Allan Lengel's May 5 Outlook article, "The Verdict: Race Mattered," paints a disturbing picture of how some African American jurors in this city excuse defendants accused of felony crimes by using a set of race-based presuppositions to ignore the law, any inconvenient facts presented in court and, as the judge in this case observed, the logic of a "reasonable person."
The rationalization for such abandonment of law, fact and logic, we are told by an African American woman -- "a Clinton political appointee" who served on that jury -- is that even an open-minded white juror "lacked a lot of information about the community and mentality of the African Americans." Another African American woman on the jury, described as a lawyer, justified her actions by a concern for "the big picture."
What is most dismaying about these two women is their presumption that a mentality that undeniably exists in part of the African American community is, in fact, the mentality of the community and, moreover, is morally valid. May I suggest that the true "big picture" is quite different from what these women imagine and that the mentality they defend is uninformed and ultimately dangerous to the African American community itself? If they doubt this, they can contact a notable member of that community, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, formerly U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who has spoken several times about "the problem" of jurors who ignore law, fact and logic. As for the article's author, Allan Lengel, he should not have compromised with such jurors.
Finally, someone in the Clinton administration should make sure that this political appointee is straightened out on this issue.
If I were to write an article about my jury duty in the District, a good headline would be "The Verdict: Race Played No Part."
In March of this year, I served for five days on a predominately black federal District Court jury hearing the case of a black defendant charged with possession of cocaine and heroin packaged for street sale and possession of a concealed, loaded handgun. I was the only white male on the jury, which -- as I recall -- was composed of three whites and nine African Americans. The prosecutor was white, the arresting officers and prosecution witnesses were a mix, the judge, defense attorneys and defense witnesses were black.
Like Mr. Lengel, I am a journalist (now retired from daily reporting) who has reported on the criminal justice system, both in my native Ohio and in the Washington area as a bureau reporter. Like Mr. Lengel, I have covered trials where race probably did matter. But unlike Mr. Lengel I was concerned from the start that race might play a role in the case I was to decide. Two or perhaps as many as three of the jurors fit the profile of "black grandmothers," who reputedly are loath to convict young black men, especially when white police officers are involved in the investigation and arrest.
When I arrived at the courthouse on the morning of the fifth day of trial, I still had not yet made up my mind as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant, as the defense had indicated additional witnesses would testify. I thought perhaps questions might be raised as to whether evidence had been planted and whether the warrantless search of the defendant's automobile was legal. Having testified during an Ohio civil trial involving clear police misconduct and subsequent perjury, I would have been sensitive to both arguments.
But the defendant's two lawyers, who appeared generally competent, raised neither issue and rested without calling additional witnesses. The defense was based mainly on an assertion that the defendant's cousin had possession of the defendant's car for a few hours prior to the arrest and could have been responsible for the drugs and handgun. The defendant's mother, with whom he lived and who might have offered testimony helpful to the defense concerning additional evidence found in the defendant's bedroom, was present but did not testify.
We the jury retired, elected a young black male juror as foreman and after a brief discussion free of racial context or overtones reached a guilty verdict on all counts in less than an hour.
Sometimes the system does work smoothly, even in Washington.
RICHARD G. ZIMMERMAN