There's Already a Serious Problem With the Michael Brown Trial

There's Already a Serious Problem With the Michael Brown Trial
Source: AP
Source: AP

One thing may stand between justice being served in the Michael Brown case — and yes, again, it's about race.

Of the 12 jurors who will decide whether or not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in Brown's death, nine of them have one thing in common: They're white. The three remaining members of the grand jury are black.

This is a not-so-insignificant detail in a case with such clear implications for race relations in America. Ferguson needs and deserves justice. But the jury pool's clear racial majority has left many skeptical.

Racial tensions have soared to a fever pitch in Ferguson and across America, and many will watch with interest to see if the majority-white jury can remain above the fray for a case from a majority-black St. Louis suburb. Ferguson itself is two-thirds black, but the town's elected officials and police force are both predominately white, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. The widespread outcry in the area, reported and analyzed by many over the past days and weeks, stems from a series of alleged abuses of police power that were racially charged.

Although the jury's racial makeup doesn't reflect the population in Ferguson, it does proportionately correspond with the makeup of St. Louis County, which the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported is 24% black and roughly 68% white. 

Source: AP

There's a fairly even split gender-wise, with seven men and five women. Of the black jurors, two are women and one is a man, while the white jurors include three women and six men.

While some may question the necessity of examining the jury's racial (and even its gender) composition, to ignore it, especially in light of several similarly high-profile cases, would border on naive. Race pervades everything in the justice system and plays a role in how public opinion is shaped during a case such as Michael Brown's. It also influences how jurors may evaluate the case's merits and the contradicting claims of defense and prosecution. For cases about racial profiling and excessive force, deliberations are even more fraught with racial subtext created by centuries of institutionalized prejudice in the United States.

According to recent survey results from the Pew Research Center, "sharply different reactions" to the situation in Ferguson break down along the lines of race. Roughly twice as many blacks believe that the case "raises an important issue about race" versus their white counterparts, 80% to 44%. Among whites, however, about 4 in 10 believe that race is getting "more attention that it deserves" in the Michael Brown shooting. 

When it comes to having any faith in how the case will be evaluated, the difference between blacks and whites is also like night and day. Only 18% of blacks feel confident about how the Brown case will be investigated, compared to 52% of whites who would say the same. The vast majority of blacks — 76%, to be exact — said they have little to no confidence in the justice system this time around.

If Pew's numbers are to be believed, a juror's racial identification could have strong implications for the ideological balance on a case that, whether we like it or not, has prompted news networks, elected officials and numerous members of the public to discuss how institutional racism has historically tainted law enforcement in America. The discussion is virtually inescapable and may have already affected how the jurors will consider the case, not to mention their personal understandings of the different ways racism is expressed. 

The same issue plagued assessments of whether or not the Trayvon Martin case was adjudicated fairly. Despite the jury being composed of all women, the vast majority of them were white, with only one being a person of color. In a revealing CNN interview with Anderson Cooper, Juror B37 from the Martin case said she felt as though Zimmerman did nothing wrong and was "justified" in shooting and, ultimately, killing the unarmed 17-year-old.

Source: CNN

"I don't think race had anything to do with this trial. [...] But I think people are looking for things to make race play a part," the white juror told Cooper, adding that she hoped Zimmerman would "get some peace" and "live a normal life after a while." 

Needless to say, when it comes to the jury in Michael Brown's case, many Americans are bracing themselves for what could end up being a sad case of deja vu.