point of being qualified: so you can answer technical questions with detail and opinion…you’re the expert in the room. Yeah, sure, go for it, just dump that bucket of anxiety over my head.
The defense objected strenuously to my qualification as an expert, saying, “for the reasons we’ve already discussed.” I had no idea what had been discussed but my name was involved and it was weird that these people had been discussing me, in this forum, associating me with all of this.
You watch TV shows, see the drama, the yelling back and forth, the sudden epiphanies, dramatic pauses, or the blurted-out confessions. This was nothing like that. This is scripted to some degree as the attorneys had prepared their questions and remarks, but it is less dramatic and lower key, dull almost; which kind of makes it terrifyingly real for someone like me. I could do nothing but ride the train.
Duly qualified as an “expert witness” (please. Me? An expert? Hardly) there were more questions about the case itself. At one point, the DDA made me get up with a pointer and asked that I stand below a big screen TV and narrate one of the videos I’d enhanced. Court testimony and public speaking? Fantastic. I do think the defense attorney felt bad for me, though, because when it was her turn, she said she wouldn’t make me do that. I’d hoped my relief didn’t show too much.
Deeper into my testimony, I did feel as though I’d calmed a little. Now that I was in it, a flow had developed. It couldn’t go on forever and I was closer to the end than when I’d started.
Once again spotting the water pitcher off to my left, I began focusing on getting a drink. I was suddenly grateful to whomever had provided it because I had the mother of all cases of dry mouth. It also provided a distraction for my mind so I wouldn’t focus on the anxiety or the fear of making a big mistake. I could just imagine the judge saying, “Baliff, arrest this man.” When your riddled with anxiety, your mind goes to the worst case scenario no matter how outlandish or far-fetched.
The evidence book was open in front of me and as I reached for the small Dixie cup and the pitcher, the DDA asked a question. I felt like the actor that is focused on delivering their lines but also must fold laundry or pour themselves a drink, all while in conversation, all while making it look totally natural. Totally believable. That was me. This imposter sitting there trying to appear as if I knew what I was talking about all while pouring a small cup of water.
The DDA called my attention to an evidence exhibit (an image) in the book. As it appeared on the large screen across the way, I answered a question and returned my attention to the water.
I tipped the pitcher toward the cup, no water came out.
I answered another question pausing my pour. The DDA called my attention to another exhibit image and as it replaced the previous image on the large screen I turned to it in the evidence book. I answered the question.
I resumed trying to pour, tipping the pitcher further. Nothing.
You’ve seen these carafes before. When I see them, I think of them as the kind you’d see in a church for the coffee and donuts after the service. It’s bulbous at the bottom and narrow at the top, black on the ends and copper colored in the middle with a one-piece handle and spout. At the top of the handle is the tab for opening the lid with your thumb.
I’d not seen one of these carafes in decades. My brain was so fried from trying to maintain some semblance of intelligence while testifying and attempting to control my overwhelming anxiety that I couldn’t recall how to operate the thing. Something so simple had become solving Fermat’s Last Conjecture.
At first, I was assuming the lid would open slightly by gravity and water would be controlled as it poured into the small cup. When that didn’t happen, I thought maybe the spout had a channel through it from which the water poured. I might have remembered seeing one like that once. Then I thought maybe there may not have been a lot of water remaining in the vessel. Others had testified before me so maybe I needed to tip it further. I was wrong on all of it.
What was really happening? A vacuum was forming as the water piled up against the hinged lid. The air bubble from the top moved to the back of the pitcher and all of the water was hanging out in the front, just behind the lid – the business end – which was now being sucked closed.
I thumbed the tab to open the lid.
Immediately, water gushed out all over ledge around the witness box, the evidence book (thankfully, everything was in plastic sleeves), and onto the floor in front of me. I went in to full panic mode, focused solely on the obscene amounts of water that was now all over everything. I turned to my left to the closest person – the judge – who sat high up on his dais. I said, “Your honor, your honor?” not knowing if that was even allowed and not wanting to look out over the courtroom for other help lest I see all the eyes on me; the pity, the sympathy, and worst of all, the look of utter confusion as to how an idiot like this was able to qualify as an expert.
It felt like 20 minutes but I imagine it was only about 5 seconds until everyone had finally noticed what was happing with the guy in the light gray sport coat, flushed and panicking in the witness box. The court reporter brought over some tissues which were useless; the water immediately overwhelmed them. But you do what you can with what you have. The defense attorney even got involved, rising to help to mop up. My embarrassment was crushing me as I downed the little bit of water that had made its way into the cup and, as quickly as I could, got things dried to a reasonably acceptable level. I stuffed the now soggy and disintegrating tissues into my little cup.
“Well, it just shows everyone is human,” the DDA said. She was trying to make me feel better (I didn’t, I just wanted it all to be over). The defense attorney went easy on me. Perhaps in sympathy, perhaps because what I had to offer was clear and there wasn’t much to be said in the face of the video evidence. For whatever reason, I was grateful. I could tell things were coming to an end and willed the DDA to say “no further questions.” Finally, she did.
“You may step down,” the judge said. Relief washed over me and as I left the witness box, I leaned down, quickly snatching the tissue filled cup off the floor. I walked, resisting the urge to run, down the isle. Walking with my hand down at my side, clutching my little cup of shame.