Today, I was surprised, but not necessarily disappointed, to see that Michelle Carter was found guilty of the involuntary manslaughter of her suicidal boyfriend. As she under 18-years-old at the time of the crime, she was tried in a juvenile court and did not face a jury. This groundbreaking ruling has the potential to criminalize persuasion of suicide. Given the rise of cyber bullying and the perceived anonymity of the Internet, this could prove to be an invaluable precedent.
Also today, I was not necessarily surprised, but disappointed, to see that Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter in the shooting of Philando Castile. Why disappointed? Because the case involved the death of yet another black man by a police officer. A traffic stop– induced by racial profiling– turned deadly after Philando faithfully informed the officer of the licensed weapon in his car and, just as anyone would, reached for his license. In “self defense”, the officer fired not one, but SEVEN shots into the vehicle as his 4-year-old daughter sat in the back seat. Despite Philando Castile’s girlfriend posting a Facebook Live video of the incident, Yanez was still found “not guilty”.
America’s Bill of Rights entitles citizens to a “speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.” Public, sure. Speedy, debatable. But impartial? This aspect is as undefined as it is unenforced.
This week at Dade Legal Aid, Elaine and I were fortunate enough to be invited to court with Judge Martin Zilber, who would be hearing a case on aggravated battery. From 10am until nearly 4pm, we sat in the courtroom as opposing arguments were delivered. Both the state prosecutor and criminal defense lawyers presented what I thought were very compelling arguments. Since there must be a unanimous choice, if I were a juror I’d eventually either a) succumb to popular opinion or b) relentlessly deliberate like Bill Cosby’s jury, which has been deadlocked for the last 50 hours.
I’ve only been called for jury duty once, but was “fortunately” out of the country and was excused from appearing. While I originally dreaded the occasion because it might ruin my plans, I now dread it because it will impact someone’s entire life. In this week’s case, the defendant was found guilty of aggravated battery, which is accompanied by a minimum 10-year sentence in Florida.
Thanks to a few of my Duke courses, I know a great deal about the flaws of our justice system– namely, the terrifying statistics that surround the incarceration of black men. The jury in Judge Zilber’s case had just one black man. Implicit and explicit racial bias by primarily white juries leaves such defendants more likely to be found guilty AND receive a longer sentence upon that determination.
The jury that found Yanez not guilty had just two black men. In the U.S., black men are 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by an officer; when paired with the fact that just 20% of officers charged with killing while on-duty are actually convicted, it’s easy to see why this tragic phenomenon continues.
Juries hold great power in determining the future of individuals, families, communities, and our country as a whole. And with great power, comes great responsibility. For the majority of Americans, this power is plagued by implicit bias and disparity in jury selection.
How to remedy this fatal flaw? The jury is still out.