Prospective juror #76 described himself as a quiet man who kept to himself and cheered for the Chicago Bulls. He said that he experienced discrimination every day as a Black man. Asked about his perception of MPD, he recalled living near 38thand Chicago when, after a Black man was murdered, MPD drove through the neighborhood playing, “Another One Bites the Dust.” He was removed by the defense in the Chauvin case because of his “bias” against MPD.
The law does not allow a prospective juror to be removed because of his race. The state’s lawyer expressed disappointment that #76 had been excused, but he did not challenge the defense’s use of a peremptory challenge under Batson. You may recall from a previous column that Batson is the fundamentally flawed U.S. Supreme Court case that requires the side removing the prospective juror to offer a “race-neutral” reason.
Usually, the Batson challenge is made against prosecutors who remove Black jurors, and they frequently cite negative experiences with the police or a poor perception of the criminal legal system as their “race-neutral” reasons.
What the courts have never acknowledged is that you can’t easily separate race from lived experience. Negative experiences with police can’t be race-neutral when they come with the color of your skin. That has never been more apparent than yesterday when #76 was excused from being a juror in the trial of Derek Chauvin because of his lived experiences as a Black man.
The defense asked #76 repeatedly whether he could set aside his observations of MPD and base his verdict on the evidence presented in the case. He said that he could, just like so many other prospective jurors who have walked through the courtroom doors with opinions. He also struck me as insightful and sincere.
Each person summoned for jury duty was asked on the questionnaire whether they wanted to be a juror in the Chauvin case. #76 wrote that he wasn’t sure. The case carried great weight he said, but he also pointed out that it might be good to be a juror to see how decisions are made in these kinds of cases, so he could explain to others. He had said earlier that he wondered why cases involving the deaths of Black men at the hands of police often turned out the way they did. If he had a mission, and it was not at all clear that he did, it was to better understand a system that so often fails people with darker skin, not to see that Derek Chauvin was convicted.
There was a particularly hard-to-witness exchange when the defense lawyer told #76 that he was entitled to his opinions, but that he needed to know whether he could base his verdict on the evidence. #76 responded that he was just trying to be honest about his experiences, as though he had to justify witnessing MPD rolling through his neighborhood engaging in appalling behavior.
I knew the defense was going to strike this juror, as the rules allow. But while the lawyers and judge talked outside of our hearing, I had this sense that we might be witnessing a pivotal moment. Yes, #76 had experienced bad behavior by members of the MPD, but he agreed that he would base his verdict on the evidence he heard in this specific case.
In my experience in jury selection, many Black men, understandably, acknowledge that they can’t set aside their views. Yet, #76 had said this, quite convincingly in my opinion. For me, the pivotal question was whether the judge would allow #76 to be excused from the Chauvin jury because of his lived experience as a Black man. For a moment, I had hope.
Unfortunately, the answer was yes.
I wondered how he felt being excused. I didn’t have to wonder how some of my Black friends felt about #76 being excused because I heard from them. Nor did I have to look far to see the reactions of some members of our Black community. No one was positive about jury selection, this trial, or the system in general. If we want the jury trial system to be legitimate in the eyes of Black community members, we need reform. We should start with ensuring that Black members of our community serve on juries, by recognizing that their lived experiences with racism are not a justification to excuse them.