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A Hapless Robber, Exposed by a Cloud of Dye, Gets His Day in Court

The man left the bank like a satisfied customer who hadn’t just robbed it. With an envelope of cash smoldering in his right pocket, he began walking down a Newark street with studied nonchalance.

A few steps into his casual getaway, a dye pack inside the envelope exploded like an ill-timed gender reveal, into a misty puff of pink. Only then did he hurry away, leaving in his wake a cartoonish contrail and some surveillance-video distraction for the Covid-infected summer of 2021.

When the man, Esau Grant, was arrested two days later, a Newark police official could not resist joking that he had been caught “red-handed.” And public attention moved on to the next viral moment of human folly.

Perhaps there is no profound takeaway in the case of Mr. Grant. Perhaps it offers nothing more than a chance to imagine yourself in the pink-stained sneakers of a desperate, hapless bank robber — as I did when I served on the jury that recently heard the state’s case against him.

On the cool, wet Saturday morning of July 3, 2021, Mr. Grant joined a long line in the small Capital One bank on Springfield Avenue. It was the beginning of the month and the day before the Fourth: busy banking time.

Tall and lanky, the 27-year-old man wore a light blue durag, a white shirt, gray pants and a backpack. He also wore a face mask and plastic gloves, accessories that did not necessarily stand out in a pandemic.

The customers inched forward, some planning deposits, some planning withdrawals and one planning a felony. Finally, a bank teller at the far end raised his hand and beckoned the next in line.

Mr. Grant stepped up and slid a crumpled white note through the window slot. This did not cause concern, the teller later testified, because some customers prefer to use notes. But then he read the scrawled words:

“I have a gun. Give all the money from the register please. No one will get hurt.”

Please?

The teller had been trained to assume that anyone threatening to have a gun is armed, even with no weapon in sight. Fearing for the safety of the customers and bank employees in the lobby, he had one goal: Get this person out as quickly as possible.

The teller tossed the note to the ground. He moved his left hand toward the cash-filled till while fumbling with his right for the silent alarm button under the counter.

Ten seconds. Twenty. Thirty. As time raced and slowed, Mr. Grant just stood there. Save for a tug on his mask and a quick tuck into a pocket, he kept his hands by his sides, still.

Who was this man? What possessed him to undertake such a doomed plan? To rob a bank by threatening to have a gun — especially when he had no gun? He was unarmed.

Court records indicate that Mr. Grant never knew his father and spent part of his childhood in foster care, which a relative said might explain his anger issues. He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade, and worked on and off in warehouses.

He’d been convicted of a handful of minor crimes, including once for throwing rocks and damaging the windows of a bank that had refused to activate his debit card. He’d spent a few months in prison, and he had a history of losing his temper and refusing counseling. He had a bullet scar on his left leg and, on his right arm, a tattoo with the name of his dead mother.

Also: He was residing at the emergency shelter on Fulton Street in Newark. Second floor, bed No. 40.

Sixty seconds. Seventy. Eighty. Mr. Grant paused from his stillness to give a quick rap to the teller’s window. Was this to say hurry up? Or to say hurry up because I have a gun?

After about 90 seconds, the teller passed an envelope through the slot that contained $2,300 in cash and an extra little something. And Mr. Grant walked out the door.

Seconds later, dreary Springfield Avenue brightened with a dye-pack explosion of Barbie pink. Mr. Grant tossed the money he had possessed for barely a minute and ran down rutted Blum Street, a marked man.

A tip from the emergency shelter provided a name and a likely hangout. Two days later, police officers found Mr. Grant on a park bench, a telltale pink on his right hand, pants and sneakers. Matching stains would later be found on his emergency-shelter bedsheet.

During a brief interrogation, Mr. Grant waived his rights. He admitted to trying to rob a bank with written words both threatening and courteous. He said he was sorry.

But Mr. Grant did not agree with prosecutors about the severity of his crime, and he exercised his right to a trial, which took place in late November.

He did not testify, and the jury was told nothing of his background, including that he had spent the last two years in the Essex County lockup, also known as “The Green Monster.” He was simply a man charged with first-degree robbery, dressed in a baggy dress shirt and pants with no belt.

The assistant prosecutor, Ruddy A. Adames, put the bank teller and the arresting officer on the stand. He placed into evidence the videos of the bank interactions, the dye-pack explosion, the arrest and confession. He held up the pink-speckled sneakers and pants.

Mr. Grant’s public defender, Laura Bilotta, acknowledged that her client had handed over the threatening note. But she asserted that words were not enough to support a conviction for first-degree robbery, which requires some gesture or conduct to bolster the threat of being armed — and, she maintained, he hadn’t done so.

After closing arguments, the other jurors and I filed into a spartan room designed for undistracted deliberation. A court officer dropped off brown paper bags of evidence. We passed around the wrinkled holdup note, half the size of a bank check.

For more than a day, we debated gestures and conduct. The meaning of the mask adjustment. The window rap. The stillness.

The difference of degree became a chasm. A conviction for first-degree robbery carried a prison sentence of up to 20 years; for second-degree robbery, up to 10.

Finally, we emerged to say that we had found the defendant guilty of second-degree robbery. Our civic duty done, we rode elevators down in silence, then exchanged awkward goodbyes.

Mr. Grant, who is scheduled to be sentenced this month, declined a request for an interview. But a glimpse of his thoughts may have been revealed at the moment the guilty verdict was announced.

Hearing his fate, the apologetic bank robber leaned back in resignation and gave the slightest of nods.

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