Friday, July 9, 2010

Thoughts on the Mehserle verdict

Former BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police Officer Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter yesterday.

Mehserle shot and killed BART rider Oscar Grant on New Year's Day 2009. A number of riders witnessed the shooting, including one who captured the incident with a cell phone video camera. The video was played repeatedly on local newscasts and undoubtedly contributed to the decision to change the trial's venue to Southern California.

The footage convinced many that Mehserle shot deliberately, so the verdict was something of an unwelcome surprise. A protest erupted in downtown Oakland earlier tonight, reportedly degenerating into looting of at least a couple of businesses.

I don't understand how you can justify trashing somebody's business (or home, for that matter) when you're supposedly angry about a verdict that is totally unrelated to that business. It happens all over the world, so it must be something quite fundamental in human nature that prompts this stupidity -- but it's sad that innocent parties whose buildings and property happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time end up paying for our primitive behavior.

However, what prompted me to comment on this case was not the violent protest, but the implication that "the system" once again failed a black victim:
John Burris, an Oakland attorney representing Grant's family, decried "a true compromise verdict."

"The system is rarely fair when a police officer shoots an African American male," Burris said. "No true justice has been given." Grant was African American and Mehserle is white.

Grant's uncle, Cephus "Bobby" Johnson, said that "we knew from the beginning that we were at war with the system. ... We have been slapped in the face by this system that has denied us true justice."

I didn't follow the trial so I don't know where Burris or Johnson saw bias. However, it's likely their remarks encompass the jury, which included no African Americans. This dearth at first blush lends credence to Burris' and Johnson's accusations. Yet how likely is it that the jury consisted only of racists and spineless cowards content to be led by those racists?

Perhaps Burris and Johnson see the non-African American community not as crudely racist, like the Ku Klux Klan, but as blindly racist -- unaware of their own bias, yet biased all the same. That might indeed account for the verdict.

I think there's another possible explanation. Mehserle asserted that he mistook his pistol for his Taser, pulling the wrong weapon out. This may sound ludicrous to you; I'm sure it sounded unbelievable to Grant's family. However, there's no way to know how it sounded to the jury.

More generally, it's next to impossible to have the same perspective as the jury without being a juror. Jurors see and hear only what the trial judge permits: they're not necessarily present for the entirety of the trial. They are supposed to ignore news reports about the trial while they are empanelled. Their deliberations are guided by specific restrictions, embodied in the instructions they receive from the judge.

I served on the jury in a murder case. None of us had wanted to serve: we all had jobs and lives that would suffer, and I'm sure more than a few of us didn't want the burden of deciding someone else's guilt or innocence. Yet once we were picked, we took the oath seriously. If, like me, your closest exposure to a murder trial is a rerun of Law & Order, there's something about the atmosphere of the courthouse and a trial that makes it unthinkable to be anything but earnest and honest.

A few of my fellow jurors were jocular enough at lunches and during breaks in the trial, but as soon as we got down to deliberating, we all became deadly serious. None of us was a lawyer, but we spent a fair amount of time pondering and parsing the language of the jury instructions. There were fine distinctions to be made between the charges of murder and manslaughter, and even finer distinctions between first- and second-degree murder, and voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. We rehashed the facts adduced at trial, and had to determine who was to be believed and to what degree. At times, our deliberations became heated: we would disagree over how to interpret an instruction, or whether a witness had asserted some fact, or, worst of all, what to do about seemingly critical missing information.

As in the Mehserle case, the defendant in our case was convicted, but not for the highest count of first-degree murder. According to subsequent news accounts, the victim's family was disappointed and angered by our decision. Not all of us jurors were thrilled by it, either. Yet whatever our shortcomings as jurors and as a jury, we did our best to render a verdict that accorded with the facts we had and the instructions we were given.

The Mehserle decision isn't what a lot of people expected or wanted, but not being on that jury, I can't second-guess it.

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