Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Cops and juries



I try not to second-guess jury verdicts in trials I do not watch, as I know from the past decade as a criminal defense lawyer that what the jury sees and hears inside the courtroom is not always the same as what the public sees and hears outside the courtroom. When I found out the jury came back with a "not guilty" in the recent trial of Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop last year in Minnesota, I was saddened, but not surprised.

Over the years, almost every single time I've selected a jury or watched others select one, at least some of the potential jurors acknowledge after being questioned during the jury selection process that they tend to believe an officer's word over any other witness. Most of them are apologetic in their honesty, but here and there are those who are defiant and have clearly taken offense at the mere thought of a defendant exerting his or her Sixth Amendment right to a trial. I am always happy to hear honesty from potential jurors. The frightening alternative is that a juror is unwilling to admit or is unaware they carry that bias in favor of law enforcement. Either way, they cannot be fair if, at some point during the trial, an officer's word or actions are in question.  

It is hard to undo years of learning. From a young age, most of us are taught that there are those who are here to help: teachers, doctors, nurses, firefighters and police officers. For many, even when confronted with video or audio evidence, some still have a hard time overcoming this bias of trust and believe that someone, like a police officer, whose job it is to serve others would ever act in a manner inconsistent with that goal. Some will even go so far as to not believe an officer could make a mistake. I learned early in my career that if I could prove an officer was being untruthful or made an error during an investigation, I would be better off if I portrayed to the jury that the officer just made an honest mistake. That sometimes takes some mental and verbal gymnastics when the officer, in court, refuses to acknowledge the error or inconsistency, but the fact remains that it isn't wise to put some jurors in a position that, in order to find my client not guilty, they have to, as they perceive it, rule against the police. It's tough to hold my tongue sometimes, and it might be better in the long run to call it as I see it, but in that moment in trial, I have one job and that is to worry about the good of my client.

In Minnesota, just as in many recent trials all over the country, 12 jurors were asked to find that an officer committed a crime when he shot a black man during a routine stop. The jurors were asked to rule against the officer and find him guilty of manslaughter for killing Castile, or Mr. Phil as he was known to the students at the elementary school where he worked, while in the car with his fiancee and her daughter. Castile had a permit to carry a gun and told the officer he was carrying. For whatever reason, the jury could not or would not find that the evidence was enough to convict Yanez. I wasn't at the trial. I don't know what that jury heard and saw from the witnesses and attorneys. I couldn't say if the fact that some cannot overcome their trust and confidence in police as a whole contributed to the outcome.

I do know that, regardless of whether or not the jury rendered a decision in line with the evidence presented, to many people a clear message came out of that Minnesota courtroom: An officer can shoot a black man who is doing everything right and not be held accountable. I don't believe questioning this verdict or criticizing Officer Yanez is, as some would claim, an indictment or sweeping criticism of all police officers. But as we learn of another shooting this week in Seattle of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four, we have to find a way to talk about what is happening. We cannot as a country bury our heads in the sand and claim that the world is colorblind and that biases don't exist while ignoring the experiences of people of color. It is important for all of us who are hurt and frustrated by this verdict to stand and say that we believe Black Lives Matter and, despite what happened in that Minnesota courtroom last week, Philando Castile's life mattered, too.

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