On Walter Scott, Michael Slager, Mistrials, and Serving on Jury Duty
I’m one of those people who never wanted to serve on a jury. I live in Washington, DC, and because of the population of this city, I feel like I get called in every two years, like clockwork. I’m never happy about this though I do use it, similar to voting in national elections, as my gauge for changing demographics in the this city. The last time I went to serve my jury duty in August, the racial breakdown was about 75 percent white and 25 percent other. That’s definitely changed since I first moved into DC.
As soon as the notice comes in the mail, I immediately start thinking of ways that I can get out of doing my “civic duty.” Obviously if I’m called to an actual jury, I’ll serve, but I’m always groaning about having to sit in that big room ALL DAY LONG waiting to be called in for what may take up weeks of my life. I dread it. I even come prepared with a “you don’t want me on your jury” kit. I always bring something that implies that I might be too smart to sit on a jury and that if I am called in, they should reconsider because I won’t be easily swayed and I try to wear clothing that implies I have strong Black revolutionary ties. When I was in Atlanta, on the advice of some of my fellow former jury dutiers, I brought in Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and wore a Fred Hampton t-shirt and when I was called to be on a panel, the lawyer asked me what I was reading, where I went to college, and upon answering, he proceeded to ask me how our basketball team did that season. Terrible was the answer, but I wasn’t chosen. It’s been my jurty duty wave ever since.
I’ve never wanted to serve on a jury. Ever.
Yesterday, the judge in the case of Walter Scott, the North Charleston, South Carolina, man who was shot in the back several times fleeing from a police officer declared a mistrial in the case of Michael Slager, the police officer charged in his death. Apparently, there was one lone juror who could not offer a guilty verdict beyond a reasonable doubt in the case. Michael Slager is a free man now, though there is still a federal case against him. After yesterday, I feel guilty for that stance against jury duty since serving on a jury is just as important to seeking justice, either for somebody’s innocence or guilty, as getting charges for police officers killing people.
We all see the same thing: The video is damning. Walter Scott is running away from the officer, heading in the opposite direction when the officer opens fire and kills him. Allegedly, a scuffle occurred prior that wasn’t caught on tape, but honestly, I don’t trust a single police report ever. Ever. All I know is what I saw. Walter Scott running away, clearly not endangering the life of the police officer. It’s cut and dry for me. Yet, for one, single, solitary juror, that wasn’t enough. There was no beyond a reasonable doubt for this person. In their mind, the police officer may have been acting justifiably to save his own life. I don’t know. I don’t know the juror and to my knowledge, so far, nothing has been shared.
What I do know is that it continues to be frustrating that government-issued criminals go unpunished because of the benefit of the doubt they’re given. How that exists in the case of a man running FROM the police is beyond me. He had nothing in his hand when he was shot. He didn’t make attempts to turn around. He wasn’t “lunging.” He was fleeing. He was trying to get away, not engage. Yet, his life ended all the same.
I can’t help but think of the times I didn’t want to serve on a jury and why. I selfishly didn’t want to waste my time on somebody else’s life non-sense. Turns out, it’s not all non-sense. As a matter of fact, sometimes, it’s insanely important. I know that people who look like me, who have lived where I’ve lived face a system and other people who don’t care at all. Sometimes we’re on trial even when we’re not the ones facing the charges. Look, I don’t think that every single person in jail is innocent. I personally know several people who have been in jail who are guilty as sin. But I do know that personal biases and race-based opinions come into play, especially where police are concerned. For many people, what they saw was a video of a white cop, the savior just doing his job, shooting a Black man in the back who MUST have been doing something to warrant it.
Granted, I wasn’t part of any proceedings so maybe a good enough case wasn’t made; that is a possibility. But how all of the jurors managed to come to a conclusion and one hold out couldn’t based on the same evidence is surprising to me. I know it happens. And maybe he just wasn’t convinced. But you do have to wonder if he saw a Black man get shot by a white cop and think, “justified,” no matter what evidence was present.
The prosecutor’s office has to decide if they want to re-try the case. I won’t be surprised if they don’t because nothing surprises me anymore. I’m not even truly surprised by this outcome. Video should help and it is in at least helping to broadcast these videos into everybody’s living room where they’re forced to wrestle with their preconceived notions and what they’re witnessing. Change doesn’t come over night, but it has to be getting harder for anybody who watches the videos and not see that something is amiss. Sure, the visuals are still being justified away, but the court of public opinion has to be turning, even if only somewhat.
Thing is, public opinion and a court of law are two different places. In that court, one person’s decision got one more cop off of a charge of murder or manslaughter. I don’t know if more people who look like me or see what I see or know what I know would make a difference. The lawyers pick who they want and the jury is out of my control. But I know that being on a jury matters for justice too and all perspectives are needed. Too often I’ve not really considered that when thinking of the outcomes. For that reason, I won’t look at jury duty the same way ever again.