It is impossible to watch the video of Philando Castile’s last moments on earth and not feel profoundly disturbed. There is no denying the horror and injustice that this young man’s life was obliterated over a broken taillight, especially after watching Castile, seated in his car, speaking calmly and pleasantly and clearly with no intent to cause harm, being shot repeatedly by an officer who had presumably received advanced training in managing conflict without using lethal force.
And yet a jury viewed the same footage--of Castile politely stating that he has a firearm but is not pulling it out, and the officer proceeding to fire seven shots at point-blank range—and found that officer not guilty either of manslaughter or of dangerous discharge of a firearm. That jury was composed of ten white and just two black Minnesotans, many of whom had previously expressed pro-police and pro-gun views.
Under these circumstances, it is natural to question not only whether police officers are adequately trained and vetted before being given extraordinary power over life and death, and being placed routinely into volatile situations that require the ability to stay calm under duress. It is normal to wonder not only at the institutional racism that transforms innocent people into suspects—suspects without rights to due process—if their skin happens to be black. It also calls into question whether our legal system, wherein regular people with no special knowledge of the law, and whose biases, prejudices, and preconceived notions of justice reflect those of the society at large, are called upon to decide complex cases with enormous bearing on people’s lives.
The latter question brings to mind my own experience on a jury, which decided a domestic violence case in which the defendant was accused of throwing his ex-girlfriend against a bookshelf, choking her, and punching her in the face repeatedly following a dispute about cleaning up after a holiday dinner. In the end, after two days of deliberations in which it happened that the members of the jury who were loudest and most comfortable dominating a conversation were those who thought the defendant was not guilty, the jury returned that verdict. It remains one of my greatest shames that I, and the single other juror who felt as I did that it is in no way acceptable to leave a woman with bruises and welts on her face, neck, and back, did not stand up to those who literally said that the bruises visible in the photos did not indicate he’d hit her hard enough to be guilty.
But ultimately, the considerations that held sway in that deliberation room were many besides the desire to serve justice. One juror had a child’s birthday party to get home to, another an elderly mother. Who was I to make them put off those obligations? I, like every other person in that room, am a flawed human with no credentials or authority to decide matters of justice. In my case, the flaw that guided my conduct is a keen sense of anxiety about imposing on other people’s time. For many of my fellow jurors of both genders, theirs was an abiding mistrust of women who allege abuse by their partners.
What about Philando Castile’s jury? It seems likely that a majority of its members shared a bias in favor of police officers. Is it also possible that they shared a bias against black people, an inability to conceive of them as completely innocent no matter how deferentially they speak to officers? Is it possible that as residents of Minnesota, and in fact of the United States at this racially charged moment in time, it is impossible to assemble a jury that is free enough from racial bias to deliver a fair verdict for yet another black man or woman killed by a cop?
South Africa abolished juries in 1969 because in the midst of apartheid, mixed-race juries were inconceivable and all-white juries were recognized as unfair. Have we reached a state of such deep societal division that jury trials no longer serve us in the United States?
There are alternatives to the jury of peers, including systems that would allow for more thorough vetting of jurors, panels of trained and willing experts rather than of laypersons present against their will, or some combination thereof. Before too many more high-profile cases result in officer acquittals that beggar the imagination, it might be time to explore them.