Until the third day of jury deliberations, the racial divisions among us were present but never decisive. It was easy for us to agree on the minor charges. Then came a vote before the weekend recess on who was willing to convict on any of the more serious counts: six whites, guilty; six blacks, not guilty. I felt as if an elephant had trampled through the room.
That was nearly four months ago, in late January. I was sitting on a jury in D.C. Superior Court and we were hearing a criminal case involving a shooting. In the weeks since our struggle to come up with a verdict, I've found myself looking back, trying to make sense of it all. Last Monday, when I went back to court to see the defendant being sentenced, I realized that although the case is settled, the questions in my mind are not.
As a reporter, I'd covered courts for seven years in Detroit, a place as racially divided as any. I'd seen cases in which the system--not the defendant--was on trial. I well remember the racially charged trial of a black judge snagged in an FBI sting. A videotape showed the judge taking money to fix two traffic tickets. The defense lawyer suggested the FBI was targeting black officials.
During a break, the accused judge asked me to predict the outcome. I declined. He kept pressing: "Guilty or innocent?" "Guilty," I finally replied. The videotape was the key, I thought. "Wait and see," he said.
He was acquitted on four counts; the jury deadlocked on the fifth. He was retried and acquitted on the fifth count. Black defendant. White FBI agents. White prosecutors. I understood. When race is involved, all bets are off.
But this case in D.C. was different.
The victim was black. The defendant was, too. Ditto for the judge, the two prosecutors, the defense attorney and the witnesses, except for one of the two detectives. At trial, no one even mentioned race. Under the circumstances, I never imagined it would become a factor.
I was wrong. In time, as we discussed and debated the issues, it became clear to me that where white jurors saw a victim and an assailant, black jurors saw two victims of the system.
The case had seemed straightforward enough: A 25-year-old black man was accused of shooting a 20-year-old black man in Southeast Washington. The victim survived, but lost a kidney. But if the case itself was straightforward, the process of reaching a verdict was anything but.
The trial lasted three days. The defense attorney gave no opening statement, presented no evidence and no witnesses. His technique was simply to punch holes in the testimony of prosecution witnesses. I thought he did well under the circumstances. But he didn't persuade me.
The prosecution, on the other hand, had a good case, I thought. Not perfect, but few cases are. There was no gun. No bullets. No ballistics test. There were, however, some very credible witnesses, including the victim, who saw the defendant with a gun in his hand.
During the trial, I listened and jotted notes as the story emerged. The basic outlines of the narrative were not in dispute: On the evening of June 3, 1998, Kenneth Earl Barnes, the defendant, grabbed a 14-year-old girl's behind. The girl's 19-year-old friend, Tamieka Butler, started screaming at Barnes. A crowd gathered. Barnes pulled out a gun and started waving it around. People ran. Shortly after, around 9 p.m., Tamieka's brother, Michael Butler, came out of a nearby apartment building. He and Barnes talked, and Barnes suggested they go behind the building. Butler asked Barnes to stay away from his sister. The conversation apparently ended fairly amicably. "So you ain't got no beef?" Barnes asked Butler, to which Butler replied, "No."
This is where the testimony came into dispute: As Butler walked away--about 10 feet--he was shot in the back. "I bet you got a beef with this," Barnes said--at least according to Butler. Butler testified that he fell, then turned around and saw Barnes coming toward him, firing the gun again. Those bullets missed. Butler said he got up, ran to the front of the building and collapsed.
During cross-examination, Butler testified that he didn't actually see who had fired the shot that hit him, since he had his back turned.
The trial ended on a Wednesday afternoon. We returned to the jury room to begin deliberations. First, we picked a forewoman, a white woman who had volunteered. She worked for the Justice Department--not as an attorney, though in what capacity, I never knew. The decision seemed to suit everyone.
We deliberated for about an hour and a half, taking the easiest counts first: three misdemeanor charges dealing with gun possession. After some discussion, all concurred: We'd all been convinced by the testimony that Barnes had waved a gun in the crowd. We convicted Barnes on all three counts.
The next day, we delved into the heart of the case--five felony charges ranging from attempted murder to assault with a dangerous weapon. Our discussions soon began to break down--and they divided along racial lines. There was new acrimony in our voices. Most black jurors raised doubts. Most whites offered reasons to convict. At times, the deliberations almost seemed to replay the trial, with white jurors acting as prosecutors, black jurors as defense attorneys.
I began to realize how naive I had been. I'd assumed some black jurors might harbor a distrust of the system, and that some whites might overlook concerns about how the system targets minorities. But I hadn't realized just how pervasive those mind-sets could be, how they would dominate our deliberations.
A black man in his forties, whose occupation never came up, was the strongest advocate of acquittal. He hailed from a neighborhood where, he told us, almost everyone carried a gun. Therefore, he argued, almost anyone could have shot Michael Butler. What's more, he said, Butler had smoked marijuana before the shooting and "marijuana messes up your vision."
To me, most of his reasoning seemed to be based on pure speculation. There was no testimony, no evidence, nothing to substantiate the notion that some other person might have fired the gun. As for the marijuana: It isn't a hallucinogenic, I argued.
A white female attorney chimed in. She was trying to be objective, she said, and the evidence clearly pointed to guilt. The black man in his forties shot back that all she thought about was "guilty, guilty." I could feel the tension mounting. Another black juror, an attorney for the Justice Department and the daughter of two police officers, said that from her perspective, the evidence was flimsy. She was skeptical of Butler's testimony. She said his vision was, in all likelihood, impaired by the marijuana. She pointed out that he hesitated on the witness stand during key testimony--a sign to her of his uncertainty about key events.
I saw it differently. To me he appeared nervous. Perhaps he was scared for his life, or his family. Plenty of witnesses have been harmed for testifying. The juror rejected that possibility. Guys like Michael Butler, she countered, "have no fear." I told her that just wasn't so. I felt she just assumed she understood Butler better than I or any other white juror. But it wasn't as if I were a white guy raised in the mountains of northern Idaho, I wanted to tell her. I'd attended a racially integrated public school near Detroit. My father owned a bar in the inner city. And I covered crime and other stories in neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast Washington. These shootings were happening almost every night in our community. As a police reporter for The Post, I had written about many of them. I, too, had knowledge that I could bring to bear on this trial.
I argued that it was very likely that Butler feared being labeled a snitch for testifying. The fortysomething black juror, who was sitting directly across from me, dismissed that outright. He started to rehash the whole case: Maybe Butler went behind the building to buy drugs from Barnes and got into an argument. "Yeah, yeah, that's it," another black man said. "Wait a minute," I said. "We have no evidence to suggest that happened."
By late Friday, I was frustrated and exhausted. It was then that we decided to take a vote to see who would convict on any of the felony charges. The divide fully crystallized: six whites for conviction; six blacks for acquittal. We recessed until Monday.
I spent the weekend questioning myself. Was I being a toady for the system? Were we white jurors too trusting, too willing to believe that the police had the right guy and had done a thorough investigation? Was I deaf to what the black jurors were saying? No, I concluded. The victim was a credible witness, and we shouldn't let the crime go unpunished. We had our community to think about. We had an obligation.
The arguments started anew when we returned on Monday. The black attorney questioned Butler's testimony once again. After all, she said, he couldn't even remember how much marijuana he had smoked. Then the white forewoman brought her own experience to bear on the trial. Twenty years ago, she quietly told us, she was assaulted and left for dead. She said she couldn't remember what she had for breakfast that morning, but she could recount with certainty every detail of the assault. Her hands trembled. Her eyes were watery. The room fell silent.
Shortly after, the black attorney said she was willing to compromise, and convict on one count, and just one count, of assault with a dangerous weapon--a charge which, at minimum, required us to find that Barnes had pointed the gun at Butler in a menacing fashion. Her influence with the other black jurors was indisputable. Two of the most adamant, the fortysomething juror and an elderly woman, agreed. The white jurors, who had fought strongly for the attempted murder charges, went along. We threw out the rest of the charges.
Several weeks later, I spoke to some of the jurors, both black and white. I asked the black attorney why she had changed her mind. She said she was concerned about a hung jury, and feared the defendant might be retried and convicted, or even railroaded on a more serious charge. "That ultimately is what convinced me," she said, "that I had to look at the big picture and think about that."
She and another black juror, a Clinton political appointee, told me they thought some of the white jurors were prejudiced. They realized the white lawyer had tried to be open-minded, but, said the political appointee, she "lacked a lot of information about the community and mentality of the African Americans." She told me that she didn't think I was prejudiced, but that I was clearly entrenched in the prevailing white opinion.
Those remarks made me think again. I tried to put myself in their place: If the defendant had been Jewish, as I am, and if I had sensed that some jurors were antisemitic, would I have been more defensive? Probably. But, given the evidence, I still couldn't see acquitting because of that.
I felt disappointed--and I wasn't alone. None of the jurors seemed totally satisfied with the compromise. The white lawyer told me "halfway through the deliberations, I felt the jury system didn't work at all. We did not follow the facts to the logical conclusion."
The judge all but confirmed those thoughts for me during the sentencing last week. After Barnes stood up and professed his innocence, with his mother looking on, the judge said that a reasonable person could have concluded from the evidence that he had shot Michael Butler. Barnes was sentenced to 5 1/3 to 12 1/3 years in prison.
It was over. And in some senses, I was relieved. But I remain bothered by the process, and by a gnawing sense that race kept us from dealing openly with the facts. I don't think the elephant that trampled into the jury room is going away any time soon.
Allan Lengel, a general assignment reporter for The Post's Metro section, covers the city at night.