On Ferguson and Jurors…

It’s taken me a while to process my thoughts on the grand jury’s decision not to indict in the Ferguson case. You see, a few months ago I was chosen to be a juror on a murder trial. The experience changed the way I look at people, how I identify with people, how much faith I put in our justice system. The trial lasted three days and the deliberations three more. That week was nothing short of excruciating.

Jury selection is long and tiring. I arrived at the courthouse at 8am and waited for my number to be called. As I looked around, I noticed that many of the people in the jury pool were white. They were choosing the jury for four trials that day, so there were about 800 people there. I live in Rochester, N.Y. In the last US Census approximately 39% of the population was black and 13% Latino. It seems odd that that they were nowhere to be found in the jury pool.

As I entered the courtroom and awaited questioning, the idea of a jury of peers became a farce. The defendant and victims were black, and yet almost no people of color were in the room. In a pool of about 200 people, possibly 10 of them were not white. Not only the jury, but the judge, all of the lawyers, and court officers were white.

The case involved a 16 year old who arranged to buy 1/4 lb. of marijuana and then shot the dealer and his passenger in the head. The passenger died and the dealer lived. There was overwhelming forensic evidence that the defendant shot the dealer and his passenger. The dealer himself testified to this. The jury really didn’t have anything to deliberate concerning those charges, and the twelve of us convicted him of murder and felony assault within minutes.

The other charges were difficult the main one being murder while in the commission of a felony robbery. The prosecution never entered any evidence that a robbery took place. When we got to the deliberation room, multiple people didn’t know what the defendant had allegedly stole (the marijuana). Our instructions were very clear; if there was no evidence, you must return a verdict of not guilty. I figured we would be out in ten minutes. That’s when things got ugly.

It’s amazing to see how mean people get when they are locked in a room without their cell phones or cigarettes. How a bunch of middle class white people suddenly think their lives are more important than those whom they were supposed to be serving. How bias toward police personnel manifests. How people lose their humanity to make it home in time for dinner.

The wife of a police officer sat on the jury and announced that under no circumstances would she return a verdict of not guilty because that was “letting the loser go free”. Let me reiterate that we had already convicted him of two life sentences worth of charges. Six others agreed with her.

The deliberations began.

For the next three days phrases such as “who cares, those people will just go on dealing drugs and we get one off the streets.”I’m not racist, but why are black people always killing each other?” and “Maybe because you work with ‘students like that’ you are not seeing things clearly” were thrown around ad nausea. These were some of the more benign things that were said.

I won’t go into much detail about the police officer’s wife sobbing about how her husband “lays down his life for people who are trash.” The screaming, the condescending remarks of those older and richer than others. The shaming and peer pressure.

I will tell you that after three days the jurors just wanted to leave. There were multiple school teachers that would be starting the school year in two days and a few others that were due to leave on vacation. Most of the votes switched to guilty at that point because, in the words of one juror, they wanted to “get home to their families and forget that people like this exist”.

It didn’t seem to matter that we would be breaking the law by returning the guilty verdict, because the others saw no reason to follow the law when it came to a drug dealer and an accused murderer.

Our laws are supposed to apply to all people, all the time, but in reality they don’t.

How many of those jurors drank before they were of age? Had an older friend buy them alcohol? Smoked pot at school? Sold pot at school? Drove under the influence? Stole something in their teenage years? Abused their spouses? Argued with a police officer at a bar? Taunted one during the St. Patricks Day parade?

In reality, white privilege buys you a lot more than less hassle from police officers. It buys you the excuse to knowingly break the law and think that those laws shouldn’t apply to you.

How does this connect to Michael Brown and Ferguson? Scroll through your Facebook and take note of the number of posts excusing the death of Michael Brown because he was “a criminal” or “a bad kid”. Look at the bias toward police officers and assuming that they always do the right things while black male teens are always doing the wrong things.

Take the time to examine your own biases. Have you ever broken the law? Do you feel like it was “minor” and “a non-issue?

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “while black Americans constitute 13.1% of the nation’s population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. Even though blacks use or sell drugs at about the same rate as whites, they are 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested on  drug charges than whites. Black offenders also receive longer sentences compared to whites.”

Is there a reason most of my white friends support Officer Wilson’s actions, while my friends of color don’t? Could it be that our own experiences mold our perceptions?

According to the Bureau of Justice and Statistics, “1 in 4 officers in the United States are those of color; mainly Latino”. That leaves 75% of the police force in this country as white. By these statistics, a white person is more likely to know or be related to a police officer and have positive interactions with them. On the other hand, the black community can expect higher incarceration rates for the same offenses as whites, and very little representation on the police force.

Could it be that my friends of color have been harassed one too many times, mistaken for one too many “persons of interest” or seen one too many friends humiliated by racial profiling? Could it be these are the only interactions with law enforcement they’ve ever had?

Could the grand jury in this case have been influenced by one of the members, just like in the story I just told you?

In the end, the jury was stalled 11-1, with me as the final hold out. The judge took a partial verdict in our case. The defendant was found guilty of four of the six charges and sentenced to multiple life sentences without parole. The other two charges were entered as no verdict.

As we were finally escorted out of the courthouse, the officer’s wife hissed at me, “I don’t know how you sleep at night,” and stalked away. I’ve never felt so much hate radiating off of a person.

In a way she was right, since then I don’t always sleep at night… but it’s because I know that there are people like her that are the stuff of an unarmed, black teen’s nightmares — and it terrifies me.

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