“At first, I was really surprised. I don’t know how you’re in L.A. and not get a black person,” said Jalia Olanrewaja, a BART train operator.” Olanrewaja’s reaction to the jury with no blacks that will decide the fate of white former BART officer Johannes Mehserle accused of gunning down Oscar Grant, a young African-American, was mild.
Grant family supporters are enraged at the makeup of the jury. They say that this insures that Mehserle will be acquitted. Legally, there’s no guarantee that a jury with blacks would be any less favorable to Mehserle, and juries can be ethnic and gender diverse, even without blacks. These juries have had a mixed record in rendering fair and impartial decisions in racially charged trials.
Yet, there’s still good reason for worry about the Grant case jury. One week before the jury was selected a Bureau of Justice Statistics report found racial discrimination in jury selection is still rampant, even blatant. This, despite a Supreme Court ruling and other court rulings that ban all white or non-black juries. Prosecutors and judges in eight Southern states used a litany of dodges, tactics, and legal ploys to outright exclude blacks from juries, or whittle the number of blacks on juries down.
The report found that a racially diverse jury weighed evidence and testimony longer and more carefully, brought different perspectives and life experiences to the deliberations, and made fewer factual errors. These are crucial factors in the rare cases where cops are charged with killing young black or Hispanics. A jury with no blacks, composed of mostly older middle class whites, and non-black ethnics, is much more likely to believe the testimony of police and prosecution witnesses than black witnesses, defendants, or even the victims.
Prosecutors have a big task in trying to overcome pro-police attitudes and the negative racial stereotypes. Two Penn State University studies on racial perceptions and stereotypes, one in 2003 and a follow-up study in 2008, found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crimes, and in some cases where crimes were not committed by blacks they misidentified the perpetrator as an African-American. Defense attorneys played hard on that perception and depicted Bell and his companions as thugs and drunkards who posed a threat to the officers. Mehserle’s defense attorneys will seek to play up Grant’s probation record, depict him as the aggressor, and exclude video tapes that show that the shooting was unprovoked.
The major effort though will be to show that Mehserle thought that he was in imminent danger during the Grant confrontation. That he intended to fire his Taser, but mistakenly shot Grant with his firearm when he thought Grant was reaching for a gun. Grant was unarmed. Though the shooting was accidental, the defense claims there was probable cause for reacting with force. The defense attorneys for cops on trial have repeatedly used this tactic with much success.
The four New York City cops tried for gunning down African immigrant, Amadou Diallo in 1999, claimed that they feared for their lives. The jury believed them and acquitted them. In Cincinnati, a municipal judge summarily acquitted white Cincinnati police officer, Stephen Roach, of criminal charges in the slaying of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas during a traffic pursuit in 2001. The shooting ignited three days of riots. The judge bought Roach’s tale that he feared for his life and fired in self-defense.
In the Sean Bell case in New York in 2008, defense attorneys for the officers accused of gunning down Bell argued that the officers feared for their lives when they fired. They said they thought one of the suspects had a gun, made a suspicious move, and that the car they were in bumped them.
The judge and jurors in these and other controversial, high profile, and racially charged cases were either all white, or had only one or two blacks on them. Legal experts blame the paucity of blacks on a jury in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s most racially diverse cities, not on deliberate racial discrimination, but to the paltry number of blacks in the jury pool, changing demographics (the city is majority Hispanic, Asian and white), and the failure of blacks to heed jury summons.
This begs the issue. It doesn’t much matter how few or how many blacks are in the jury pool, if prosecutors (or defense attorneys when the accused is white and victim black) use a storehouse of challenges, questionnaires, and profiles, to systematically strike blacks from a jury. In the Grant case, five blacks were swiftly and summarily struck from the jury.
The Grant case jury may be fair and impartial, and may eventually convict Mehserle. But to pretend that racial bias doesn’t exist in racially charged trials is self-serving and dangerous. The Grant case is no exception. The case casts an ugly glare on jury race bias.