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Ferguson’s (nearly) all-white jury: history and distrust

I woke up this morning and perused Facebook and news sites for the latest news out of Ferguson, Mo. Last night, prosecutors announced that a grand jury had failed to indict officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown.

This was one of the first things that popped into my feed:


The grand jury’s composition was already well known, as far back as the end of August. For many, the outcome here is likely not a surprise — a nearly all-white grand jury, where nine members were white and only nine votes were needed to indict, failed to return a true bill.

The grand jury’s vote tally hasn’t been released, and the prosecutor says it won’t be made public. Unless it leaks or members of the grand jury speak up themselves, we’ll likely never know how the vote actually went down.

But I saw the screen cap above and it sent chills down my spine. I can’t shake the eery feeling that something went horribly, horribly wrong.

There’s a reason for that distrust — and, as strongly as I experience it, that feeling pales in comparison to the feelings of people of color.

There’s no factual debate surrounding the source of this distrust: All-white juries — whether grand juries or trial juries — have not brought justice to black defendants or black victims. Instead, throughout most of American history, these juries have consistently upheld the legally-sanctioned and/or socially-accepted prejudices of their time.

Perhaps among the most infamous examples is the trial(s) of Mississippi white supremacist and Klansman Byron De La Beckwith.

Beckwith had been the one to pull the trigger in the June 12, 1963, assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Beckwith was tried twice in 1964. Both trials ended in hung juries. The jurors in both trials were all white and all male.

In 1994, eight black and four white jurors finally convicted Beckwith on first-degree murder, after new evidence arose in the case leading to a new trial.

Another historic anecdote again reveals reasons for this deep, decades-long sense of distrust in our justice system. In the years between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1966, one and only one white man, in Georgia in 1921, was ever convicted of murdering a black man. That’s despite the fact that 492 black people were victims of lynching in that state between 1882 and 1968.

All-white juries still today return possibly unjust outcomes.

A Duke University study in 2012 looked at hundreds of cases in Florida from 2000-2010. It found that all-white juries were 16 percent more likely to convict black defendants than white ones.

The same study found that adding just one black juror brought the conviction rates down to nearly the same level — 71 percent for black defendants and 73 percent for white defendants.

But most states require unanimous jury verdicts in criminal trials. The addition of one black juror could swing the rest of the jury during debate on which conviction to levy against a defendant.

That’s not the case with grand juries. In both federal and state courts, only a majority or supermajority, depending on jurisdiction, of grand jurors are needed to move a case forward to trial.

In Missouri, that number is nine. So, you see, given the history, why some might view the nine white grand jurors, see the requirement for nine votes and then find the whole system frustratingly, systemically distrustful and broken.

And all that’s on top of the tension that already exists in Ferguson, where the majority of residents are black, but the majority of their local government and law enforcement are white. Residents there have complained of racial bias and mistreatment by police for years. Michael Brown’s shooting was simply the catalyst to bring their complaints and experiences to the forefront of national discourse.

Some will want to ignore race or race-related issues in this ongoing debate. That can’t be done. It’s simply not possible. At no time in American history has race ever been ignored. It’s quite the opposite — race has been used as one of the primary motivating factors in determining freedom, the right to vote, criminal law and more.

You can put blinders on if you wish, but after four centuries of race-based policing, criminal policy, property-rights policy, slavery and disenfranchisement, a few recent decades of only partial steps toward justice aren’t going to solve these problems. These race-related conversations aren’t going away, and people have the right to be angry and distrustful. Our current legal and criminal justice, political and economic systems rest upon a centuries-old foundation originally and proactively designed to enslave them, then exploit them and then criminalize them.

Anger and distrust is what we need, for they will prove to be the impetuses toward true and lasting change.

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