Tuesday, July 16, 2013
The Criminal Justice System
Several years ago, I was called for jury duty. I was hoping to weasel out of it - not get called to be interviewed, and if interviewed, rejected as inappropriate for jury service. Civic duty disrupts daily routines at times, and jury duty is an extreme example of that disruption. I was even more selfish back then than I am today; I didn't want to be bothered with civic duty.
As luck would have it, I got picked to serve on a jury. I was selected to hear the case of a guy who allegedly committed criminal sexual assault and rape. I was selected as an alternate juror - the "13th juror" who stands by, hears the evidence and joins deliberations if one of the original 12 folks fall ill or can't continue for some reason. If no one falls out of the 12 serving jurors, the alternatives are released when the jury goes to the jury room to deliberate.
I heard the evidence, saw the pictures and formed an opinion. The defendant seemed guilty to me; his defense was that the sex was consensual but he did not seem to be someone that would generally be popular with women. He also admitted that he was in a possession of a semiautomatic pistol at the time of the alleged assault, which he claimed that he set down on the bed and did not use in a threatening manner. The victim seemed very credible and real to me - she appeared to be struggling with her emotions, and I thought it took a significant amount of courage to confront her alleged assailant in open court.. This was a crime that occurred in one of the toughest, poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. Both the plaintiff and the defendant were African Americans. The jury was diverse - black, white, female , male, Hispanic, Asian. After listening to hours of testimony, some of it quite graphic and dramatic, the case went to the jury. I was not needed and they sent me on my merry way. The bailiff said "Call this number tomorrow after noon if you want to learn the verdict."
Before I left, I heard the judge's instructions to the jury. He said many things that I don't recall, but one theme stuck in my mind. He reminded the jury, in very firm fashion, that in order to convict, they must conclude that the defendant's guilt has been proven.
When I called in the next day, the verdict was "not guilty." I was amazed!!! The defendant seemed way, way guilty to me. I complained about the outcome to a lawyer friend of mine - he said something that is true, but we often forget. In our criminal justice system, "Not Guilty" really means "Guilt has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt." I was pretty sure that the defendant was guilty, but "pretty sure" is not supposed to be the standard applied by juries during deliberations.
This system is supposed to protect those accused of a crime from being wrongly convicted. Of course, it doesn't work all the time. I think the system often lets guilty people off the hook, and it sometimes convicts wrongly despite the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard.
So here are a few questions:
Why do black folks and white folks accused of the same crimes under similar circumstances end up getting vastly different outcomes from the criminal justice system?
Why did a cop in lily-white Wilmette IL pull me over when I was driving home (legally and carefully) after a gig a few years ago? Why did he shine his hellaciously bright flashlight into the car to illuminate my passenger - the guitar player in my band, who is African American? Why did he give me a long look and say, "Oh, uh well we had a report of a crime and uh you matched the description but uh never mind good night."? My guitar player laughed at my outrage afterward and said "Welcome to my world. I'm glad you were driving."
Why does anyone suggest that "racism is not a problem anymore?" I haven't heard any black people say that, ever.
The scientist Rita Levi Montalcini allegedly said, "There is only one race: the human race." I believe that this obvious truth will be eventually embraced by almost every person on Earth, but the acceptance process is slow, painful and frustrating.