It's common knowledge that in the United States those tried for crimes have the right to have cases heard by a jury of their peers. But should juries also contain the peers of victims? Such is the argument being made in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer accused of killing Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man on a BART platform on New Year's Day 2009.
The trial began last week in Los Angeles, and Grant's relatives and supporters have loudly objected to the fact that no blacks are serving on the jury in the trial of Mehserle, who is white.
"With this jury, I'm not sure if they're going to understand what has happened to Oscar Grant," said Zeporia Smith, Grant's aunt.
The jury, selected after just one day of questioning by the prosecution and defense, includes eight women and four men. Seven of the jurors are white. Four are Hispanic, and one is of South Asian descent. Moreover, several jurors said they were friends of police officers or related to them.
"Let's look at it," said Jack Bryson, a friend of Grant. "We have mostly an all-white jury. White officer kills black man, black young man, so I mean, that's scary. It's like there's no fairness in this."
When I first learned that no blacks would serve on the jury, I was shocked as well. Unfortunately, there's a history in the U.S. of black life not being as valued as white life. Some of us have parents and grandparents who lived during the times when whites actually held lynching parties. White mobs would watch as blacks were strung up on trees, burned alive and otherwise tortured, and later send postcards of these heinous acts to friends and relatives. And during slavery, African Americans weren't considered full human beings but three-fifths the people that whites were. The legacy of this ugly history has been the countless cases in which law enforcement is accused of using excessive and deadly force against people of color with impunity.
As community activist and columnist Earl Ofari Hutcinson writes: "There have been hundreds of civilians killed by police officers in California in the past decade. Although, in many of the killings, the civilians gunned down were unarmed and not in the process of committing a crime, no officer has been charged with murder. Mehserle is the first in the past two decades to be charged."
In short, not only are there hundreds of cases involving police officers using excessive force against minority civilians, these cases overwhelmingly don't go to trial and, when they do, the officers typically aren't convicted. But Colorlines writer Julianne Hing argues that the outcome is the same even when juries do include blacks.
"The jury that acquitted the four New York police officers who killed Amadou Diallo was made up of four blacks and eight whites. ...What seems to be far more important is the race of the defendant; the defining strain in these cases is that the defendants were all white cops..."
The case of Johannes Mehserle differs from other high profile murder cases involving police officers in that the 28-year-old doesn't deny shooting and killing Grant. The defense's argument is that he did so by mistake, reaching for his gun when he meant to reach for his Taser. Of course, the victim's family doesn't buy this excuse nor do anti-police brutality activists. Also, videotaped footage reportedly records another cop on the scene using a racial slur during the incident. Surely black jurors would have a stronger reaction to such facts than non-black jurors. But let's just hope that in this case the jurors look beyond race and value the human life that was taken away and the family members still grieving the loss, as they would if Oscar Grant had been a young white father rather than a young black one.