A few years ago, I defended a black man, who was charged with murder in connection with the death of a white woman.
I had won murder trials before, but on the morning of any serious trial…..as you first stand up to address the pool of possible jurors in jury selection….you get a little nervous.
As the Judge afforded me the opportunity to begin questioning of the jury pool numbering near a hundred, I slowly arose from the defense table and scanned the packed courtroom, all prospective jurors, a few of whom I knew and many I did not.
I knew I was prepared and I told myself, “I’ve done this literally scores of times successfully in the past. I’ll do okay.”
I laid my little yellow pages of metilicously prepared questions on the podium to begin the selection of jurors--questions I had spent hours preparing about their experiences with the law, knowledge of the case which had been on television and in the papers, and their feelings about legal principles such as reasonable doubt.
I first asked my client to stand so that I could introduce him to this crowd of near 100, twelve of whom would judge his life. And then, I felt a deep sinking feeling and a voice in my head told me that “I’ve got a big problem.”
You see my client was black. And he was dark. And he was big.
Of course, I knew those things before.
But in this moment, I looked first at the prosecutor table where two lawyers and their assistant were seated. They were white.
I then looked at the row of police officers numbering six, all of whom were white.
I look at the bailiffs standing beside the bench, two of them, both white.
I looked at the bench, the clerk and judge, all white except the black robe.
I looked out at this courtroom full of possible jurors and I recognized one gentleman seated on the back row who I attended high school with. I noticed him quickly because he was the only one who was not…. White.
My first thought was…. Robert Redford. You got it. Robert Redford in Legal Eagles. The opening statement when it was obvious that the whole jury was convinced of his client’s guilt, before they even heard the case. And Redford in distress said something to the effect of “why bother with this trial charade, lets just find him guilty and get on with the sentencing?”
Redford is interrupted by a juror who exclaims, “but isn’t the defendant supposed to get a fair trial?’
I was no Robert Redford, and my client was damn sure, no, Daryl Hanna.
But I thought of Redford’s juror that seemed so interested in a “fair trial.”
Having now abandoned my well prepared notes, I picked a young woman prospective juror, who I thought by appearance anyway, might be slightly timid in this environment.
Ms. Jones, I blurted, “How would you feel.” If you were on trial for your life, for killing a black person, and you are white skinned?”
“And your lawyer and his investigator are black.”
“These able prosecutors over here, they are black.”
“These six police officers trying to convict you, are black.”
“ The bailiffs here to keep the peace are all black.”
“The Clerk and the Judge overseeing the case are black.”
Oh, but this is a trial by a JURY!
And except for that one white spot, my friend, Mr. Henderson, in the back of the room, THEY are all black.”
“Ms Jones, how would that make you feel?”
“I would be scared to death,” she muttered.
I paced for a few moments nodding my head in agreement.
“How about you Miss Jackson?” “How would that make you feel, on trial for your life and EVERYONE who had anything to do with it, was ALL BLACK?”
I asked four or five more jurors the same question with the same response before I again paced for a few more moments, nodding my head in agreement.
It was very quiet.
I recognized as a juror… a high school teacher who I knew would be versed in such things as “social studies.”
“Mr. English!“ I asked. “What are we going to do about it? What can we do about it ?”
“Well, Mr. English said, we can make sure there is proof….proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
I was able to get a few other jurors who I knew from investigation were attuned to such things as the presumption of innocence.
This may be the only case I’ve seen where the jury presented most of the defense theories in the jury selection process.
In this case, a few days later, the jury acquitted my client of murder.
The import of this case, however, in terms of race and justice and the point of “black lives matter,” at least from my perspective, can be summed up, but asking yourself…. the same question I asked those jurors: “How would you feel?”