It was a very interesting case that I defended last week. Let's start at the end. There was one African-American juror, and the rest were white. Our trial was in a suburban Atlanta courtroom in a community that was rural fifteen years ago.
After deliberating for fifteen minutes, the African American juror was elected foreperson, and she delivered a not guilty verdict.
The judge was white, the prosecutor African-American American, the bailiffs were white, and the judge was white. The defense attorney (me) is a white man. The arresting officers white. The defendant a Hispanic school teacher who grew up in Queens, New York, in "public housing," according to his testimony. He grew up and became a special education teacher. His principal testified to his character, as did his pastor, as did his friend and co-worker. Everybody smiled to talk about him and his work with children.
The charge. An off-duty officer claims that he didn't like the way my client was driving. He calls 911 and asks a fellow officer to pull him over because "he'd like a word with him." He writes on his police report that he is a black male. He's not a black male.
Four fellow officers are dispatched. The first to arrive yanks him out of his car, slams him into the door, and forcefully cuffs him. My client is roughed up.
In his defense, the man offers up, "I haven't done anything. I'm a teacher. I'm a teacher"
The off-duty officer screams at him, "I don't care if you're teacher. I don't care if you're a nigger. I don't care if you're a Jew. You're going to jail."
To cover up for beating up the man, the police claim that he "obstructed" them by resisting arrest. Why exactly was he under arrest?
The jury saw it clearly.
The prosecutor went forward after the officer was caught making up things that didn't correspond to the 911 tape (he didn't know I had the 911 tape and felt free to lie at will).
The prosecutor became indignant in her closing and accused me, the defense attorney, of "playing the race card." After the fifteen minute not guilty verdict she left the room. No after-the-trial handshake and polite, "good job."
The arrest, by the way, took place one day after the presidential election.
Race has a place in our courtrooms, particularly when it motivates those in our justice system to act with injustice. While it should not be a tool for manipulation, we should never fear bringing it up. To deny it when it exists is to do an injustice to more than my client. And when I can countenance not bringing up race, particularly when it is the big ugly elephant in the room and when it motivates brutality against an innocent man, is the day I should surrender my bar card.