Open book with Efrem Sigel, author of 'Juror Number 2'
Most people do everything they can to get out of serving jury duty, but on Nov. 20, 2017, Efrem Sigel found himself sitting in a Manhattan court room being told by a New York State Supreme Court judge: "This is the most serious case you could be involved in."
"All of a sudden, I'm on jury duty," said Sigel in a phone interview from his Great Barrington home. "I even picked a week [Thanksgiving week] I thought not much was going on; but there I was in the court room. The judge offered us all an easy way out, but for some reason, I was really intrigued by it. Next thing I knew, I was on the jury. It's all a matter of luck."
Sigel became Juror Number 2 in The People v. Abraham Cucuta.
What came next was weeks of sitting through a murder trial, getting a front-row seat to the recounting of an alleged gang-related shooting that ended in multiple deaths in East Harlem. The experience opened Sigel's eyes, mind to a world completely foreign to him, even though the crime took place not too far from his city block.
"During the first five or six days of the trial, my view of the trial and what I was doing really changed," he said. "I heard the horrendous life experiences of the key witnesses, and I thought, I have to find out more about their background, why kids in this environment grow up this way. It became a compulsion; I was on a mission to learn the why and how of this crime and the larger lesson of growing up in this community."
That mission led to almost two years of researching, interviewing, investigating and looking for data for his part-memoir, part-true crime, part "social inquiry," as Sigel describes his book, "Juror Number 2: The Story of a Murder, the Agony of a Neighborhood."
The book — which will be officially released sometime in November, but is available for purchase at local bookstores and through the publisher — begins with Sigel's recounting of his experience as a juror on a murder trial, but essentially takes on a larger, more detailed, look at poverty and society's failure to address it. Sigel digs in and takes a close look at three major agencies intertwined in this story — the New York City Housing Authority, the New York City Department of Education and the New York City Police Department.
"When I looked at all three, most of the time, all were not doing the job they were supposed to be doing, and in some cases, were harming the people they exist to help," he said. "The details of that were shocking to me."
Sigel, who has published more than 30 short stories and two novels, has a background as a journalist and in publishing, but also leads volunteers, all alumni of Harvard Business School like himself, who consult to nonprofits in the field of education. In his research for the book, he interviewed educators, principals and non-profits doing the on-the-ground work of helping children and young adults in these communities find another path.
"We need to give people growing up in these communities real opportunities," he said. "I'm a firm believer that we can't hand an education to people, that they have to grab onto education, but you have to put the opportunity out there. You need schools that work, that are filled with totally devoted teachers, a staff assembled by principals who care."
While most of this book take place in New York City, Sigel, who splits his time between his homes in the city and the Berkshires, points out that this story will resonate with anyone serious about understanding the societal problems we face in this country.
"I don't care if you're talking about small cities or giant ones ... these are real social problems that exist all over the country. This is a very detailed picture of one small segment, but this is happening no matter where you live," he said.
Sigel, who is spending his time during the pandemic hiking and writing his next book, took a few minutes to answer a few questions about his favorite books. (Answers have been lightly edited.)
Q What is your favorite non-fiction book?
A Impossible to pick one. So, it's a four-way tie: "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," by Yuval Noah Harari; "Into Thin Air," by Jon Krakauer; "Thinking, Fast and Slow," by Daniel Kahneman; "Truman," by David McCullough. (I could pick six others of his as well ...)
Q What are some of your favorite true-crime novels?
A True-crime nonfiction, "In Cold Blood," by Truman Capote. My favorite crime and thriller (fiction) authors include Michael Connelly, Daniel Silva and my all-time favorite, Georges Simenon, a giant at delineating character, mood and mystery in a few sentences. (He's been a huge influence on me.)
Q What memoirs have you read that have stayed with you?
A "Angela's Ashes," by Frank McCourt is the clear winner as a single book. Churchill's six-volume history of World War II ["The Second World War"] is unparalleled as history cum memoir.
Q Who is your favorite contemporary author and why?
A A two-way tie: Richard Russo, Jhumpa Lahiri. Master wordsmiths with a deep love of humanity in all its flaws, complications and nobility. If I can pick a near-contemporary (i.e., deceased) it's Phillip Roth; he didn't have to win the Nobel Prize to be, for me, the greatest American novelist.
Q What works have you read/referenced that helped shape your views on helping young adults further their education/career goals?
A "How Children Succeed," by Paul Tough; "How the Other Half Learns," by Robert Pondiscio
Q What book have you read recently that you couldn't put down?
A "The Nickel Boys," by Colson Whitehead
Q What books are currently on your nightstand?
A "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents," by Isabel Wilkerson; "Apeirogon," by Colum McCann; "Grant," by Ron Chernow; "Livia Lone," by Barry Eisler.
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