Friday, November 04, 2016

Police Misconduct, Accountability in Court & Jury Bias

Ex-officer Michael Slager in Court last week
It was an emotional scene inside the Ninth Circuit Court in South Carolina earlier this week as North Charleston prosecutor Scarlett Wilson laid out the crux of the case to the jury in the opening of the trial of former North Charleston Police officer Michael Slager for shooting and killing unarmed African-American motorist Walter Scott after the victim was pulled over for a faulty brake light on April 4, 2015.

"An unarmed man shot eight times. Eight times." Wilson told the jury, describing Slager's decision to fire his handgun into Scott's back as he was running away from the then-police officer.

An act famously caught on video by a bystander who recorded the shooting on a cell phone.

It is of interest to note that while the population of Charleston is 67% white, 29% black and 5% Hispanic, the makeup of the jury in the Slager trial is six white men, five white women and one African-American man - we'll come back to that in a moment.

As ABC News reported on Thursday, the trial opened with some gripping testimony from Scott's mother Judy Scott, his 22-year-old son Walter and his girlfriend Charlotte Jones, who each took the stand to describe how they found out about the shooting - Jones wept openly as dashcam footage from Slager's police vehicle was played and the audio of him being tasered was heard in the court.

In the days leading up to the trial, local politicians, community leaders and police have urged residents to remain calm regardless of the outcome of the case, and that outcome will obviously be closely watched by people around the globe.

Given the fact that none of the officers tried for the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore were found responsible for his death in police custody, the outcome of the Slager trial could have national implications for cases involving members of law enforcement who kill unarmed African-American civilians in situations that do not warrant the use of deadly force.

Stephen Rankin and victim William Chapman
Slager's trial comes at a particularly prickly time for race relations here in America.

Aside from Donald Trump's divisive language, overt pandering to intolerance and open calls for voter intimidation based on race, other high-profile trials of police officers who've shot unarmed people of color have been in the media spotlight as well.

Demand for police accountability is intense, and some juries have shown a willingness to deliver it when appropriate.

For example back in August, a jury found Portsmouth, Virginia police officer Stephen Rankin guilty of voluntary manslaughter for shooting and killing 18-year-old African-American William Chapman in the parking lot outside of a Walmart after Rankin stopped him for suspicion of shoplifting and a physical confrontation ensued.

No definitive evidence that Chapman had actually shoplifted anything from the store was found and interestingly, the jurors who decided the case were not permitted to consider that Rankin had also shot and killed 26-year-old Kirill Denyakin back on April 23, 2011.

Denyakin was intoxicated at the time but he was also unarmed.

Rankin was just the second member of American law enforcement to be found guilty of one of the numerous unjustified killings of unarmed black citizens in 2015.

Robert Bates and Eric Courtney Harris
You may recall the case of Robert Bates, the wealthy 74-year-old insurance company CEO who also served as a reserve sheriff's deputy for the Tulsa County (Oklahoma) Sheriff's Office.

Bates had served as a sheriff's deputy for a year back in the 60's and became an avid supporter of the Tulsa Sheriff's Office; donating large sums of his own money for the purchase of equipment etc.

On April 2, 2015, two days before Michael Slager fatally shot Walter Scott in the back in Charleston, South Carolina, Tulsa Sheriffs were conducting a sting operation to catch 44-year-old Eric Courtney Harris illegally selling a gun.

When Harris jumped out of the car with the undercover deputy and tried to flee, officers briefly chased and then tackled him on the ground. Bates, who'd been nodding off in a police vehicle nearby, jumped out and ran over to assist the other deputies subduing Harris.

He reached down to pull out what he claimed he thought was his taser, but instead pulled out his loaded Smith & Wesson .357 handgun and shot Harris point blank in the back - if you've seen any of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry films you have some idea of what a point blank shot from a .357 will do to the human body.

Police body-cam which recorded the shooting famously caught Bates saying, "Oh, I shot him! I'm sorry."

An all-white jury did find Bates guilty of second degree murder, but it is of interest to note that the population of Tulsa, Oklahoma is about 63% white, 16% black and 5% Native American.

Murder suspect Timothy Foster
As shown in the trials of both Michael Slager and Robert Bates, if you look at the jury selection in cases where white police officers kill black civilians here in the U.S., the disturbing pattern of excluding African-Americans from juries is repeated with alarming regularity.

Last year the Supreme Court reversed the 1987 conviction of African-American Timothy Foster because Georgia prosecutors excluded blacks from the jury selection in his trial for the murder of an elderly white woman.

As Michael Mechanic observed in an article for Mother Jones, "Foster was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury after prosecutors used their so-called peremptory strikes to disqualify all the blacks in the jury pool."

Foster won't just walk free, he will be retried.

As journalist Adam Liptak observed in an August 16, 2105 New York Times article, research that shows that prosecutors in some southern states use preemptory challenges to exclude black jurors at far higher rates "is consistent with patterns researchers found in Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina, where prosecutors struck black jurors at double or triple the rates of others."  

As Liptak noted in the Times article:

"As police shootings of unarmed black men across the country have spurred distrust of law enforcement by many African-Americans, the new findings on jury selection bring fresh attention to a question that has long haunted the American justice system: Are criminal juries warped by racism and bias?"

That question is one the Supreme Court and indeed other courts, lawyers and legal advocates around the nation have been wrestling with as they try to tackle wide disparities in the U.S. justice system based on race.

As they well should - according to data tracked by The Counted, as of the end of August, "officers in at least 485 different fatal shootings had been cleared of any wrongdoing." 

The right to a fair trial by an impartial jury of one's peers is enshrined in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, but like other components of the American legal system, access to that right often seems to depend on the race and ethnicity of both the victim, and the defendant.

The outcome of the Slager trial, like the outcome of this Tuesday's election, should be instructive.

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