I had the honor this past week of serving on a jury trial in my current home city of Vallejo, California. Yes, that Vallejo. The city with the distinction of being the most racially diverse city in the United States. And we are known for a number of other things, as well. Most of which are not on the positive side of the ledger…
What was initially surprising was how quickly the 12 jurors were selected. Only two of the initial 13 randomly selected jurors, 12 plus one alternate, were excused, due to their comments made on a questionnaire, as well as their replies when queried by the judge about those statements. Some of their comments were quite hilarious. It opened my eyes again, to how non-conforming many people walking among us are.
Our case was a criminal one, which involved a young woman who had been charged with obstructing, resisting or delaying an officer in the performance of his duty, and also charged with possessing a device that is used to smoke a controlled substance. The judge, in giving his instructions, told us it would likely be only a single day trial. The DA’s office was seeking to uphold the charges made by the arresting officers who work in a different city in Solano County. The defendant was being represented by a public defender.
Now that the 12 of us are confirmed and sworn in, we begin to hear the opening statements as presented by the prosecuting and defending attorneys. They both make their cases as to how the events transpired and what the defendant did to provoke her being arrested and charged. I listened intently, and with an open mind, so as to not form any bias or opinion. Yet.
The only witnesses that testify are two of the four officers who were present during this interaction and arrest. We heard their testimonies and were allowed to watch footage from the body camera of the main arresting officer. I now see how valuable having audio and video from those cameras can be. It clearly shows the actions of the officers and the young woman being charged. It would play a pivotal role in our decision-making.
After closing comments from both attorneys, we are then ushered into the deliberation room…somewhere deep in the bowels of this county building. So, here we are, twelve individuals who will determine whether or not this woman actually committed a crime or two. Or not. I think I know how I will cast my vote. But, having been part of a jury in Oakland 25 years ago, and knowing how important it is to not be locked into my position prior to our discussions, I plan to listen to my fellow jurors concerns.
As was the case in 1992, I was selected as foreman of this jury. Not sure if that is due to my silver hair, or my prior experience as foreman 25 years earlier…but, whatever the motives, I accept the designation by the group, and now we begin.
I lay out the parameters by which we should begin to discuss what we heard and saw in testimony from the witnesses and presented by both attorneys. And I reminded everyone that we must only consider those elements as we decide the fate of the defendant.
As I scan this room of my fellow jurors, it is truly one that exemplifies the rich and emerging diversity that is Vallejo, and I hope, America. We have three middle-aged Asian men, two young Latino men, a working mother from Fiji, two middle-aged African-American men, a 7 months pregnant Black woman, a young Asian/Caucasian bi-racial 19 year old, me…and one White male.
It becomes apparent early in this process that a couple of my fellow jurors already have their minds made up. In our discussions on both counts of which we are deliberating, they are certain that the arresting officer is to be trusted. That his accounts of what occurred that afternoon is good enough for them, and this young woman, who we are told was either on drugs or suffering with a mental illness, is guilty. I have my doubts.
My first concern is to what this woman was obstructing, delaying or resisting. She had committed no crime…but wait. We were told that there was a glass pipe found on her person during the arrest. It was confiscated by one of the officers. It is illegal to have one of these in your possession in California. Yet, these pipes are sold, legally, in numerous smoke shops throughout the county. Does this seem oddly ironic to anyone else?
That pipe. That legally sold item, but illegally possessed by the defendant, was never produced as evidence, due to it’s being broken while in the pants pocket of one of the officers on scene that afternoon. As with all controlled substance containers, which become either broken or contaminated, it must be discarded using universal precautions. Meaning; it is placed into a locked sharps container, and thus not available for our observations. And, to our chagrin, we never see nor hear on the body cam video, any mention of the discovery of said pipe. When was it found? And how? Clank.
Somewhere in our discussions, the OJ Simpson trial came up. I allowed it to go on for a few minutes before I decide to reel us back in. However, I wanted to share one element from that debacle from 1995, which might be good for us to consider. The Los Angeles PD had plenty to learn from that experience, not the least of which is that evidence must not be tainted, nor ever allow it to appear to have been compromised. The blood samples gathered at the crime scene were not taken directly to the LAPD lab for processing, but had been left overnight in the trunk of one of the officer’s vehicle. That was one of the major tears in the prosecutions attempt to convict Simpson… And here we are, 22 years later with an officer not properly securing evidence. Funny, how history can truly give us lessons to use going forward. A funny side note; at least one of our jurors was not yet born during that historic trial.
It became apparent, once again, that at least two of my fellow jurors were already in the mindset to trust the officers’ testimonies and move to a guilty verdict. Up to this point in our being together in deliberations, I have not yet called for a vote. But, I could read the body language and hear their comments, and knew that these two were locked in. Guilty.
It was decided that we would focus upon the first count, that of obstructing, delaying and resisting the officer in his duties. Once we had watched the video footage, it was apparent that the defendant was not in her right mind during the entirety of the encounter. Was she high on drugs? Does she have a mental illness?
We debated on what the officer could have done differently; to engage with her better, to keep her from running into the mid-afternoon traffic on a busy downtown street, and once detained, to decipher what she was saying…which none of us could comprehend.
After 15 minutes of this debate, I called for a vote. I asked if anyone was uncomfortable with a visible vote, by a show of hands, on which way each person would cast his or her vote. All were in favor of this method. I had offered to use slips of paper, which would allow for anonymity. They trusted me, and each other, to where that was not needed. All hands were raised when I asked was she guilty on count one.
This is where, I believe, the best part of what our nation can provide in this judicial process can be found. I had gone into the deliberation room prepared to vote not guilty on both counts…more because of my belief that too many cops are trying to make a name for themselves at the expense of poor people and people of color, many of whom cannot afford proper legal representation. As a Black man of more than 60 years of living, I know all too well how many people have been falsely accused and convicted by “dirty cops.” Through the discussions that we engaged in today, I was willing to see it from another perspective. And thus, I changed my vote to guilty on count one.
Now, it’s time to wade into the deep waters on count number two.
I had taken time, during the course of the courtroom presentations that morning, to observe the activity and demeanor of the defendant. I wanted to get a feel for her state of mind…was she a person whom the matters of life have broken? Was she a drug-addicted woman for whom treatment in a program is warranted? I wanted to have that sense when it came time to cast a vote which could possibly send her to jail versus to a place where she could receive counseling and, possibly, a fresh start.
As a nation we are now in the thralls of tRump and his band of billionaire pirates, with daily tweets about all sorts of unimportant, and often trivial, national matters. One that is currently on the front page is the epidemic of persons addicted to opioid painkillers. Those beta-blocking miracle drugs which far too many physicians have been prescribing to any and every one with a bad back, strained shoulder or broken life.
Yet, prior to this latest epidemic, which is the name given for anything that is grossly impacting the White community in negative ways, it had been the addiction to methamphetamines. The suburban communities albatross to what crack cocaine has been in the poor and Black communities. Deceit. Destroyed lives. Death.
We must now seek to determine whether the defendant was in possession of a pipe that is used for smoking meth. We know that there was a pipe. Both attorneys had attested to that. What I am troubled by, in my Johnny Cochran mind, is why there is no photograph of this broken pipe? Heck, every cell phone today is equipped with a camera. If the pipe was broken in the pants pocket of the second officer, when it was extracted, why not snap a few date and time stamped photos for evidence. He should have known better. Really.
On the witness stand he spoke of how, during his two years on the force, he had made at least 50 arrests of persons who used some sort of controlled substances. He knew the signs. He knew the look. He just didn’t know how to properly secure this pipe. Like the hungry pit bull with a piece of meat, I was not letting go of this discrepancy. And, to my surprise, neither were the majority of my fellow jurists. Except, the lone white male. Then it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.
This is that place where he is not in the majority in a room. He is not in charge. This is unfamiliar territory. He cannot fathom that an officer who looked like him, who may have plenty in common with him, would not be trusted. This is how officers who murder unarmed and innocent Black men and women can be acquitted. Are acquitted. Are released even when video shows the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
He was the only juror who, after all of our discussions on the lack of physical evidence of a pipe, held onto the “circumstantial evidence” bone. Even other jurors appealing to him using various scenarios could not sway his opinion. I smiled inside. For now, I can see clearly. Whether in Omaha, Baltimore or San Francisco, a jury that is not made up of the broad backgrounds and experience of our unique communities, will never reject the “honest cop” mentality and serve justice to those who are voiceless. We decided upon a not guilty to count two; 11 to 1. We made the call to the bailiff. We are ready.
The presiding judge reviewed the documents that I had submitted, and asked me if this is our decision. I assured him yes, it is. As the counts, and our choices were read, I watched the faces of the legal team and the defendant. The arresting officer was not present. I wonder if he had concluded that all would just go according to the norm.
The judge thanked us for our time and service to the process. He also stated that he would do his best to refer the defendant to get the proper help; whether for her drug addiction and/or mental health challenges. Once again, I smiled. We had made the right choices.
Outside the courtroom I thanked each juror for their assistance in this judicial proceeding. I was not able to connect with the lone hold out…whether he was avoiding me or me not wanting to see him, I am not sure. Whatever the case, I believe that justice was served today, and that the men and women who allowed me to guide them in this process have gained immeasurable insight into what can make this nation great. It is my prayer that each of them will return home and share this experience with their family and friends, and implore them to not shy away from serving on a jury when summoned. It could make the difference between someone getting a fair trial or being another casualty in our ever-growing prison population.
And for my brother from another Caucasian mother, he has now tasted the bitter fruit of this yet-imperfect judicial system, when the control is out of your hands and the tables are turned.